The Mental Health Benefits of Dance

by Diana Knight

Would you care to dance? If you take my hand and allow me to lead you to the floor, “oh, the places you will go!” (Seuss)

So – where will you go? When today’s millennials go to out at night, to clubs, to parties, they are frequently hoping to meet someone to date or someone to have a relationship with. However, if you should choose to learn to dance, the person you will form a deeper relationship with is yourself.

Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dancer

Did you know that loving, nonsexual touch is a major key to healthy brain development from our birth and throughout our lives? Being touched increases the brain’s ability to form a sense of body ownership and plays a significant role in creating and sustaining a healthy sense of self (Psychology Today, 2013).

And yet, many of us now live more in virtual reality on the internet, on our phones, than in the much more real world of relationships. Without physical contact, we feel more alone, have drops in mood, have more problems winding down, and we carry higher levels of stress.

Regular physical contact promotes emotional well-being. Hugging produces oxytocin – the “bonding hormone,” which reduces stress, lowers cortisol levels and increases a sense of security.  Hugs also strengthen the immune system. Dancing with a partner lends us all these same healing qualities. We are touching and being touched throughout an entire dance routine. Our bodies and brains revive, and we feel more alive.

Exercise Gives You Endorphins; Endorphins Make You Happy!

This may be considered old-fashioned, but to all young people – if you want a real “high,” do it the natural, life-enhancing way; through dance. I’m sure you’ve heard that high aerobic exercise releases endorphins. Endorphins are a natural pain killer which activates opioid receptors in the brain and minimizes discomfort.  

This brings about a sense of euphoria and well-being.  Intense aerobic exercise for a minimum 20-30 minutes release these endorphins which improves your mood and can last a minimum of 3-4 hours. This “high,” a mild buzz, can last for up to 24 hours.

Mind Over Matter

Dance literally “grows” your brain. When learning a routine with your dance partner, high amounts of oxygen are getting to your brain while you are learning and repeating new physical patterns and figures, all the while responding sensitively to your partner. All these factors cause new neural synapses to form in your brain. This increases your mental capacity and your sensitivity to others with whom you interact. You become more self-aware and more aware of others.  More present.  More mindful.

Dance makes you more aware of your body. Again, with the advent of an entirely separate online life, more and more individuals are unaware of what their bodies are trying to tell them.  Did you know that we only know what we “feel” through sensations in our bodies?  Words like “happy,” “sad,” and “anxious” are just labels we created identify and communicate physical sensations. 

If we are unaware of what our bodies are feeling, and therefore communicating to us, it’s difficult to take proper care of ourselves.  Dance requires that you pay attention to the interaction between your body and your mind. Over time, dancers establish a more harmonious connection between the two. 

When one learns to open up the parts of the body that are tight with tension, it also opens up possibilities of thinking and relating to others in new ways. As one becomes more attuned with the physical body, it paves the way to learn and think more responsively in relationships with Ones Dance Partners, Romantic Relationships and Friendships.

All this, wrapped up in one single art form! What are you waiting for? Take yourself by the hand and lead yourself to a dance lesson, a group class, and hour alone in the studio. Experience the joy, the relaxation, and the personal growth offered by dance.  Let the journey begin!

Diana Knight, MFA, LCSW, CDSP, has been in private practice at Knight Psychotherapy, LLC for over 24 years. She is a prior equity actress and recipient of the Greer Garson Award for Excellence in Acting, as well as a former professor of Acting and Movement. Certified in Developmental Somatic Psychotherapy, Diana Knight brings her years of clinical, performance, and physical training into her clinical offices when working with actors, singers and dancers.

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