Dancing is having a real renaissance and for good reason. There are so many mental and physical benefits to moving along with the music, whatever your age.
Personal trainer and mum-of-two Hannah Verdier, 48, thought her clubbing days were over. But after nearly 18 months of pandemic restrictions, she found herself drawn to a beach festival in Brighton where she was reminded of the power of dance.
“When the big tunes came on, it was unbelievable. I’m 48 – I thought that I’d probably be fine with never going to a club or festival again, but it changed my mind!” she tells Stylist. “A couple of hours of dancing put me in a good mood all week. It was exactly the same feeling I used to get going to raves at 18.”
Dancing, clubbing and raving were cruelly curtailed due to the pandemic but now they’re back – and it’s not just young adults who have been relishing long-awaited time on the dancefloor.
When 70-year-old Carole Railton attended a 60th birthday party, she similarly found herself lost in the music. “I got up and jigged around and suddenly realised just how nice it was to do that. No longer do you have to have a partner; you can just dance in a group. It made me feel much better.
“The idea that dancing is something you age out of is misplaced. We start at a very early age, with no preconceived idea of what we’re even doing, then we go to more formal dances as a way of communicating and meeting others. Then, of course, there are the health benefits.”
For Railton, dancing is “far nicer than sweating away in a gym. But ultimately, it’s more than just movement and interaction. Dancing makes me happy. It makes me smile.”
Dancing can lead to positive changes in our wellbeing
Such responses come as no surprise to dance psychologist Peter Lovatt. He believes that dancing is the ‘hidden language of the soul’, and that it’s recent outlawing during the coronavirus pandemic was a restriction of people’s natural urges which profoundly impacted our psychological state.
He tells Stylist: “We need to dance to connect with other people and the world around us. Science has shown what dancers have known for centuries: that dancing can lead to positive changes in our physical and mental wellbeing.”
As a 21-year-old Virginia Woolf wrote in 1903: “Dance music… stirs some barbaric instinct – you forget centuries of civilization in a second, and yield to that strange passion, which sends you madly whirling round the room…It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it.”
Dance to get high (emotionally)
The emotional high we get from dancing is due to the brain chemical dopamine, which plays a role in how we feel. Low levels of dopamine are associated with feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, fatigue, demotivation, pain, a lack of energy and mood swings.
Dancing to music is a great way to overcome these negative feelings because both the exercise and our emotional responses to the music we’re hearing can increase the release of dopamine in different parts of the brain. As dopamine levels go up, we can shake off some of those negative feelings and float into a euphoric state.
Lovatt adds: “There are a host of cognitive benefits we get from dancing. When we move our body it changes the way we think and solve problems. When we move, we improve.”
We activate different parts of our brain when we dance
There is an increase in the rate in which blood is pumped around the body, with between 15-20% of this blood going to the brain. This is vital because brain cells will die without the oxygen that the blood carries to them. In addition to oxygen, blood carries carbohydrates, amino acids, fats, hormones and vitamins into the brain, and carbon dioxide, ammonia, lactate and hormones away from it.
The dynamic brain is where we do our thinking, and the effective functioning of the brain relies on changes to a variety of molecular, vascular and cellular structures. For example, exercise has been shown to lead to an increase in the production of proteins, hormones and neurotransmitters, including serotonin which can make people feel happier.
“When we dance, we move – our hearts pump, our brain gets a shake-up and we feel good,” explains Lovatt. But that’s not all. “Dancing is different from standard aerobic exercises, such as pedalling away on an exercise bike or running on a treadmill. When we dance, we also stimulate those areas of the brain responsible for a range of mental activities such as spatial awareness, memory, perception, learning and interpersonal cooperation.
“It is the stimulation of this complex and intricate, interconnected network that underpins the extraordinary link between moving and super-sharp thinking.”
Dancing through chronic illness and diagnoses
When Lovatt himself was blindsided by a stage three bowel cancer diagnosis during lockdown, he knew that he needed to keep dancing, so he could be as fit and strong as possible for his upcoming surgery.
“For physical fitness, I used a daily dance workout which would work all the major muscle groups and gently raise my heart beat. I used a musical theatre DVD workout called 567Broadway, because I needed fitness, mixed with escapism. It had a fantastic Broadway feel, and the dancers onscreen were happy and engaging. For physical connection I danced with my wife. We held each other, we breathed in time, and we moved in synchrony. Fear and loneliness seemed to dissipate with an embrace.
“I also needed to get out of my head. I was spending too much time catastrophizing, thinking about the worst-case scenario, imagining how my son would grow up without his father. For moments of physical and mental calm, order and discipline, I did a daily ballet class. Ballet helped me to get my thoughts in order, to be practical and methodical about all the medical tests I had to undergo.”
He says that ballet taught him to relax and breathe through intrusive probes and needles. “Apparently, I sang all the way through a colonoscopy. I do wonder what I was humming – perhaps it was Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights from Romeo & Juliet.”
Lovatt is now five months post-op, and while he does not know what the future holds, he does know that by dancing, he’s given himself the best possible fighting chance.
He is adamant that no one should be further than fifteen minutes from a high-quality dance studio – and with good reason.
Dancing keeps you sociable into your old age
According to new research published in Social Science and Medicine, belonging to a sport or exercise group can help protect people against depression; the critical link is thought to be due to increased physical activity and reduced loneliness.
Moreover, dancing caters to the needs of all ages, and a recent scoping review published back in August found that movement to music improved the health and wellbeing in people with dementia, women with postnatal depression and those experiencing stress and anxiety.
After a failed attempt to go out dancing in Soho one night when she was in her 40s, Nikki Spencer decided to create the kind of club night that she and her friends wanted to go to: one that was fun, welcoming and non-judgmental. She called it Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet (HSDY) after the 1979 Gonzales track. On a Saturday night in March 2010, in the upstairs ballroom at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, HSDY was born, giving people in their 40s and 50s somewhere to dance.
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Eleven years later, it’s still growing strong with an event typically held every six weeks, and virtual disco parties launched throughout the UK’s lengthy lockdowns.
She explains: “We started it for middle-aged people. At this stage of life, you tend to put everybody else first, and it did take a bit of encouragement for people to realise they deserved a night out. But there’s a lot of tough stuff going on in our world, so it’s a time when people can forget about their worries for one night.
“You just forget that dancing makes it all better. People message us, saying it’s made their weekend, and they’re still on a high. They tell us it makes them feel so good that it should be on the NHS!”
Previously, a study published in Frontiers In Aging Neuroscience linked dancing to improved “white matter” integrity in the brains of older adults, which typically breaks down gradually as we age – leading to a loss of processing speed, and thinking and memory problems later in life.
Dancing comes with so many other health benefits like better mood, less anxiety and a sharper brain.
So, whether you’re shimmying, sashaying or shaking, tip-tapping or hip swirling, in Spencer’s words: “Why on earth would you ever stop dancing, unless you really have to?”
Want to start dancing again? Improve your overall fitness by giving one of our workout videos a go over on the Strong Women Training Club.