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Dance Wellness

Dance Wellness with Dr Peter Lovatt

Dr Peter Lovatt is a dance psychologist who sometimes goes by the name ‘Dr Dance’. He created a Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire in 2008, where his studies investigated the psychological effects of movement. Dr Lovatt has developed his own methods for enhancing the way we learn and currently teaches at the Royal Ballet School in London.

In light of the current global situation regarding COVID-19, our conversation with Dr Lovatt about the relationship between dance and mental health.

What would you say are the long-term psychological effects of dance? Engaging with dance can lead to a range of positive long-term psychological effects. We know from the scientific literature that dancing can contribute to an increase in self-esteem and self-worth, giving people confidence. Dancing has also been shown to increase feelings of positive mood, such as happiness and vigour, and reduce feelings of negative mood, such as frustration, depression and tension. Dancing is also a great way to make life-long friends and to feel part of a community.

Does dance have the same psychological effects on everyone? While everyone is able to benefit from dancing, dancing can have different psychological effects on different people. This is because we all have different sets of psychological needs. For example, we know that people who are more depressed see a bigger improvement in mood from dancing than people who are less depressed. Likewise, people who are socially lonely or socially disconnected will see bigger psychological effects on the social aspects of dance when it comes to bonding with others. A sense of cultural identity might be one of the most important aspects of dance for one person, while for another person the most important aspect of dance might be about achieving excellence in technique independently of culture. I believe that the reason dance is so psychologically powerful and unique is that it accommodates a wide range of psychological needs.

Do you feel that certain types of dance have better psychological benefits than others? There is no one dance which offers “better” psychological benefits, but different dances do serve different psychological functions. For example, I dance a lot and will pick a different dance style depending on how I want to feel. If I want to feel graceful and proud I’ll do ballet, if I want to feel earthy and rhythmic I’ll do tap, if I want to feel intellectual I’ll try contemporary and if I want to feel traditional and rooted I’ll do folk. I get different psychological benefits from every style of dance, from Argentine tango to Zumba.

What can dancers do to ensure that they are maintaining good mental health? Maintaining good mental health for dancers is as important as it is to maintain good physical health. Getting into the habit of thinking about, and looking after, our mental health is extremely important. Start by reflecting on who you are and practice thinking-about-thinking. For example, think about your thoughts. There is a link between our thoughts and our behaviour but sometimes we cannot see that link. Try to reframe unhelpful thoughts. If you worry before a major dance exam, try to think differently as you approach the exam. Rather than worrying about the grade you’ll get and about who you might let down, try to see the exam as a chance to perform something new and wonderful to a small audience. Think about the joy you will experience, and also give to the examiner, as you dance. Imagine you are telling a story as you move, and think about the progress you have made throughout your weeks of learning and practice. This is the process of reframing your thoughts.

There are lots of other things you can do, with your mind and body, to help you maintain good mental health. For example, you can learn to be in the present, to be mindful. You can get a good night’s sleep, you can make time to connect with other people, learn to live a healthy life and to do something completely for yourself. I would also suggest, for the sake of balance, that you have at least one interest outside of dance. Everyone’s mental health can fluctuate. If you experience difficulties maintaining good mental health you might want to visit and get support from a clinical psychologist, therapist or counsellor.

You often refer to your own relationship with dance and how it initially came more naturally to you than academic subjects at school. Have you experienced the effects of dance on your own psychological state? Yes. I hated reading and writing at school. I was rubbish at it and tended to feel humiliated in classes where we were taught (and tested) through the medium of the written word. I felt depressed, anxious, and a failure. I messed around and got into a lot of trouble. I was the naughty, stupid one. I didn’t like that. However, my school also had a dance group, which I joined. I felt completely different when I danced. My mood was more positive, I felt confident, I had good relationships with the other dancers, and when I learnt a routine and performed it, I felt proud. I didn’t feel like a failure when I danced. My psychological state when I danced was completely different to my psychological state when I wasn’t dancing.

