THE BLOG

Why Dancing Is Good for our Mental Health

23/03/2016 12:04 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 09:12 GMT

Why don't we Brits dance? More importantly, why don't our children dance? Yes, I know a few lucky children learn to street dance or go to flamenco lessons. Some of us may even have been inspired by Strictly to have a stab at ballroom dancing. And this is great. But most of us never dance. We dance as toddlers but as we grow up we become increasingly inhibited. Even cultures that once valued dance focus more and more on academic and sporting achievement. But if there's one thing proven to make people feel happy, it's dancing. As we struggle with a rising tide of mental illness in young people, it's time to demand a bigger role, in both our lives and the school curriculum, for dance.

Dance therapy is now a tried and tested method of working with the mentally ill of all ages. So why not introduce it into our lives before we need it as therapy? Why do our schools obsess over sport (with its inevitably harsh selection processes and its focus on perfectionism, discipline and winning) but pay scant regard to dance? I have four children in three schools - none of which has ever put on a dance performance. And yet I receive numerous invites to concerts, plays and sporting fixtures. It appears that the only children dancing are those able to pay for after-school dance clubs.

My ten year-old son's sole experience of dancing at school is a two hour session of Scottish reeling (which he loved). My two nephews have never learned any dance in their all-boys school. Indeed, not a single teenage boy I spoke to in the course of researching this post has ever been taught dance at school (although one vaguely thought Zumba may have been an option in Year 8).

My teenage daughters were lucky - they did six hours of compulsory dancing a year for their first three years of secondary school. Who taught them? The games teacher. Now, I've nothing against games teachers offering a bit of Zumba, but why not bring in someone passionate (and knowledgeable) about teaching dance? And why restrict it to six hours a year? And what about Irish jigging, rock n'roll, Greek dancing, modern dance, jazz, Indian dance - and so on?

Like art, dance allows children and young people to express and manage feelings that might otherwise be overwhelming. It enables them to explore emotions they may not be able to articulate. It's fantastic that we're now encouraged to talk, but sometimes talk simply doesn't cut it. For those who aren't fluent in English, dance provides a creative release and a means of expression. For those either not ready or unable to put their feelings into words, dance can fill the breech while simultaneously providing a shot of feel-good endorphins.

I discovered dance when I started researching and writing the true story of a 1920s dancer whose career was cut short by mental illness. She began as a gymnast before moving to modern, freeform dance and then on to ballet. While she danced freeform, she was happy and motivated. The switch to competitive ballet, however, was disastrous, triggering a breakdown from which she never recovered, seeing out her life in a mental asylum. If she'd returned to freeform dance, I believe she would have recovered.

To better understand her, I learned to dance using the freeform technique she was taught in 1928. To my surprise this method of dance still exists, although few people have heard of it and classes are elusive. It's a form of movement ripe for resurrection. Not only does it encourage expressive improvisation, but it's also aerobic, social and highly creative, without the sexualisation of most of the dance we now see on screen.

It was devised eighty years ago by Margaret Morris, a Scottish pioneer of freeform dance. She took her dance programme into schools and hospitals across the UK. The head teachers of boys' schools brought her in to teach dance and movement. Yes - in the 1920s dance and movement were taken seriously in many British schools. So what happened? And why do so few schools now offer dance as a routine part of the curriculum? All the research shows that dance and good mental health go hand-in-hand. A 2012 Swedish study found that girls struggling with depression, stress and anxiety who took weekly dance classes improved their mental health and reported a boost in mood--positive effects that lasted up to eight months after the classes ended. Other studies have linked dancing to higher levels of self-confidence and self-esteem. On top of this, dance brings all the health benefits of sport. What's not to like?

So, please, please could we see dance back on the educational agenda?

Annabel Abbs is the author of The Joyce Girl, the story of 1920s dancer and daughter of James Joyce, Lucia, available for pre-order on Amazon. All profits from her first year royalties will be donated to YoungMinds.