By Maryssa Steffen
I am a physical therapist, but my other life is a dancer. I have danced for almost 33 years and I have no doubt that it fully connects me to myself and strengthens my empathy towards others. After working with patients and delving into the research that supports dance therapy, I wanted to share how I bridge the gap between these two worlds.
What is dance? Dance is made up of purposeful, rhythmical, and culturally patterned sequences of nonverbal body movements. For those who dance or appreciate dance, many would argue it is much more than exercise. It involves sight, sound, touch, smell, and kinesthetic feeling. Dance is an intricate combination of movement, rhythm, and music that studies have shown involves simultaneous right and left brain usage in the complex process of self expression.
As a physical activity, dance can improve balance, coordination, strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity, bone health, and proprioception (knowing where the body is in space). People talk a lot about “the core” when they are dancing and the pelvic floor is the base of our “core.” Here is an excellent blog about exercises to improve pelvic floor awareness and mobility: https://pelvicpainrehab.com/female-pelvic-pain/3676/exercises-short-tight-pelvic-floor-muscles/
Dancing is multisensory, involves skill, expresses emotions, and is interactive with other dancers and/or musicians. Across the world, there are religious dimensions of dance that can contribute towards feelings of identification or inclusion in a culture or group. Therefore, dance potentially reduces stress and isolation. All these attributes make dance an “enriched environment” which stimulate the brain’s plasticity, causing a positive change in neural pathways and brain activity. This neuroplasticity may help a patient’s response to therapy when they are dealing with chronic pain.
Besides encouraging neuroplasticity, patients have the opportunity to gain a sense of control through dance. Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist at Harvard University adds to this point, “there is a crucial distinction between a medical condition and a person’s experience of that condition. Although a portion of the pain comes from a medical situation, the rest comes from a person’s sense of helplessness or fear.” Evidence on dance and healing suggest that dance may provide a feeling of control for some people. This agency may reduce helplessness and fear related to pain.
Dancing can also offer a sense of control during the healing process. After practicing any dance form for a few weeks, a participant will master the warm-up, as well as simple movement sequences that enhance grace and control during daily activities. Eventually, the more complex dances will get easier. This process may not only improve physical function but also increases a participant’s awareness of their body’s responses. They will become more aware of their daily needs to stretch, walk, and take deep breaths. Dance can make us more joyfully present and embodied as we live our lives.
On the other hand, sometimes we need an escape or distraction from stress and pain. If you are experiencing pelvic pain, you may benefit from manual therapy and exercises provided by a pelvic floor physical therapist in one of our clinics. A good pelvic floor PT would help to decrease the musculoskeletal tension that might be contributing to your pain.
Once the neuromusculoskeletal impairments are addressed, dance can induce positive emotional changes. Physiologically, this happens by the release of endorphins, or neurotransmitters that decrease the perception of pain. As endorphins are released, there can be a shift from pain towards pleasure. This discovery of new movement possibilities can break habits that cause pain and refocus towards new strategies of ease and comfort. By the way, Feldenkrais (https://feldenkrais.com) is a somatic education method to explore new movements that may be more effective and pleasurable!
One of my favorite things about dancing is that it is a social activity. This feature builds up a spirit of elation that is infectious. Experiencing a strong emotion, such as joy, may block pain and thereby provide a distraction or escape from it. How therapeutic!
Lastly, dancing has symbolic value. A dancer can confront stressors by projecting them in dance and then working it out. When someone masters challenging movement sequences and their body awareness increases, they may imagine confronting life event stressors with the same tenacity, dignity, grace, and perhaps humor. With its language like quality, dance can represent past, present, and anticipated events, ideas, and feelings that evoke helplessness, anger or fear. For patients dealing with chronic pain, dance can help them unlock movement potential and find a personal process of discovery as they get their lives back.
Hanna, Judith L., “The Power of Dance: Health and Healing.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 1, Number 4, 1995. pp. 323-331.
Bidonde, Julia et al., “Dance for Adults with Fibromyalgia — What Do We Know About It? Protocol for a Scoping Review.” JMIR Research Protocols, vol. 6, issue 2, 2017. http://www.researchprotocols.org/2017/2/e25/
Kattenstroth J, Kalisch T, Holt S, Tegenthoff M, Dinse H. “Six Months of Dance Intervention Enhances Postural, Sensorimotor, and Cognitive Performance In Elderly without Affecting Cardio-respiratory Functions.” Front Aging Neuroscience 2013;5:5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2013.00005