by Loui Tucker

Return to Dance Writings Menu

This article first appeared in the June 2005 issue of Let's Dance! magazine.


Okay, let's have a show of hands! How many of you have had a really rotten day at work and gone dancing knowing that you're going to come out of dancing feeling better? And how many of you have had some sort of difficulty with a parent or spouse or spousal equivalent or child (or boss or co-worker or subordinate) and gone dancing knowing that you're going to get at least some temporary relief from your stress? And, lastly, how many of you have suggested to a friend who is out of a relationship or out of work or out of sorts, "Hey, come to my dance class with me!" – knowing that your friend will meet new people, network, or otherwise get a dose of social connectivity to boost the spirits?

That's what is so wonderful about this form of dancing that we all have chosen as a pastime – in addition to being enjoyable, it's therapeutic. It is good for your body, good for your soul, good for your mood, and good for what ails you! Sometimes, as it turns out, it is also good for your job, good for your social world, and good for your love life!

There are professional therapists who use dance as a means to treat everything from simple tension to unspeakable trauma in their patients. Properly administered and channeled, dance therapy can provide relief from many forms of mental and physical illness. That's not what this is about. This article is about the therapeutic benefits of the social dance form I'll refer to as IFD - International Folk Dance.

From a purely physical standpoint, IFD is an aerobic activity. Prolonged, continuous exercise increases production and release of endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters found in the brain that have pain-relieving properties similar to morphine. Pour enough endorphins into your bloodstream and you get something that has been popularly labeled "runner's high." In simple terms, endorphins make us feel good. Dance is therapy because it enhances our feeling of well-being.

Some activities allow the mind to wander and solve problems and even create. I've been told by people who spend time a lot of time each week working out at the gym that they get some of their best ideas while sweating on a treadmill. During a good session of IFD, you can't do that – but that can be a blessing. You lose yourself in the beat of the music, the joy of movement, in the lyrics, in the concentration needed to learn new steps, and in the conversations with friends. Some nights, a dance session is like novocaine, allowing us a respite from the stresses of the day. As with novocaine, the stresses are there when the dancing is over, but for a short time we have some relief. That break from the pressure can be therapeutic and give us the will and the desire to tackle our problems once again.

IFD also lacks the element of competition and most of us get enough of that during the day! Competition produces adrenaline and elevates the blood pressure, physical responses not associated with dance. There are no referees or penalties, stopwatches or scoreboards, winners, losers, or trophies at the end of the season. Sure, there are a few dancers who drive themselves crazy (and others too!) trying to be the first to know the new dances, master all the dances (and the lyrics to the songs), and be the most desirable dance partner, but at most venues that is not the goal of the class. We don't have to compete, finish a project on time or under budget, or worry about being laid off or bought out or transferred. For the average dancer, it is a time to relax and enjoy the company of other dancers without the strain that competition causes.

Another aspect that makes IFD so therapeutic is that it is extremely social. Remember those studies involving the baby monkeys that were deliberately deprived of contact? Just the opposite occurs in IFD – we can get lots of contact. There are other forms of dance that allow participants contact with one other person (ballroom dancing, swing, Latin, etc.) or a few people (square dancing, Scottish set dances), but few bring you in contact with so many people so easily as IFD does. We hold hands in a circle (with an occasional shoulder hold) and hold partners in various ballroom dance positions. I remember seeing a t-shirt many years ago that bore these words: "Folk dancers hold hands with the nicest people." How many pastimes can claim that?

I suppose if you try hard enough you can go to an evening of dance and avoid all physical contact and all eye contact, but without that effort you are touched and looked at and spoken to by everyone there. All those forms of contact are good for the soul! There is also an element I'll call "connection to community." I suppose there are other hobbies such as some team sports, that create a sense of community, but IFD goes a step beyond that. We build friendships and a social network outside of dancing that are built on the framework created in the dance venues. IFD builds communities that wrap around the globe. We all know we can travel and drop in on another IFD venue and fit right in (if we're not welcomed like a long-lost child). I believe that sense of belonging and connection and support is good for the psyche.

It probably does not count as "therapy" but your wallet also probably prefers that you dance. IFD is not a high risk activity as opposed to, say, downhill skiing and rugby. You won't be off work on disability because of a broken leg or a dislocated shoulder as a result of a wild night of dancing. Except for a pair of shoes, no special equipment is required. Compare that to the cost of golf clubs or ski equipment or bowling balls. The cost of 2-3 hours of dancing is minuscule when compared to greens fees or lift tickets or even the cost of a movie!

Did you read or hear about the New England Journal of Medicine study done in 2003 that examined various sedentary and physical activities that decrease the risk of dementia and other mental disease associated with aging? Neurologist Joe Verghese followed hundreds of elderly volunteers for more than 20 years. His study found that elderly people who frequently read, do crossword puzzles, practice a musical instrument or play board games cut their risk of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia by nearly two-thirds compared to people who seldom do such activities. And the best part: among the 25 people who danced frequently, their chance of developing dementia was 76 percent lower. Dancing is good for you now and you're going to continue to reap the benefits for decades!

Is there any other activity that can match dance in all these areas? I haven't been able to find one. Would I continue dancing even if dancing were shown to be potentially detrimental or even dangerous? Now there is question for your after-dancing get-together! It's just nice to know that something I enjoy so much is also so good for me!