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A Jig for the Blues

New evidence for the curative effects of dance.

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Some of us are always the first ones on the dance floor, while others have to be dragged from the periphery. But dancing is a very human thing to do: Paintings from some 10,000 years ago found in caves in Bulgaria and India suggest that some of our oldest ancestors liked to groove. And dance has been found in human societies and cultures throughout the world, across time.

“As humans, we have always danced,” says Tamara Borovica, who researches embodiment and well-being at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Evolutionary biologists propose that humans began to dance because it helped us find mates, coordinate big collective projects, demonstrate strength, and promote psychological unity.

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Dance also has benefits for mental health. It has been shown to help individuals channel aggression, desire, and other strong emotions, to cut the risk of dementia, and to boost self-esteem when complex steps are learned in structured settings.  Now a growing number of studies suggest that moving our bodies in time to music with others could help treat depression, too.

Scientists remain cautious about recommending dance.

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One meta-analysis, published in January in the journal Sports Medicine, evaluated 27 studies and found preliminary evidence that dance is just as good at alleviating symptoms of depression as other forms of exercise, and even better at improving motivation and relieving distress. A wide variety of genres—aerobic dance, modern dance, traditional dance forms such as line dance and belly dance, and social dances such as ballroom dance—were included in the study, but all of them involved learning structured sequences, either as individuals in group settings or in couples. The other forms of exercise they evaluated ranged from team sports to martial arts, walking, and weight training.

“Despite all of those different ways of measuring mental health, dance was holding its own,” says study author Alycia Fong Yan of the University of Sydney. Depression is a complex illness associated with a wide variety of symptoms, but at its core, it features low mood and loss of interest in activities. Many forms of vigorous aerobic exercise, including running, are thought to help lift depression because they release reward-related neurotransmitters in the brain called endorphins, which are known to alleviate pain, lower stress, improve mood, and enhance one’s sense of well-being.

But unlike other forms of aerobic exercise, dance also tends to involve synchronized exertion with other humans and social bonding through music, activities also known to release endorphins, Fong Yan and her colleagues point out. And partner dance often involves trusting social touch, which is associated with the release of natural opioids and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin that have equally potent analgesic, stress relieving, and mood enhancing effects. So perhaps dance gives people extra doses of these neurobiological treats.

As humans, we have always danced.

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In not-yet-published qualitative research, Borovica found that study participants felt it was helpful to bond with others in a dance class when they were too exhausted to socialize in other ways. “When we move rhythmically with other people, we do experience a form of social bonding,” she says. The fact that dance is typically accompanied by music might also give it an advantage over forms of aerobic exercise that do not: Music has been demonstrated to help alleviate depression when offered together with psychotherapy.

Scientists remain cautious about recommending dance in place of other forms of exercise or therapy, however. A study in the British Medical Journal in February examined the impacts on depression of different forms of exercise at different intensities, as well as SSRI antidepressants and psychotherapy. That meta-analysis found dance to be a “promising” form of treatment for depression, though yoga and strength training ranked highest among effective treatments, with or without SSRIs or psychotherapy, particularly at higher intensities.

The study authors were reluctant to recommend dance more enthusiastically, they say, because it was evaluated in only five of the 218 studies they examined—which were chosen for study quality—and because the study groups lacked diversity. Another important caveat for all of the studies included in the two meta-analyses: Though most of them were randomized and used controls, few of them were able to blind participants, instructors, and research assessors. Nearly everyone knew the dance or other exercise regimens were meant to serve as therapy, which can influence expectations and outcomes.

Still, dance remains a compelling therapeutic option for people who suffer from depression, particularly if they are not helped by other treatments. “Depression is such a difficult and debilitating mental health condition that we really want to throw as much effective treatment as we can at it,” says Michael Noetel, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Queensland, and an author of the British Medical Journal study. One thing dance has going for it is that more adults seem willing to keep at it versus other forms of exercise: In clinical trials, dance programs tend to have higher completion rates—the data available suggest 80 percent or more for dance among older adults, versus 50 to 75 percent for other forms of exercise among all ages.

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Different kinds of exercise may ultimately be best for different kinds of people, says Noetel. He struggled with his own mental health growing up. “The things that helped me were playing touch football, and 99 percent of people are not going to find touch football the best fit for them,” he says.

For Fong Yan, the exercise of choice is dance. She started dancing at age 4—eventually training in everything from ballet to tap to contemporary dance and becoming a professional dancer herself. She knew she felt great when she danced. Now research is beginning to show that what she and other dancers can intuit in their feet and in their bones may help non-dancers, too.

Lead image: Pesto Maria / Shutterstock

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