THE BLOG

Shall We Dance? Science Says 'Go on, It's Good for You'

23/11/2015 00:16 GMT | Updated 22/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Whether it's Gleb Savchenko sweeping Anita off her feet or Aliona Vilani foxing Jay into a trot, the stars on Strictly look to be having a whale of a time. But it's not just a few lucky celebs who can benefit from dancing. Anyone taking part in any kind of dance can reap a whole range of rewards.

I'm a dance scientist, which means I use scientific research to understand the psychology, physiology and biomechanics of dance. This knowledge can then be used to improve dancers' health, well-being and training. Often dance science research has focused on elite professional dancers, but there's a new interest now in identifying how dance can improve the health and well-being of recreational dancers how ordinary people, if you like, can improve their quality of life by hitting the dance floor.

Dancers and teachers from the passionate and committed world of community dance have long known about the benefits of dance, but now we're getting the research evidence to back this up. Studies have started to emerge on the positive impacts community dance activity can have on different populations, across a range of issues. They show that whether you're young, older or disabled, dance can be good for you.

Dance and young people

You may have read about the declining levels of physical activity in western societies. There is particular concern about this in relation to young people, as adolescence is a danger time for dropping out of physical activity altogether. When you think that physical inactivity in childhood and adolescence tends to track into adulthood, a whole generation could be stacking up health problems for the future.

A real worry is that girls are twice as likely to be inactive as boys.

As a result, both politicians and scientists have been trying to drive up levels of physical activity, with dance held up as one of the ways to get school-aged young people more active, especially girls. Encouragingly, a number of studies have shown that weekly creative and contemporary dance classes can significantly enhance aerobic fitness, lung capacity, flexibility and upper body strength among school children. These classes have also been found to improve self-esteem, social relationships and feelings of competence (1-4).

Similarly, ballroom dancing can develop self-esteem, self-confidence and social skills among primary and secondary school children (5). Partner work can improve relationships between male and female students of all ages due to the teamwork required (4-5). It also seems a sprinkling of Strictly in real life can result in healthy lifestyle changes outside of school (5).

Dance and disabled people

As well as declining physical activity levels among young people, another of our concerns in dance science is that disabled people tend to do relatively little physical activity, which can exacerbate their disabilities and put them at risk of secondary health-related problems like obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes and poorer cardiovascular health. Some disabled people also talk of having smaller social networks and fewer friends than non-disabled people, which can lead to depression.

My research indicates that there are a number of barriers to dance for disabled people, some attitudinal, some logistic and some aesthetic (6). But getting past these barriers is certainly worth it, as dancing can enhance feelings of empowerment, self-esteem, competence, self-expression and creative ability among disabled people and can also increase their social networks (7). Dancing can also improve flexibility which may help disabled people in their daily lives (8).

Dance and older people

Finally, there has been lots of media coverage about our ageing population and the demands this is placing on care services and the NHS. Can dance do anything to alleviate age-related problems like osteoporosis, dementia and loneliness?

Well, dance could actually be the ideal physical exercise for older people, as it combines cardiovascular exercise with strength, balance and flexibility. Older people often prefer dance to other forms of physical activity because they like moving to music and enjoy the social side of partner dance.

We know that dancing can aid balance and stability, which are particularly important for older people who are at risk of falls. Older dancers also speak of psychological benefits like lower levels of anxiety and depression, improved self-confidence and quality of life (9).

What about specific illnesses? Studies have highlighted how dance can improve verbal communication and learning abilities among people with dementia, while for those with Parkinson's, doing the Tango has been found to improve functional mobility, balance, endurance, gait and quality of life (9). And it's not just ballroom dancing - ballet has been shown to improve body awareness, balance, movement confidence, psychological wellbeing and social inclusion (10).

So dance scientists like me are beginning to provide evidence of those physical and mental benefits that dancers and their teachers have always known to be true. The scientists, not just the Strictly team, are now urging us all to 'keep dancing'.

This blog draws on research Imogen Aujla first highlighted in an article that appeared in Animated, the dance practitioners' magazine published by People Dancing, the UK development organisation and membership body for community and participatory dance.

References

1. Quin, E., Frazer, L. and Redding, E. (2007). The health benefits of creative dance: Improving children's physical and psychological well-being. Education and Health, 25(2), 31-3

2. Connolly, M. Quin, E. and Redding, E. (2011). Dance 4 your life: Exploring the health and well-being implications of a contemporary dance intervention for female adolescents. Research in Dance Education, 12(1), 53-66

3. Blazy L. and Amstell, S. (2010). NRG2 Youth Dance and Health Research Report. London: Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

4. Urmston, E. Chater, A. Spampinato-Korn, A. and Kozub, S. (2012). Go dance: Inspiring children to dance to 2012 and beyond: Research Report

5. Keay, J. and Spence, J. (2009). Essentially Dance pilot project evaluation report. London: Roehampton University

6. Aujla, I.J. and Redding, E. (2013). Barriers to dance training for young people with disabilities. British Journal of Special Education, 40(2), 80-85

7. Aujla, I.J. and Redding, E. (2014). The identification and development of young talented dancers with disabilities. Research in Dance Education, 15(1), 54-70

8. Nordin, S.M. and Hardy, C. (2009). Dance4Health: A research-based evaluation of the impact of seven community dance projects on physical health, psychological wellbeing and aspects of social inclusion. Warwickshire: County Arts Service

9. Connolly, M. and Redding, E. (2011). Dancing towards well-being in the third age: Literature review on the impact of dance on health and well-being among older people. London: Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance

10. Houston, S. and McGill, A. (2013). A mixed-methods study into ballet for people living with Parkinson's. Arts & Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice, 5(2), 103-119.