Your studies into the relationship between learning and movement suggest that we learn better when movement is incorporated. How do you envisage movement realistically being incorporated into education? Sitting still does not always produce the best conditions for learning. I have worked with schools in the UK, USA and Australia who have introduced movement into the primary and secondary school learning environments in subjects such as maths, English literature and physics. The research shows that 5 minutes of movement in every 45-minute lesson can increase time-on-task, concentration, creativity, engagement, learning and teamwork. The movement can be simple, sometimes rhythmic, sometimes synchronised, or seated, playful or physically exerting. Different types of movement lead to different learning outcomes. When you introduce small amounts of movement in to a classroom it transforms the learning environment.

You talk a lot about dance’s effect on emotions, hormones and diseases like Parkinson’s. Can dance make a profound effect on conditions such as depression or anxiety? Yes, dancing can have a profound effect on conditions such as depression and anxiety. Studies have shown a reduction in depression in people with mild to moderate depression as well as in people who are in hospital because of their mental health. In our academic research work on dance and Parkinson’s disease, we have shown mood improvements following ten sessions of dance, and these improvements persisted for a period of time even after the final dance session. The relationship between dance and mood can be complex. I wrote a chapter on dance and mood in my first book, Dance Psychology, the science of dance and dancers, which goes through several of the published papers in the area. Dance Psychology, the science of dance and dancers, was published in 2018.

Tell us a bit about your work at the Royal Ballet School. At the Royal Ballet School, I have been teaching two courses on Dance Psychology. I was initially invited to write and deliver a series of Dance Psychology lectures for adult students on the Royal Ballet School’s Diploma in Dance Teaching course. This lecture series was designed to engage experienced dance teachers with a range of ideas in dance psychology which are relevant to the teaching of dance, at both elite and recreational levels. Each lecture is based on published research in the field and is focused on ways in which teachers of dance can apply dance psychology in a teaching environment. Once this course was running, I was invited to write and deliver a series of Dance Psychology lectures to second-year students at the Royal Ballet (Upper) School. This lecture series was designed to optimise the training and performance of elite ballet dancers, by focusing on the essential mental skills which are relevant to dance. The aim is to equip dancers with a set of advanced mental skills which they learn to use to help them become even better dancers.

It’s an unfortunate reality that not everyone can access mental health support or dance classes. What can we as a global community do to improve this? We can propose our own Dance Manifesto, and then petition the Government to adopt it. Here is a flavour of my dance manifesto.

It is a manifesto to enhance the physical and intellectual wellbeing of the nation. Dance is a central part of human life. We need a political culture which recognises the importance and value of dance in every aspect of society. In addition to strengthening the current dance provision, I would legislate for the following:

  • Dance in every school – every child should have access to high-quality dance provision

  • Industrial and Business strategy – getting our industries, businesses and workers moving to increase productivity, creativity and wellbeing

  • Health and Social Care – dance and movement to become available on prescription

  • The National Dance Service – an ambitiously wide variety of dance services to be provided to educational settings, businesses, the arts and in health and social care settings

  • Research and Development – to establish a National Centre for Applied Dance Research, bringing together scientists, artists and practitioners

  • National and Regional Dance Galleries – similar to art galleries, their role would be to showcase the history and rich social culture of dance

  • Local Communities – every community should benefit from the increased social interaction and social bonding that comes from share movement and dance, including a diverse range of social dances to help people integrate with different cultures and cultural practices

  • A Living Wage – all dancers and dance professionals to be paid a living wage

  • Balancing the books – the provision of dance on a national level will lead to a more efficient education system, more creative and productive workplaces, and a healthier and more socially supportive nation.

What can we expect to learn about in your latest book, The Dance Cure? Humans are born to dance. And in today’s sedentary world, we would all benefit from doing more of it. Science shows that just ten minutes of dancing provides a thorough work out for the body and brain, raising the heartbeat to cause a release of feel-good endorphins, connecting us to our emotions and reducing our stress levels. Dancing quite simply makes us feel more alive.

Filled with fascinating case studies from my research, as well as great stories from dance history, The Dance Cure will inspire even those who think they can’t dance to turn the music on, get up on the floor and dance themselves happy. The Dance Cure is also filled with Dance Prescriptions, so whatever you’re feeling there’s a dance that will make you feel a whole lot better. You can also learn the Dr Dance, Happy Dance.


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