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Dance can help people maintain their physical health, but it can have benefits for mental health too. We interviewed Melanie Levenberg, the creator of DANCEPL3Y, to explore how dancing positively affects us and our mental health.

How does dance specifically help with mental health? Do other activities work too or is dance the best option?

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When it comes to boosting mental health, staying in a positive mindset, or just having a way to beat stress, dance is a really powerful tool. It has so many dimensions that can help people get into a state where they can think and feel better. However, it is by no means the only activity that can help with mental health.

  1. The first dimension of dance that makes it a powerful tool to boost mental health is the physical aspect – the fact that you’re using your body. Any time you’re moving your body, you’re releasing endorphins that flow throughout the bloodstream and help to relieve stress. Movement is an effective way to combat stress and depression – so much so that doctors in Europe will soon be able to prescribe instead of, or together with medications.
  2. The second reason dance is very powerful as a tool is because it involves music. As your ears listen to the music, that signal gets transmitted into your brain, which replicates the exact music and sound, in every area of your brain. It’s the only activity that we do as human beings that . Using the whole brain has been proven to alter one’s mood. As you dance, you’re not only getting the chemical benefit of the endorphins released from movement, but also the activation of neurons throughout the brain and a mood boost!
  3. The third dimension that makes dance so powerful is its social aspect. As a society, the more we connect with each other through technology, the more disconnected we are all feeling, which is reflected in the staggering statistics we are seeing about the state of our mental health. As human beings, we need to have social connections that provide tangible, physiological feedback to our brain, such as eye contact and physical touch (like holding hands) and smiling. These give our bodies, and our brains, signals that we are part of a community, and that we belong. And that’s a very important thing that people in our world need today.

Are there specific movements like that you recommend to help boost mental health?

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Absolutely! I’ve got a list of five that are my top moves to do if you need a boost for mental health.

  1. Power pose. Of all the dances moves my favourite is striking a pose, especially when you need that extra boost of confidence to do something. Science suggests that by standing in a power pose (like a superhero with your hands on your hips, your stance strong, shoulders back and chest open) your confidence increases, your cortisol levels increase and your willingness to take risks also increases.
  2. Shaking. When animals face a stressful situation, like escaping a chase, they do a full body shake to get rid of the energy. Many dog owners know what this looks like – the shake goes through their pooch’s body and exits through a wiggle of the tail. The same way animal ‘shake it off’, we can also release built up tension or stress through shaking movements.
  3. Stomping. When you stomp, not only can the movement alleviate and release stress, the pressure of the stomp helps to build stronger bones. Stomping is also a healthy way to release emotions such as frustration and anger.
  4. Jumping with Your Hands Up. Jumping up and down activates your cardiovascular system, gets your heart rate up, and elevates your mood. As you’re jumping, you’re releasing endorphins, breathing deeper, and probably smiling/laughing at yourself. After only 10 seconds of jumping up and down, you’ll feel completely different because you will be in a physiologically and biochemically different state.
  5. Singing! The last “movement” to boost mental health is singing along to our favourite song. Okay – this isn’t really a dance move, however, by putting music on and rocking out, you’re moving your body and that’s what matters. When it comes to your mental health, being able to express your thoughts, ideas and feelings is important. Many cultures teach people (implicitly or explicitly) that they must be quiet, and in some cases, not to speak. Singing is another great way to release energy, especially energy from the shoulders and throat. Like dance, singing out loud doesn’t have to be perfect – the important thing is that you find the fun in it!

How often do you recommend these movements?

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As often as needed! You can choose to use movements, such as dancing, like a preventative measure to keep yourself in the best mindset, so you have the tools to face life’s ups and downs from the best physical, emotional and mental state. Or, if you haven’t been active enough, like a pill, you can bust-a-move as a remedy if any undesirable symptoms start to pop up (especially to remind yourself not to take yourself so seriously).

What do you recommend for people who aren’t a fan of dancing? And by fan it can be they hate dancing or they just have never engaged in this new kind of movement?

