Maximising health & wellbing benefits of dance through positive psychology
15th March 2021

Regular participation in creative activities, such as dancing, is known to benefit child development and is proven to have positive effects on emotional and social wellbeing, physical health, and even academic output. This means the performing arts industry has an opportunity to play an important part in the sociological recovery from the negative impacts caused by isolation during COVID.

“At least one third of GP appointments are, in part, due to isolation. The creative arts can have a significant impact on reducing isolation and enabling wellbeing in communities.” (Dr Jane Povey GP, Director, Creative Inspiration Shropshire Community)

Jess dancing her lyrical solo at a competition

What are the wellbeing benefits of dance?

The physical health benefits of dance as a form of exercise are commonly accepted, as are the mental health benefits of exercise and creative expression. It is therefore a relatively easy jump to assume that dance, as a creative physical activity, can have positive effects on one’s overall physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

But what are the influencing factors that determine the level of perceived benefits from dance? Is dance style a factor, or is it more about teaching methods? And how do we actively maximise those benefits for our students?

As a socially responsible dance school, we have felt an obligation to educate ourselves, so that we can play our own small part in the wider social recovery from COVID. In this article, we discuss some of the research underpinning the benefits of dance and how, by using positive psychology in our approach to teaching, we can maximise the positive effects on the overall wellbeing of our dancers.

“there is a compelling case for our healthcare systems to better utilise the creative arts in supporting health and wellbeing outcomes” (Lord Darzi, Professor of Surgery, Imperial College London)

42nd Street workshop with Lisa Dent

What is positive psychology in relation to teaching dance?

Positive psychology in a dance context is simply about using positive instructional methods to help students feel at their best emotionally, whilst in the learning environment. It’s about replacing negative feedback with constructive and positive feedback; praising effort and hard work rather than highlighting failure; and treating each dancer as an individual rather than expecting all students to bend their learning and communication preferences to suit the teacher.

Nordin and McGill (2009) introduce the concept of “self-determination” as critical in achieving the optimum state of emotional wellbeing. It is described as the feeling of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is about students attending class out of choice, because they want to be there. Competence is about students feeling confident they have the capability to learn to execute the dance moves. Relatedness is about their sense of social belonging in the environment in which they are learning. When all three of these states are achieved, students display a healthy intrinsic motivation can thrive under their own self-determination.

“One way in which instructors can support a sense of competence for all students is by emphasising effort over talent. It is easy to praise those students who have mastered a skill; however, those who do not achieve mastery as quickly as others may feel left out, having received no recognition for their efforts. “(Nordin & McGill 2009)

Ballet dancer

Alina dancing her ballet solo at a competition

How do we apply positive pyschology in dance classes?

We can give students a sense of autonomy by offering rationale to explain why we do things a certain way. Also, by being democratic in class by giving students choice over certain aspects of the lesson rather than dictating everything to them. We can support their sense of relatedness by being person centred and tailoring excercises to suit their skills and limitations. In addition, we can get to know each dancer as an individual and engage better with their own learning styles and communication preferences. We can support their sense of competence by praising application, effort and progress, rather than highlighting failure to execute moves.

It’s our job, as teachers, to help our dancers feel at their best emotionally and uninhibited by self-consciousness so that they can thrive in their learning environment. We must be cognisant of the different needs each dancer and be person-centred in the delivery of their class. All of these things together can help foster a stronger sense of self-determination in our dancers.

“Our wellbeing is vital to our health, to our sense of who we are and to our self worth and effectiveness. The arts play a vital role in creating and supporting feelings of wellbeing.” (Alice Wiseman, Director of Public Health, Gateshead)

Emma dancing her jazz solo at a competition

Does dance style and creative freedom impact the benefits experienced?

In 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Arts, Health and Wellbeing carried out a comprehensive study on the impact of the creative arts on health and wellbing, which references 1055 pieces of research and literature on the subject. The conclusions acknowledge the benefits to physical, social and emotional wellbeing that come from participation in creative arts.

However, traditional dance styles like ballet often emphasise the importance of discipline and compliance with the instructor, and are based on a rigidly defined syllabus with rigorous examinations. This emphasis on discipline and rigor seems to contrast with the idea that creativity and freedom of expression are key to unlocking the benefits of dance. Moreover, creativity is a valued characteristic in dance, and the foundation for choreography and artistry.

So how can teachers reconcile the seemingly contradictory sets of attributes of creativity and discipline? And does this mean that the more creative and expressive forms of dance, like jazz and contemporary, are more beneficial to mental wellbeing?

Creative freedom given within skill based boundaries

Fortunately, research suggests otherwise. Creativity is best nurtured within a setting that has clear boundaries and skills to be demonstrated (Koestner et al, 1984). Within a rigidly syllabus based class, there is still opportunity to explore creativity within the confounds of that syllabus. In fact, dancers may feel intimidated by being asked to improvise in class in front of their peers with no prescribed boudaries or set of skills to demonstrate. However, by using structured improvisation and creating boundaries around syllabus and the skills learned in that class, dancers may feel more free explore their creativity within those safe boundaries.

Therefore, we can safely assume that the inherent creative freedom of a dance style itself isn’t a determining factor in the wellbeing benefits experience by dancers. So long as students are given the opportunity to exercise their own creative freedom within the boundaries of a given dance style, the wellbeing benefits should be experienced regardless of dance style.

