Health and Happiness – “Can’t Dance or Won’t Dance?”

‘Lockdown’, ‘coronavirus’ and ‘furlough’ – words which were used throughout most of 2020 – now seem to go hand in hand with ‘resilience’ and ‘wellbeing’. So much so, that Oxford Dictionaries has had to expand its word of the year to encompass several words for that unprecedented year. Now, over the brow of 2021, it is clear that resilience and wellbeing remain constants.

Presented by the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) and sponsored by London Women’s Forum, ‘Health and Happiness’ was an online event tackling how to maintain our mental health and wellbeing in a high-performance environment. Board member Jane Karczewski welcomed attendees to the second event in the Passion to Perform series, where themes already discussed included resilience, adaptability, and self-belief, through the challenges of coaching top performers. Health and Happiness aimed to move beyond this, with dance already proven to produce all of the important “happy chemicals” required to give our bodies and minds the important balance required.

Salus et Felicitas – Health and Happiness – is the motto on the RAD’s coat of arms, so what better way to position the attributes of mental health and wellbeing than as a by-product of the world of dance.

The Panelists (clockwise from top left):

  • Ida Levine (Chair of the discussion and RAD Trustee)
  • Dame Darcey Bussell DBE (RAD President and former Principal of The Royal Ballet)
  • Gerard Charles (Artistic Director, RAD)
  • Brian Heyworth (Chair, City Mental Health Alliance)
  • Dr Peter Lovatt (Dance Psychologist and Author of The Dance Cure)

Following the rolling chat function, it was clear that not all attendees could list dance as a pastime or passion. Either not having had the opportunity or inclination to dance as a child, or now feeling it was too late, as an adult. But as Dr Peter Lovatt would say, “Dance isn’t a passion, ‘Yet’!”: the distinction being ‘can’t dance?’, or ‘won’t dance?’ Whilst our panellists presented a broad spectrum through dance (or lack thereof), an opening remark struck a chord with everyone: a healthy body and healthy mind are ultimately so important for lifelong wellbeing.

Dance Science

Dr Peter Lovatt. Photo by Helen Murray.

From a scientific perspective, dance is why humans initially bonded, explained Dr Lovatt, also known as ‘Dr Dance’. Dance changes us socially; when people move their bodies it changes the way they think and solve problems, in all settings. Even with our colleagues, we communicate emotions when we move. For Dame Darcey Bussell, when at the top of her game as a principal dancer, the experience was the same, describing working with her peers as a team through dance, in delivering performances. Darcey describes dance as a structure you can return to help you navigate life, giving you building blocks and coping mechanisms for problems. ‘It’s someone holding your hand through life’, she says, providing the tools to survive and ‘get back on top’. In terms of mental resilience and the psychological benefits of dance, these are lessons we can all learn.

The RAD believes that everyone should have the opportunity to learn to dance. For Artistic Director Gerard Charles, dance is deeply rooted in who we are – we all have to interpret, move and make decisions, and therefore dance is such an important form of communication as humans. In leveraging the strengths dance gives us, Gerard maintains dance should be mandatory in schools so we can all have the ability to harness its power. “When we don’t dance”, he says, “we are not becoming as well rounded as we can ultimately be.”

Dance community

Darcey Bussell. Photo by Helen Murray.

Social impact programmes often incorporate dance, for these reasons. The RAD is no different, using dance to connect and create communities for both young people and older dancers and learners. For children especially dance is an inner beat and builds their resilience throughout life. Dancing ultimately makes us happier, with science telling us that the long-term impact of movement and dance is so important.

But dance can also provide a voice; for those quieter souls, it can become a way of being seen and heard. There can also be a special interaction between a teacher and a student. We all have different backgrounds and experiences, but dance allows us to learn together, and understand and celebrate that we are different.

Even for non-dancer Brian Heyworth, his own childhood experiences and difficulties with mental health have led him to recognise dance could have helped alleviate some of this, in communicating his feelings and developing discipline in early life to aid his later career. Brian’s experiences in finance were undoubtedly demanding, as with many other career paths and maintaining balance in a career of this kind, is key. Darcey expressed that in order to achieve excellence, you need the tools to take on such challenges, pressures or demands. For Darcey, as a performer, she recognises it is when you push yourself too much that it can fall apart. Understanding what can go wrong – having a plan B, even during performances – can help you to handle demanding situations and cope better when things do go wrong, preparing the mind for everything. Here dance lends itself completely, teaching us to be creative when things go wrong, having a mutual trust within a dance company or group and communicating with each other. These are the roots of any strong team. It is relevant across all disciplines.

Balancing Act

With dancers and performers, there is a clear separation between studio/stage and home. Dance teaches us to balance our private and working lives. That lesson is never more relevant and needed than now.

We must all find the principles of dance in the everyday – its premise is to break something down in order to build it up and learn to cope again. This too is how we deal with the pressures in everyday life – although we may not consciously recognise it – and taking things, literally, one step at a time. We must open the door to dance despite any social challenges we might face, changing the culture of dance to make it more accessible.

On an individual level, we must find ways to take what feels good about dance, be it movement, imagination or simply the camaraderie of dancing together. It is self-expression and a better expression of our feelings; you do not have to excel in dance to benefit from its attributes, you simply have to let yourself go. There is good reason that “Dance like no-one is watching”, is an expression of letting ourselves go!