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Well there’s two sides of it: First, people who aren’t a fan of dancing have probably at some point in their life had a less desirable (negative) experience with dance: they may have felt awkward/self-conscious/like a failure because they went in the ‘wrong direction’ while learning a routine, or perhaps someone literally told them that they’re not a good dancer. That’s why the first thing that we do when people come to a DANCEPL3Y class is to set the 3 Rules of Play (Be Positive. Be Fun. Be Yourself. See below). What I recommend to these folks is to remember that dancing is self-expression, and you can’t get it wrong when you are showing the world your own unique style.

Second, if you’re a person who just really doesn’t like dancing, my advice is to go out there and play! With my background as a Physical Education teacher, the foundation of what we teach is called physical literacy, which is the competence, confidence and motivation to be active for life. When people have competence in fundamental movements skills such as running, catching, throwing, jumping, twisting, pivoting etc. they are better equipped to find success in a wide range of physical activities. Success leads to confidence, and confidence breeds motivation. If dance is not a part of someone’s list of activities, that’s okay as long as they are committed to finding another type of movement that they enjoy. Each person has their own physical literacy journey and no one is wrong for not liking a certain type of physical activity. I hope that every person creates a list of different types of physical activities that they can do, where they can enjoy a sense of self-confidence and learn to value movement enough to choose to make it a part of their everyday life.

Can you introduce the philosophy for your classes?

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In terms of our philosophy, it’s communicated through the 3 Rules of Play. These are:

  1. Be Positive. At some point in a dance class, you may find yourself saying “I can’t do this, this is way too hard” or comparing yourself to another person “Oh they’re so much better than me and I’m not doing it right”. As human beings, we have this strange auto-pilot of negative self-talk, especially when we are learning new skills. Dance classes are an opportunity to practice noticing if those thoughts come up and choosing to switch them to “I’ll give this a try” or “I can do this” or “I am awesome”. It’s about the discipline of observing the kinds of thoughts you have, and consciously choosing ones that will serve you or put you in a more desirable state.
  2. Be Fun. We say that so often in life “Have fun” but…you can’t have fun, so the second rule is BE fun. That means that you get to practice being the most fun version of yourself and sharing the best version of yourself with others.
  3. Be Yourself. The third rule sets the standard that the correct way of moving is to be different, by adding your own style. To clarify, these are usually not freestyle classes: everyone learns the same dance move, and we all do the move at the same time; however, since each person has a different body, different thoughts, opinions, ideas, and different talents to share with the world, their dance moves should look different than the person who is beside them. For example, “stomp-stomp-clap” means everyone stomps twice and claps once, however, where you clap around your body can be different and everyone adds their own unique style with their shoulders and their elbows. Through coaching, movement and play, participants gain confidence as they discover and share their own style, which makes for a very powerful (and fun!) class.

Do you have any last minute advice for people who are thinking about taking a dance class or people who are dancing?

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Physical activity is one of the most powerful tools you have to boost your mental wellness. Dancing takes that to the next level by combining the power of music with movement. Even if you just start your dance journey by listening to music on your headphones, you’ll get some benefits as the sound waves activate your whole brain. Every person on this planet has a certain kind of music that wakes up even the most timid dancer inside of them – rock, country, hip hop, jazz, pop, tribal etc. Whatever it is, find the music that makes you want to move, then go for it! It’s about finding the joy in movement and appreciating what it can bring for you. And if dance is not your thing, honour that and commit to being active in a way that makes you healthier and happier. It all comes down to prioritizing physical activity in your life because you understand and experience the physical, emotional, mental and social benefits from moving your body every day.

Melanie Levenberg, M.Ed., was a Physical Education teacher before creating DANCEPL3Y, a high-energy physical literacy and dance program that focuses on keeping students active and promoting positive mental health as they learned simple moves from cultures around the world. Melanie has presented at TedX Vancouver Stanley Park on movement, positivity and playfulness.

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