Dance is a fantastic way to move your body and express yourself. It’s a great form of physical exercise, but it actually has even more benefits than just physical – dance can be great for mental health too.
Whether you’re packing up your pointe shoes and heading out to dance class or just having fun dancing with friends, dancing brings countless mental health benefits. With World Mental Health Day on 10th October, we thought it was an excellent time to explore both the physical and psychological benefits of dance.
We’ve chatted with experts, including doctors and psychiatrists, to discuss all things mental health and dance. Here are just some of the ways dance can help…
9 ways dance can help mental health
Dance helps regulate stress hormones
Cortisol is the stress hormone and is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ feeling that is a common response to anxiety. Dancing can release chemicals in the brain that actively work to reduce cortisol, which helps reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
Raven Gibbs, a psychotherapist and professional dancer, explains, “As dance raises your heart rate and works your body, it also releases certain chemicals in the brain. It reduces cortisol, the natural stress hormone or what is more commonly known as the fight or flight hormone. Cortisol, in excess, can lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and other health problems.”
Dance helps you find a community and socialise
Loneliness can contribute to bad mental health, but dance can help!
Dance provides an option to meet people, socialize, and make new friends, explains Colleen Wenner, Founder & Clinical Director of New Heights Counseling & Consulting: “Dance allows you to express yourself freely and develop self-awareness in which you can improve your social skills. The community of dancers, whether in jazz, ballet, or other forms, welcomes you with open arms, dancing feet, and a smile that says “come on in!” Acceptance by those closest to you, such as a newly found social dance group, will help you feel more comfortable in the world around you.”
Dance helps self-esteem
As well as being perfect for developing social skills, dance is fantastic for building confidence. Raven Gibbs tells us, “Dance can help to improve self-esteem. By demonstrating new skills in the dance arena, individuals begin to grow their confidence in various areas. This can then aid in improving social skills and overall socialization. Talking to, spending time with, and dancing among others helps to improve your mood. This is also the perfect opportunity to ease loneliness and detach yourself from feelings of isolation.”
Learning any new skill is a great way to build self-esteem. Combine this with the stress-reducing hormones that dance produces, and it’s no surprise so many people find dance improves their mood.
Dance improves memory
Colleen Wenner goes on to explain how learning something new, such as dance, can also stimulate the brain and help focus – a benefit that extends outside of dance class. Wenner tells us, “The benefits of dance also include improved concentration, memory, and attention. Your brain is stimulated through movement, music, and rhythm. As you practice and master different steps and routines, your memory improves. Pattern recognition skills also increase when you learn new dances and help you concentrate better because it requires focus and discipline.”
Dance improves your sleep
Ketan Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist and mental health expert, tells us that the “endorphins released while dancing are similar to those released while exercising, which makes you tired and relaxed”. So, exercising through dance in the morning or evening can help to regulate sleep, leaving you better rested and ready to face the day.
Dance releases feel-good endorphins
Dancing and moving the body has the same positive effects as any other type of exercise – it releases endorphins. Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Christine Nowicki explains, “The benefits of any movement or exercise are well researched – you get a great endorphin hit from anything that boosts your heart rate!”
Dr Harold Hong, a board-certified psychiatrist, adds, “The physicality of dance forms such as ballet and jazz provides a great workout for the body and mind. The cardio benefits of dancing can help to reduce stress levels, while the strength-building aspects can improve self-esteem. When we feel good about our physical appearance and abilities, it can translate into improved mental wellness.”
Dance helps bonding
One of the great things about dance is the versatility it offers. While you can dance alone at home for a quick workout and mood boost, there are also a range of classes or social events where you can learn to dance with others. Raven Gibbs explains the benefits of dancing with others: “Releasing endorphins helps us as humans to feel closer to and bond with others. This support helps to reduce feelings of worthlessness which further works to increase the quality of life.”
Dance improves cognitive function
As well as having an instant positive impact, dancing can also help the brain in the long term. Dr Harold Hong tells us, “Dancing requires concentration and focus, which can help to improve cognitive function. Our brain's white matter deteriorates as we age, but research shows that dancing can help to slow down this process. White matter is responsible for communication between different areas of the brain, and a decline in white matter has been linked to cognitive decline. Classical dance forms like ballet and jazz help improve mental wellness in various ways. Both ballet and jazz require immense focus and concentration, which can help to sharpen the mind and improve cognitive function.”
Dance helps practice mindfulness
Finally, dance is a great way of learning mindfulness – which is itself a great tool when it comes to improving mental health and understanding your own thoughts and emotions. Clinical Social Worker Christine Nowicki explains, “Mindfulness – meaning non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations – is shown time and time again to be an important practice for mental wellness. Many people really struggle to be aware of their own body sensations, but dance is an immersive training in body awareness. Dancers know exactly how to check in and notice where their bodies are in space, what their posture is like, where they are holding tension, where they are collapsed...the list goes on. That is a huge asset when it comes to learning mindfulness!”
Christine goes on to explain how dance can help with grounding techniques: “Dancers hear over and over again to "feel their feet in the floor". Actually, this is a great mental health skill! Feeling the floor below you is a great tool for grounding and regulating an activated nervous system.”
It’s clear dancing has countless benefits, both physical and mental. If you’ve never danced before, we understand walking into your first dance class might be a little intimidating. However, everyone else is there for the same reason – to socialize, dance, and have fun!
If you’re looking to get started with ballet or dance, you can even start practicing yourself at home to ease yourself into it; we have some great at-home dance tips to get you started. Once you start moving, you’ll see for yourself all the amazing benefits dancing brings!