Shake it off

Researchers are exploring how dance can give sufferers of both mental and physical illness a new way to express themselves and retake control of their lives.

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Movement has been intertwined with human interaction since before written communication. Throughout history, people have danced for a variety of different reasons: to pass information and tell stories through generations, to mourn and to celebrate, to entertain, and even as a form of meditation to prepare for battle. Over the centuries, forms of movement and dance have gradually morphed into an art form.

The ancient Greeks associated different methods of movement with different expressions such as love, anger and sadness. Indigenous Australian cultures pass dances down through generations to tell stories of their ancestors, and some Native American cultures dance to influence the weather. The native Maori people of New Zealand instil fear in their enemies, as well as demonstrate pride and unity with the Haka. In India, dance changed between regions and ethnicities, masters of dance were honoured and genres emerged. Ballet began in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century, and gradually moved to France and Russia where it was developed further into a discipline, telling stories that were often fantastical in nature.

Dance is unique as it takes the social interpretation and conveyance of unspoken messages of an art form, as well as the physical technique, flexibility and agility of a sport. It can be used to express feelings, tell stories, and entrance its audience, as well as engage enormous amounts of energy and a level of technique that requires years of training to achieve. Dance has the power to affect people, both those watching and those experiencing the movement. It encompasses all of the body and mind, memory, co-ordination, flexibility and feeling.

Along with rock paintings, dance has formed an integral part of storytelling in Australian Indigenous cultures for thousands of years.   PanBK/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY-SA 3.0) 

Along with rock paintings, dance has formed an integral part of storytelling in Australian Indigenous cultures for thousands of years. PanBK/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0) 


It is suspected that dance was used as a therapeutic technique in ancient times, although different terminology would have been used, with methods of movement used to celebrate and mourn as a community easily expanded to individual expression. Today, dance is primarily used as a form of emotional expression and release. The movements can be transforming and cleansing, allowing us to illustrate how we feel without using words. Dance is part of the human experience — music compels us to move and dance allows us to convey our individual message.  

Dancing stimulates several different areas of the brain simultaneously. It not only requires physical coordination but mental coordination as well. The movements activate the sensory cortex in the brain, where we experience sensation, and the motor cortex, where movement is controlled, while also stimulating the pleasure centre of the brain through listening to music. Listening to music and dancing releases serotonin, which makes us feel pleasure and happiness while also reducing stress and improving moods. Studies suggest that learning dance also has benefits for memory retention and neural connections, increasing overall brain function. It is also possible that ballroom dancing is one of the only sports or activities that can dramatically reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia, due to the combination of social interaction with mental stimulation and physical movement.

These qualities of learning dance have been translated into utilising the sport as a form of physical therapy, with significant results in enhancing the lives of those with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is primarily found in middle-aged to elderly people, and affects over seven million people worldwide. It affects the nervous system, causing tremors, poor movement and muscular rigidity which often makes daily activities incredibly difficult. However, it has been found that participating in regular, targeted dance classes not only improves the social and emotional wellbeing of the students, but lessens the tremors and improves muscle and movement control. Ballet specifically can be of great benefit to Parkinson’s sufferers due to its disciplined style and strength requirements. This physical expression allows patients to perform certain movements to demonstrate and release emotions, while also exercising, strengthening, and improving the coordination of muscles to gain control of their body in a way they may never have been able to achieve before. 

Ballroom dancing is potentially one of the only sports that has significant benefits towards reducing the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia.   Chuck Patch/Flickr  (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Ballroom dancing is potentially one of the only sports that has significant benefits towards reducing the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia. Chuck Patch/Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)


A pilot study in Sweden has suggested that dance can be used to help manage behavioural problems of teenagers and children with ADHD.  The disorder is characterised by an inability to pay attention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Playing music and letting the children move allows them to release pent up energies and frustrations. The gradual introduction of structure to these movements helps foster discipline and concentration as well as an eagerness to learn something they are passionate about. This translates to the classroom, as children who play music and dance have shown greater levels of concentration and are significantly less fidgety throughout a lesson. 

But it is not only muscle training and control which can benefit those who are at a disadvantage when it comes to an ability to effectively communicate. The social aspect of dance has been shown to greatly enhance the lives of children suffering from autism and Down syndrome, with specially constructed dance and fitness lessons also assisting with mental focus and stimulation.

While autism is widely regarded as a spectrum disorder, the by-and-large defining characteristic is an inability to communicate, trouble forming relationships with others, and a difficulty using language. In severe cases, the children have such difficulty transforming ideas into words that we can understand, that they resort to sign language, grunts, or moans. Dance provides a way to overcome this barrier and communicate with people physically. It creates an outlet for children with autism to express themselves, and release some of the frustration that is often an outcome of struggling to connect with people and social situations daily. Dance allows them to join in with others and forge connections that they would not be able to achieve verbally. 

Group dance classes enable students with intellectual and developmental disorders to engage with peers and form meaningful social relationships.   StephanePIA/Flickr  (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Group dance classes enable students with intellectual and developmental disorders to engage with peers and form meaningful social relationships. StephanePIA/Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)


Down syndrome carries its own set of challenges for children, affecting one in 1,100 children born every year. Like autism, children with Down syndrome can experience developmental and intellectual challenges which can carry across  into their social and emotional lives. Dance programs have been shown to dramatically improve the emotional and social wellbeing of students with Down syndrome. Regular participation in dance classes and programs promotes healthy and confident social interactions for the children, enabling the students learn to express themselves and explore their own individual creativity. With Down syndrome in particular, acquiring memory and coordination skills through structured classes also helps the children gain control over their movements and behaviour, which can make day-to-day activities easier.

Dance therapy can be used in the treatment of many psychological disorders including depression and anxiety, providing an alternate avenue for patients to express themselves. Traumatic experiences can be shared through movement, meaning that while participants  aren’t directly speaking about the cause of their psychological pain, they are still able to experience the liberation that comes from sharing.

Modern dance has been taught in psychiatric facilities as early as the 1930s and was shown to improve the emotional wellbeing of the patients. From there, dance as a documented therapy has been explored and expanded by professionals who had seen the results. It is used in many rehabilitation facilities, particularly in the treatment of addiction. The release of serotonin caused by music and moving is a natural and effective technique to counteract addiction and withdrawal. When used as a treatment for anxiety dance significantly reduced the symptoms even when compared to other forms of sport or physical activity. Similar to dancing effectiveness on Parkinson’s treatment, the calming effect of GABA on the nervous system aids in the treatment of anxiety.


Contemporary dance is a common form of expression and release for dance therapy patients suffering anxiety and depression. This piece, performed by Melissa Faller, is a perfect example.


With the progression of dance communication into controlled classes conducted by professionals, those experiencing physiological, developmental or psychological challenges are able to learn to physically interact with their feelings in a safe environment. The body has always been used as a tool for communication, with body language an important part of our day to day interactions. Throughout history, dance was used as a device to convey messages and emotions, and modern dance therapy utilises this to interpret students’ movements as emotions — for example, a person suffering from depression is likely to demonstrate sluggish movements and curl their body inwards in a display of sadness and misery. While the expressive aspect of dance therapy is incredibly fundamental, using it to speak through one's body can have a physiologically powerful benefit to one's emotional wellbeing.

Whether it is used as an expression of communal grief and sadness or as a display of skill, prowess and technique, dance has transcended societal barriers throughout history. It is all encompassing and does not exclude those who may be considered disabled or those who are inhibited by psychological disorders. This combination of personal expression and physical release is powerful and not found in any other sport. 

Edited by Sara Nyhuis.