Our ancestors painted their cave walls with pictures of dancers. Even babies instinctively jig in time to music. Dancing feels good – and while some societies ban it, there is no culture on earth that doesn’t possess an urge to dance.
But how is it that such a simple physical act has the ability to lift the spirits? The reasons, say dance psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt of the University of Hertfordshire, are four-fold. “Dancing stimulates us physically and emotionally while there are also cognitive and social elements to it,” he explains.
“You appear to get a much bigger release of endorphins when you dance than during other forms of exercise; it also connects with the emotional centres in the brain. For many people, dancing prompts an emotional release – often that’s uncomplicated happiness, while for some it can make them cry. It’s cathartic – a letting go of pent-up emotions.”
Experiments have proved the cognitive benefits of dancing. University researchers at York and Sheffield took a group of people and sent each of them into a lab where music was played for five minutes. Each had to choose from three options: to sit and listen quietly to the music, to cycle on an exercise bike while they listened or to get up and dance. All were given cognitive tasks to perform before and after.
Dr Lovatt says: “All those who chose to dance displayed improved problem-solving skills afterwards. This same study also found that the mood levels of the dancers went up. It shows that dancing along to music even for five minutes can boost happiness and improve creative-thinking patterns.”
Dancing also improves spatial awareness, as well as raising the heart rate and causing a release of feel-good endorphins into the bloodstream. One more benefit is that it helps reduce levels of cortisol – a stress hormone. “That’s another reason why it makes you feel happy and more relaxed,” says fitness expert Matt Roots.
“And as well as getting the heart and lungs pumping, there is the simple fact that dancing is all about freeing up the body and allowing it to move, which is something we tend to do too little of these days.
“Modern living often leaves us feeling disconnected from our bodies, because we spend so much time sitting down and hooked up to technology. Dancing makes you feel good because it makes you feel so alive.”
Another big draw to dancing is the social element. “It’s scientifically proved that dancing helps with social bonding,” explains Dr Lovatt. “The synchrony involved in dancing to a beat along with other people is a powerful way for humans to connect.”
Ginny Brown of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing agrees. “Dancing brings people into social space where they can work together on mutual enjoyable activity.
“That element of interaction can be a wonderful starting point for getting to know people. You can walk into a dance class not knowing another soul, and quickly discover that dancing – at whatever level – is a wonderful way of breaking down inhibitions and encouraging positive interactions.
“Young people have a wonderful time dancing spontaneously in nightclubs. Dance teachers often report that many of their students are retired couples looking for an activity that they can enjoy together and connect in a way that a round of golf simply doesn’t allow.
“It is something you can enjoy at any point in your life, no matter what your ability – and the range of styles is phenomenal. Dancing makes us feel good because, above all, it’s such great fun.”