Dance and Happiness

Let’s face it: even the most passionate dancer has days when it’s a struggle to get to the studio.  School, work, personal issues, and just being really tired can all catch up with us.  But, based on some recent experiences and science, I’m going to cheerlead for going to class.

I had been having a grueling couple of weeks, and the other night I was seriously considering going home instead of going to dance class.  I ended up choosing the class option, and was so glad!  While teaching a combination, the teacher suggested to us that we imagine ourselves as “stealthy warrior women” in order to get into the spirit of the choreography.  The movements were a little Balanchine-esque, in a sort of sleek way that implied potential, implicit danger—or at least mysterious power—on the part of the dancer.  The “warrior” image clicked for me.  As I danced, I also imagined myself battling my sources of stress.  As part Bond girl/martial artist heroine, I could feel my sense of control over my body and the steps—done in character—restoring a sense of control over my life.  But it wasn’t just the role-playing that helped me find a better outlook; it was also the intense, meditative focus on the music and technique.  Karate teachers often describe their discipline as Zen in motion.  Dancing can be like that, but with a musical connection that is extra uplifting.

There’s science to back me up here!  Exercise triggers the body to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that make you feel happy and also block your brain’s ability to perceive pain.  So, making it to class can physically reduce your stress levels and help to fight off looming anxieties.  This makes it much easier to focus productively on your sources of stress and tackle them effectively, without wasting energy on frustration.

Really, any form of exercise will help to manage stress, but dancing can be especially healthy.  “Music is medicine,” says Robert Gupta, a brilliant violinist with the LA Philharmonic and a neuroscientist who advocates for awareness about the powers of music therapy.  Music therapy is a growing field of treatment that recognizes the profound effects music can have on a person, both mentally and physically. According to the American Music Therapy Association, “music therapy interventions can be designed to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation.”  In his Ted video, Gupta continues, “music is sanity.  This is the very reason why we made music.  We take something that exists within all of us at core…and through our artistic lens, through our creativity, we’re able to shape those emotions into reality.” If simply listening to music can do all that, creatively expressing a connection to music through physical motion and concentration achieves a unification of physiological, emotional, and mental wellbeing.  What’s not to love?!

All that said, sometimes you actually do need a break.  Straining past thresholds of exhaustion or bodily stress can definitely lead to injuries, and I want to very clearly discourage anyone from that!  If you’re so tired that you’re going to lose concentration on technique and hurt yourself, bow out for the day, by all means!  There is a ton of evidence that sleep deprivation impairs your ability to think and perform tasks.  Dance Spirit has a helpful article about finding sources of motivation, but also recognizing when you’re approaching a burn out cliff.  The article cites Dr. Nadine Kaslow, who cautions against dancing through warning signs.  If you’re starting to feel like you’re dancing to satisfy other people, getting injured, or developing an unhealthy relation to food, you need to consider talking to someone you trust and seriously consider a rest period.

But, if you’re just wavering on whether to go to class or watch TV after a tough day, or several, the psychological and physical benefits of dancing make a strong case for Lady Gaga’s prescription: “just dance!”