“The creative impulse is fundamental to the experience of being human … The act of creation, and our appreciation of it, provides an individual experience that can have positive effects on our physical and mental health and wellbeing.” (APPG on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, 2017)”

Emma performing her ballet solo for the 2nd time

Emotional wellbeing of adolescent dancers

Dance brings with it other emotional challenges around body image and competence (ability to execute moves), which can become emphasised at adolescence. This is where positive psychology in dance teaching becomes a critical tool for teachers, and in particular during this time of wider social recovery from COVID.

The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS, 2000) makes specific reference to the emotional challenges experience by adolescent dancers, who will be coping with growth spurts bringing about rapid changes in their worlds. Changes in body shape and size may result in a perceived decrease in ability, which can challenge a dancer’s positive self-image. The combined pressures of dramatic hormone fluctuations and a perceived loss of talent can be emotionally challenging, especially when fellow students appear to be improving.

Unless well informed, the student dancer may feel a loss of confidence in ability and a corresponding decrease in self-esteem. This is compounded by being unable to perform at a level that was previously taken for granted. The challenge for us as dance teachers, is to continue teaching the dance class as normal for most students while accommodating those in a growth spurt.

Rose dancing her tap solo at a competition

How best to support adolescent dancers

The IADMS Education Committee (2000) recommends open positive communication about what the student is experiencing, praise for effort rather than achievement, and offering person centred alternative exercises to help develop and strengthen technique. This promotes positive psychology rather than a negative focus on what the student is struggling with or can no longer do.

Students should be informed that what they are going through is temporary, and that the previous ability will return once the body has begun to catch up with the growth rate. The dancer needs to understand the time frame of the growth spurt and accept that this process may last a year or more. Teachers and parents can boost the dancer’s confidence and morale by acknowledging the student’s efforts and maturity, providing a positive perspective while reinforcing the need for patience.

“Teachers can support their students during these challenging times by providing flexible individual class modifications and encouraging healthy nutritional habits (Daniels, 2000)”

There are several technical things we can modifiy to accomodate students in growth spurt. For example, we can focus attention on trunk and pelvis stabilisation through postural corrections. Attention to trunk control in classes may produce the dual benefits of minimising injury while establishing good movement patterns. Using floor barres and supplemental conditioning techniques can be used to improve muscular control rather than focusing on excessive flexibility. We can also postpone high profile competitions or examinations during this time to lessen the pressure on the dancer. It’s about using our experience to recognise when students need this sort of person-centred support and adaptation to their learning.

Conclusion

As a dance school we can play an important role in supporting the physical, social and emotional recovery from the effects of isolation caused by COVID, particularly for our adolescent dancers who are dealing with physiological and psychological changes. We can do so by providing a safe space for social interaction, physical exercise, creative expression and achievement, which is critical to the overall wellbeing of individuals. We can maximise the benefits experienced by our students by using positive pyshcology in our teaching approach.

“As a dancer, I enjoyed the physical benefits of artistic practice; later on, working in community settings, I saw the psychological and social benefits that participation in arts and cultural activities brings [and the] art’s potential to contribute to health and wellbeing throughout the various stages of our lives.” (Deborah Bull, Assistant Principal, King’s College London)

References

Albert, P. (2011). The Health Benefits of Dance. Home Health Care Management & Practice, 23(2), 155-157.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing. (2017). ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’. Available at: http://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/

Baston, G for the IADMS Education Committee. (2008). Proprioception. Retrieved from www.iadms.org.

Buckroyd, J. (2000). The Student Dancer. London: Dance Books Ltd.

Bungay, H. (2018). ‘How prescription creativity can improve mental and physical health’, Medical Xpress, 5 April. Available at: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-04-prescription-creativity-mental-physical-health.html

Cohut, M. (2018). ‘What are the health benefits of being creative?’, Medical News Today, 16 February. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320947?c=302789915981 

Daniels, K. (2009). Teaching to the Whole Dancer. The IADMS Bulletin for Teachers, 1(1), pp8–10.

DeJesus, B. M.-M. (2011). Dance promotes positive benefits for negative symptoms in autism spectrum disorder (ASD): A systematic review. Complementary therapies in medicine, 49. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2020.102299

Davenport, G. C. (1994). An Introduction to Child Development. London: Harper Collins.

Doherty, J. B. (2003). Supporting physical development and physical education in the early years. Buckingham: Open University Press.

IADMS Education Committee. (2000). The Challenge of the Adolescent Dancer.

Kassing, G. J. (2003). Dance Teaching Methods and Curriculum Design. Leeds: Human Kinetics.

Koestner et al, (1984). ‘Setting limits on children’s behaviour: the differential effects of controlling vs. informational styles on intrinsic motivation and creativity’. J Pers. 1984; 52(3):233-48.

Meggitt, C. (2012). Child Development: An Illustrated Guide . Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Nordin, S. M. (2009). Standing on the Shoulders of a Young Giant: How dance teachers can benefit from learning about positive psychology. The IADMS Bulletin for Teachers, 1(1).

Taylor, J. &. (2015). Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence. Campaign IL: Human Kinetics.

Warburton, E. C. (2004). Who Cares? Teaching and Learning Care in Dance. Journal of Dance Education, 4(3), pp88–96.

Wimerding, M. V. (2016). Dancer Wellness. Campaign, IL : Human Kinetics.

 

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