How to dance your way to better health and happiness

Who doesn’t love a boogie? Research shows the health benefits of dance are endless. Here’s why it’s time to get your groove on.

Dance has been proven to lift the spirits, reduce stress and promote emotional wellbeing.

It’s also an easy, fun way to get fit, forge social connections and keep your brain sharp.

Before you start tripping the light fantastic, we delve into the health benefits of dance,  plus how to choose a dance style that will keep you coming back for more.

Physical benefits of dance

Dr Alycia Fong Yan, of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine and Health, has co-authored a literature review comparing the physical benefits of dance to other forms of exercise.

The paper looked at outcomes such as cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, day-to-day functionality and balance.

And the results provide great news for anyone who’d prefer to spin their way through a salsa class or break into the “running man” rather than hit the gym.

“We found that dance is equally as effective, and it’s a safe alternative to your usual exercise,” Dr Fong Yan says.

Mental benefits of dance

When it comes to mental health, part two of Dr Fong Yan’s research found the benefits of structured dance classes are equivalent – perhaps even superior – to activities such as walking, team sports or lifting weights.

“Some of the very preliminary evidence is showing that there’s this potential that dance may actually be better than other physical activities for emotional wellbeing, depression, motivation, social cognition, and a couple of aspects of memory,” Dr Fong Yan explains.

Importantly, she says, people who love dancing are likely to stick to it and reap the benefits.

“It’s exercise in disguise, I like to say,” Dr Fong Yan notes.

Social benefits of dance

Dance helps people forge social bonds and fosters a sense of belonging.

Cat Sweeney, founder of Jungle City Projects, runs classes in dance styles including Jamaican dancehall, Afro fusion and hip hop.

The teacher, dancer and movement therapist says there are plenty of benefits to cultural dance forms, which bring a diverse range of people together to dance as one.

“I guess it’s like a vibrational energy that we create together through the movement, and that is what I think people keep coming back for because it feels so great,” Cat says.

Friendships also form organically, based on a common love for dance.

Dance as therapy

Over the last few years, Cat has begun integrating elements of dance movement therapy into many of her classes.

“But even without that element, dance is definitely therapeutic to a degree,” she says.

“I have people all the time telling me, ‘My life has been so stressful, and this is the only time in my week that I actually feel good’.”

While further research is required, early studies show DMT has a positive effect on anxiety and depression and helps to improve quality of life.

How to choose a dance style that suits you

For those feeling a little intimidated by the thought of taking up a new style of dance, Cat recommends just turning up to a class – especially if the music resonates with you.

“Just be curious and just give it a go,” she says.

“You never know what you’re going to like … (or) what your body naturally connects with.”

And don’t expect to have your moves nailed after 10 minutes.

“Dancing takes time, and it’s about muscle memory and it’s about getting out of your head,” Cat says.

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Written by Larissa Ham