Saturday 21 April 2018

'Motion is lotion' - why dancing is a powerful form of self-healing

Tango reduces stress and anxiety
Tango reduces stress and anxiety
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Let's Dance, writes Katie Byrne.

My friends and I recently met a man who looked at least 15 years younger than his passport age of 69.

He had all the hallmarks of an indomitable life force - his eyes were bright, his shoulders were back and his mind was sharp.

At first he was modest when we asked him to share the secret. He was a man's man and an old-school Texan so, while he enjoyed the flattery, he was cautious of the namby-pamby.

'Tango Couple'
'Tango Couple'

We weren't letting him off, though. "Come on!" I coaxed. "Tell us what you do that is different to other people your age."

Eventually, after much prodding, he conceded that he still goes dancing. "Motion is lotion," he added.

This isn't the first time I've been told that dance is the fountain of youth. I recently interviewed Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Goddesses Never Age, for an upcoming issue of this magazine and she described dancing as a form of therapy for the mind and body.

She's also a big believer in any kind of movement for menopausal and postmenopausal women - "even just circling your hips".

World renowned Bolshoi stars Galina Stepanenko and Ruslan Skortsov preform Swan Lake at the opening of the Summer Ballet Gala
World renowned Bolshoi stars Galina Stepanenko and Ruslan Skortsov preform Swan Lake at the opening of the Summer Ballet Gala

Elsewhere, dance is often cited as the secret to longevity by centenarians the world over. As the saying goes: "You don't stop dancing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop dancing."

Dr Northrup practises the tango, which has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Other studies show that dancing increases cognitive acuity at all ages and reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

One of the most comprehensive studies to explore the impact of arts on health was published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2010.

Researchers analysed more than 100 studies exploring art as a form of self-healing and found that it reduces anxiety; increases positive emotions; improves flow and spontaneity and assists in the expression of grief. This study proves that creativity is cathartic - dance especially so.

Dance is unique among all other artforms in that it doesn't translate our inner world into an outer expression. With dance, there is no interpretation. It is an unabridged and instantaneous exposition of the soul. WB Yeats asked: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" We can't.

The late Martha Graham, who was arguably the world's most influential dancer, regularly spoke about the mind-body-spirit connection of the art-form. She thought of dance as a gateway to the divine.

"Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body," she said. "It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's weather to all who can read it."

Graham, who lived until the age of 96, also spoke about the "ancestral footsteps" that informed her work. We easily forget that dance was once an integral part of everyday life. Indeed, indigenous cultures like the Kalahari San and the Yanomami of the Amazon still practice dance rituals to celebrate, commiserate and mark every milestone today. Within these tribes, dancing is considered a basic human need, akin to eating, sleeping and love-making. It is a function, not a fancy.

Can we therefore conclude that we in the western world are neglecting a vital aspect of our self-development by not dancing?

Gabrielle Roth, author of Sweat Your Prayers and founder of 5Rhythms dance, writes about how in shamanic societies, dance is considered a powerful tool for self-healing.

"Where we stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or finding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul," she writes. "Dancing, singing, storytelling and silence are the four universal healing salves.

Aerial dancer
Aerial dancer

"In dancing and singing, you are discovering and releasing the energy of emotion, allowing it to flow through you and out of you... Blocked emotions end up exploding or festering and having much more impact than they should."

Conversely, when we know how to surrender to the beat, we become better at surrendering to the flow of life. When we get in touch with our innate sense of rhythm, we become more aware of the rhythms of life.

Roth also writes about how some students at her classes became "deeply afraid of the body". Indeed, many of us are much too inhibited to get our groove on in a nightclub, but that doesn't mean that we can't dance elsewhere.

Jane Magan in Ballet Ireland's Swan Lake 2014. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
Jane Magan in Ballet Ireland's Swan Lake 2014. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

The advice here is not so much to dance like nobody is watching but to dance when there is actually nobody watching. Dance when you have the house to yourself and the nightclub will soon become less daunting. If you're a little more liberated in your movement, you could try a free-form style of dance such as Nia, Butoh or the aforementioned 5Rhythms (

Practitioners say these styles are particularly helpful for shifting old patterns and beliefs.

Alternatively, the adventurous could try another style that isn't practised very often in Ireland - sober dancing... Yes, it's utterly petrifying on every level but the sense of accomplishment afterwards more than makes up for it.

Dancing keeps the brain and body limber and the heart and soul in sync. It's the most joyous form of exercise, even when skill is lacking.

As Martha Graham said again and again: "Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance."

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