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“Why dancing is the best form of therapy”

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Anna Hart
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Could dancing be the best form of therapy? Journalist Anna Hart certainly seems to think so.     

When Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson sang The Best Things In Life Are Free, the worldly and sophisticated woman I am today knows that they’re sniggering about sex.

But as an awkward 12-year-old, recently returned to my hometown of Belfast after seven years in Singapore, I thought it was all about dancing. This was the tune that was playing over the crackly speakers in Olympia Leisure Centre’s function room, where one of my new classmates was having her birthday party, and an invitation to the weird new girl had been extended by her mum at the last minute.

As I danced, next to a trestle table bearing a bowl of crisps and a tray of mini sausages, proudly wearing my new turquoise Fruit of the Loom sweatshirt and Levi 501s, I finally felt happy here, in this new city, with these new, intimidating school friends. Dancing made me feel like I belonged. Dancing with my new potential friends was a hell of a lot easier than talking to my new potential friends; I was entirely lacking in common cultural reference points, clueless about everything from Take That to Hollyoaks. Dancing with them was also easier than playing sport with them at school; when I picked up a hockey stick for the first time, I thought the club was a handle. But dancing with them - to Boyzone, Blur and Bon Jovi - I could do. Dancing didn’t get lost in translation. It was the same on both sides of the planet. 

Over the two decades that followed, dancing got me through plenty of tough patches. As well as dancing my way into new friendship circles, like I learned to do in Olympia Leisure Centre, I’ve danced my way out of heartbreak, exam stress and money worries. I’ve danced a redundancy away. I regularly take anxiety and depression dancing, flirting with anxiety on the dancefloor, challenging depression to a dance-off, and, with the help of the right tunes and a supportive roster of backing dancers, dancing any negative emotions off the floor. Dancing never failed me.

Donna Lancaster is a grief counseller and therapist who uses dance as part of her weeklong personal development course The Bridge. “Dancing allows for emotional release, loosening any blockages and processing trauma,” says Lancaster. “The word ‘emotion’ stems from ‘energy in motion’ and dancing and shaking the body enables the body to heal.” 

In the western world, I worry that we’ve lost our dancing shoes a bit, and to a lot of people, dancing is something they can only do when they’re s**tfaced on tequila and see someone they fancy across the room. Naturally I LOVE dancing s**tfaced on tequila with someone I fancy, but dancing is as multi-faceted as a disco glitterball. It shouldn’t be relegated to awkward wedding receptions and office Christmas parties.

And even though ‘mindful dancing’ isn’t a thing just yet, I’ve found no better way to banish negative and obsessive thoughts from my pathologically busy and fretful mind, and focus instead on the joy that’s in the room with me. “Dancing helps us get our mojo back, and when we dance with others, it returns us to our tribal roots. Dancing is a very individually healing and communally bonding experience,” says Lancaster. 

Dancing is a gloriously accessible and democratic form of therapy. It doesn’t require any formal training, and in fact, the most superior form of dancing is the unstudied, artless, innocent dancing of those who really don’t care what they look like. “When babies hear music for the first time, they instinctively know what to do, and move their bodies,” says Lancaster. “Everyone is born a dancer.” The sad thing is, some people spend a lifetime forgetting how to dance.

But dancing is something we all know how to do, and it’s something we can do anytime and anywhere. We can dance for five minutes in the shower as music blares in the background, or we can dance with 30,000 other glitter-faced revellers in a muddy field in Somerset. The results are exactly the same. So you see, Luther and Janet did have it right, even if they were singing about something else entirely. Dancing is free. And it’s the best thing in life.

Images: Instagram / Getty