Dance: finding the play in the moment

Psychology Today has posted a slew of articles under the heading The Last Dance? You’ll shed stress, forget pain, amp up your brain–and your sex drive!

Now we know that in addition to all the other benefits of exercise, dance activates the brain’s pleasure centers. It certainly feels like that to me. When I think of the joy I get from dancing, there’s nothing that comes really close, except being in love and having really good sex. Especially when they go together.

Dancing is like joy unleashed. I was at Ecstatic Dance Austin this morning, a bit less energetic than usual because of recent illness but still there, to move, to connect, to get happy.

I took in the whole room — the music, the 60-plus people dancing their hearts out, the wide variety of dancers in age, skill, style — and it felt like being inside a huge heart, pumping bodies, music, laughter, play, freedom, silliness, sweetness, sweat, all with a dance-like-nobody’s-watching attitude.

Some of the dancers are skilled. There are performers, teachers, yogis, and also, people who have issues with their feet, ankles, shoulders, backs. Some dancers stick to very simple moves and pretty much stay in the same place. Some move around the room.

Some dance every dance with a partner (same or different), some dance every dance alone — or with the entire room, who can tell the difference? No one is watching or judging — all dance activates pleasure.

I danced with an old friend, a woman, early on, and it felt like we were the two hottest chicks in the disco. A guy friend shared a yummy, slow, and tender dance with me — thanks so much, my dear. Another man and I playfully played, and he dazzled me again with his joy. I danced alone and with the room, and also was still and wept, and I did some handstands against the wall. It was all good. This dance is a large container.

Below, some excerpts from the articles that I found interesting:

“Dance allows people to experience themselves in ways they didn’t know they could,” says Miriam Berger, a dance professor and dance therapist at New York University. “You can change your internal state through external movement.”

dance boosts mood more than does exercise alone. In a study at the University of London, researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety.

Cardiac-rehab patients in a recent Italian study who enrolled in waltzing classes not only wound up with more elastic arteries, but were happier than participants who took up bicycle and treadmill training.

What accounts for the emotional high dancers experience? As a general rule, moving to music activates the brain’s pleasure circuits.

The brain’s structure may explain another important source of mood boost: Dancing bonds people, according to Robyn Flaum Cruz, president of the American Dance Therapy Association. MRI scans show that watching someone dance activates the same neurons that would fire if you yourself were doing the moves. 

For your pleasure and education: 

Berger speculates that the sense of achievement and well-being that comes from expanding and perfecting one’s movement repertoire may carry over into other areas of life. “One of the most important parts of psychotherapy is relearning things you learned wrong,” she says. “With dance, you have a great opportunity to do that on a physical level.”

In a study done at the University of New England, participants who spent six weeks learning tango’s fancy footwork recorded significantly lower levels of depression than a control group who took no classes, and results similar to those of a third group who took meditation lessons. Study author Rosa Pinniger credits the extreme focus—or “mindfulness”—of dance, which interrupts negative thought patterns that contribute to anxiety and depression.

The physically expressive nature of dance also helps people release and thereby recognize pent-up feelings, the first step to dealing with them.

…if conscious communication through motion is the hallmark of dance, then we better call painters like Jackson Pollock dancers too. In his drip paintings, Pollock placed the canvas on the floor and moved around it rhythmically, flinging paint as he went. Painting was, for him, an experience and an expression of the moving body. His paintings might even be considered dance notations!

Dancers exercise every one of the universal thinking skills we explore in Sparks of Genius, The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People (Houghton Mifflin: 1999). They observe the movements of people and things. They image, or mentally manipulate, what they have observed and experienced, seeing with the mind’s eye the movements they wish to make, feeling the feel of these movements before they enact them. Dancers analogize, linking the human body to living forms and inanimate processes around them. They imitate or model the movements of these things. They abstract certain elements of these movements in order to simplify, to grasp the essential. Thinking dimensionally, they form patterns in space and through time. They play with these patterns, altering and improvising. Ultimately, dancers transform stories or pictures or sculptures or games or ideas into dance. They synthesize music, choreography, costume and setting into one coherent spectacle. But most of all and most specially, dancers empathize through role-playing. And in related fashion, they think with the body, exploring what they know about the world with muscle movements, visceral tensions, gut feelings, and emotions.

There are short-cuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them. – Vicki Baum

Dancing: the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music.  – George Bernard Shaw

If you’re interested in reading why dance is a radical act vital to our survival as humans on earth, read this entire article, which is too difficult to excerpt. Well, except for these:

To dance is to play with the movement that is making us. It is to cultivate a sensory awareness of how this movement is making us, and of how our own movements, as we shape and transmit the energy of life, are making us. To dance is to play with this movement in ways that allow us to discover and exercise our capacity to make our own movements—movements that align with our health and well-being.

One who dances knows: the reason we “exercise” is to play–to find the play in the moment, to release the capacity to play within ourselves. Dancing, we explore the possibilities for movement alive in the moment. We cultivate a receptivity to impulses to move as they arise in our bodily selves. We improvise. We imagine. We allow our bodily selves to guide us in new patterns. We follow a toe, a finger, a nose, the waves of our breathing into new spaces of sensation.

2 thoughts on “Dance: finding the play in the moment

  1. I couldn’t find the Psychology Today series on Dance at their site, and your link just leads back to this blog. Was the series in the print version of Psychology Today?

    Also, earlier today I was listening to the audiobook of Richard Wiseman’s “59 Seconds”. He mentioned dance in the first chapter, which is titled Happiness. According to Wiseman, research supports the idea that dance can lead to greater happiness.

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