Humans are born to dance. And in today’s sedentary world, we would all benefit from doing more of it. Science shows that just ten minutes of dancing provides a thorough work out for the body and brain, raising the heartbeat to cause a release of feel-good endorphins, connecting us to our emotions and reducing our stress levels. Dancing quite simply makes us feel more alive.
Dr Peter Lovatt, a former professional dancer turned dance psychologist, has spent the past two decades studying why we dance and what it does for us, and is on a personal mission to make dancing as natural an activity in our daily lives as walking or drinking coffee.
Filled with fascinating case studies from his research as well as great stories from dance history, The Dance Cure will inspire even those who think they “can’t dance” to turn the music on, get up on the floor and dance themselves happy.
Published in the UK in April 2020 by Short Books
Cover illustration by Jonathan Calugi
We are born to dance. Dancing changes the way we feel and think, and boosts self-esteem. When I’m moving, listening to music, jumping, bouncing and pirouetting, I have a feeling of completeness. My lungs and heart fill up on an expansive breath and I feel completely free. As a dance psychologist and teacher, I have also witnessed the way dancing has changed the lives of hundreds of other people.
I have seen this transformative power in men and women, old and young. It has nothing to do with how good a dancer someone is, nor is it about any particular style of dance. I have seen it in people dancing freestyle in nightclubs, or performing ballet and other classical forms such as Indian dance.
What all these have in common is that they involve movements that require communication between the brain and the body; movements that connect people with themselves and with others. A special sort of beauty beyond the physical is perceivable in people when they dance; the kind of beauty you show when you are happy, worry-free and living in the moment. Dance plugs people into the here and now. A ballet teacher of mine once said that “dance is movement and movement is life”. Dancing brings the life essence of a person to the fore.
I hated school, but I was very lucky that my secondary school had a dance group. While other boys in my year were changing for football, I’d be squeezing myself into Lycra tubes and putting on jazz shoes. My classmates weren’t shy about coming forward to share what they thought of me: “Oi, queer, where’s your tutu?”
I am relived that I didn’t succumb to the pressure to stop dancing. I’m sure it would have been easier to swap ballet shoes for football boots, but I can’t imagine how empty my life would have been then. I feel sad for all those boys who stop.
Seeing people’s lives transformed by dance is an awe-inspiring experience. You might say it’s magical, but that would be wrong. There is nothing magical or mythical about the transformative power of dance. I set up the Dance Psychology Lab (at the University of Hertfordshire) so that I could combine my expertise in psychology with the subject I loved most in the world, dance, using science to study the relationship between movement and the brain.
What I found was extraordinary: people with Parkinson’s disease and dementia getting a new lease of life; an increase in self-esteem of teenagers; reduction in depression and anxiety in adults; increases in social bonding between people; and fundamental changes in the way people think and solve problems. All because of dancing.
Dancing stimulates the link between the body and brain. Signals are relayed from the motor areas of the brain to nerves, muscles and joints, and the moving body also sends signals back to different parts of the brain and creates activity deep down at the core of the nervous system and in the neocortex, the brain’s outer layer. Dance provides a full brain and body massage.
This emotional high we get from dancing is down to dopamine. This brain chemical plays a role in how we feel, and low levels are associated with feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, fatigue, demotivation, pain and mood swings. Dancing is a great way to overcome these negative feelings because the exercise and emotional responses to the music we’re hearing can increase the release of dopamine in different parts of the brain. As dopamine levels go up, we can shake off some of those negative feelings and float into a euphoric state.
Creativity also gets a boost from dancing because of three key elements. First, it raises the heart rate and gets the blood pumping; second, it changes the way we move; third, it changes our relationship with our physical surrounding. These three elements can activate our cognitive pathways to change the way we think, solve problems and take risks, as well as enhance spatial awareness and mental agility.
Dancing is different from standard aerobic exercises such as pedalling on an exercise bike or running on a treadmill. When we dance we also stimulate those areas of the brain responsible for a range of mental activities, including memory, perception, learning and interpersonal co-operation. It is the stimulation of this complex and intricate, interconnected network that underpins the extraordinary link between moving and super-sharp thinking.
Ideally, you should dance not in the morning or in the evening, but at bedtime. Scientists agree that the best time to learn a dance routine, or indeed anything, is before you go to sleep. This is because the brain builds new knowledge structures called schemas while we sleep, and it is these structures that underpin our ability to learn and remember information.
We are all so caught up in our set patterns of behaving, moving and thinking in our busy lives that it can be difficult to be spontaneous. Stuck in our thinking rut, we find it hard to be creative and process information that doesn’t fit into a recognisable pattern. But change the way you move by doing some improvised dancing, and you will change the way you think. Improvised dance – making it up on the spot, rather than following a routine – shakes up our set patterns of behaviour, which in turn helps us to break away from set patterns of thinking. Improvising will give your brain a full-blown mental workout.
At my research lab I found that different types of physical movements affect our ability to think and solve problems in different ways. There are some problems, for instance, that have just one correct answer, and once you have the answer, that’s it: you’ve arrived at the solution. Then there are problems with potentially hundreds of correct answers. These multiple-answer problems require “divergent” thinking.
In our lab experiments we found that people who did 20 minutes of improvised dancing became more creative in the answers they gave to divergent-thinking tasks. For example, before dancing, participants could generate about four or five alternative uses for a common object such as a brick or a newspaper, but after dancing they could generate seven or eight.
(c) Peter Lovatt. March 2020. All rights reserved.