Happy feet: people who dance for their mental health

Andrew Dickens

Dancing makes up happy, but as we get older, we do it less. Idiots. Meet seven people with happy feet who boogie to boost their mental health. 

When has dancing ever made you feel less than great? Other than, perhaps, that time you did one too many spins at that wedding after one too many glasses of red and scattered an unexpected and unwelcome second round of confetti. Even watching Strictly Come Dancing gives us an endorphin rush.

It’s the ultimate anti-depressant. Just look at the ingredients: exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise or require athletic wear, funky music, a bunch of also-happy people (except when you’re alone), as much or little self-restraint as you like, and the added bonus that you can do it sober or drunk.

It’s also something we do less of as we get into our 30s and 40s. Clubs make way for pubs, midweek student nights are a thing of the past. Which seems daft, what with it being so good for our physical and mental health – and so much fun.

Well, not everyone’s daft. We spoke to six people who literally dance for joy.

THE MORRIS DANCER

alex merry boss morris dancing

Alex Merry, 40, illustrator

When did you first start and why?

I grew up in Stroud, in the Cotswolds, so would have thought I would have gotten into it there, but actually, it was when I was in London. I started going to Cecil Sharp House quite a lot. It’s amazing. It houses the English Folk Dance & Song Society. They put on gigs and they have classes. It’s a really special place. I was learning the accordion at the time – I’m quite folky anyway. Me and my friend went to a gig at Cecil Sharp House and we spotted that they were doing Morris classes. Then I just got completely addicted.

How often do you dance?

With Boss Morris in Stroud (an all-female Morris dancing ‘side’), we meet every Tuesday, but then we’ve been doing so much on top of that. Probably, in the summer, I’m dancing about three or four times a week. I love it.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

It’s a massive workout. When you say that you’re a Morris dancer, people snicker a little bit, but it’s a highly energetic, exciting form really. All the girls really rely on it as their weekly hop around. It’s not this dainty, half-hearted waving of hankies. You can’t be unfit and be a Morris dancer.

Do you think it benefits your mental health?

Yes. 100%. Because alongside the exercise it’s so social as well. It’s lovely. It’s like a second family. We’re all close friends. Every Morris side is a bit like that. They’re lovely clubs, but club’s not quite the right word. It’s a family feel.

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

Yes, I guess if I’m in the house and there’s music on then I’ll probably bop around a little bit. Yes. It really does make you happy. Yes, if you’re having a rubbish week, and then we’ll go to practice on a Tuesday, instantly feel so much better.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

The country would be happier. I can’t think of any other thing that gives you the same feeling. It’s completely liberating. It puts you back into your body. Also, I always feel like I forget everyday life when I’m dancing. It’s like this lovely space. It’s a bit similar to when I’m drawing. There’s something about dancing with other people that is a particular feeling. It’s a special thing to move in coordination with other people. That’s been a really great thing with Morris.

THE BHANGRA DANCER

bhangra dance london

Asa Singh, 28, founder of Bhangra Dance London

When did you first start and why?

It’s been at least 12 years. I was just an over-energetic kid and was always into dancing, only Bhangra, too. I then slowly searched for classes and teams which I have joined. Since then I’ve been hooked!

How often do you dance?

At least twice a week. Now my main focus is teaching and running my academy, Bhangra Dance London. However, I still keep in check with performances and competitions. Bhangra is a trap: once you’re in, you’re in! When we are rehearsing for a competition, it’s minimum four times a week.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

Physically you cannot beat it, it’s very intense, but because I love it so much it doesn’t feel strenuous like the gym. It’s definitely an outlet, too. We all have the following in common: once we dance and perform, all personal and worldly issues disappear.

Read more: How to make yourself fearless, in 5 key steps

Do you think it benefits your mental health?

For sure, it’s a release and because it requires you to be mentally switched on 100%, you don’t have time to think about other things. And after practice your body and mind are definitely at peace. Exhaustion, I suppose, but it feels great.

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

Luckily for me, Bhangra is a happy dance. The steps and rhythms originate from happy festivals, so it goes hand in hand. You will rarely find a sad Bhangra dancer.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

For sure, I have been running community classes for more than four years now and have first hand seen the physical, social and mental benefits among more than a 100 students. It’s become a lifestyle for so many people. It’s an outlet, and learning and performing builds your confidence, which in turn benefits your everyday confidence. I feel blessed to be able to share the art among so many people.

THE BALLROOM DANCER

Nishant Donchak, 28, commodities trader

When did you first start and why?

That was as a young kid growing up in India. I reckon as kids we like to have fun and dance is once such activity. I tend to believe dancing comes naturally to us, and we learn not to dance or express ourselves with age. As a teenager, I tried the waltz for a short while and picked up again with Flow Dance early last year. I’m also slowly learning other Latin and ballroom dancing styles – salsa dancing, cha-cha-cha, foxtrot and jive – with Elena, who is more of a friend than an instructor for me.

How often do you dance?

I work towards keeping a once-a-week lesson. However, I work a full-time job in London and given the demands of my day job, it’s not always possible.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

Dance is fundamental to human wellbeing. It involves music, body movement, focus and learning capabilities. It’s a wonderful workout for physical health. Mentally, I won’t hesitate to compare it with meditation. You switch off from usual daily stresses, providing necessary space for the mind to relax. There are so many forms to choose from that one can make this activity their lifetime friend.

Do you think it benefits your mental health?

Most definitely. The brain is working on complex body movements while syncing rhythms with music. Mental health is related to physical movement and neural networks. The impact of dance is studied by neuroscientists, and though the field is young, it’s safe to say that it positively impacts emotions, social interaction and reflex actions. In the UK, NHS doctors are encouraged to recommend dance as therapy. I can certainly say, I am more aware of my surroundings and feel healthy with my emotions.

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

Yes, there are days when dance is my saviour.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

Absolutely, as I mentioned, as kids it’s natural to allow body complex movements without inhibition. However, as we grow up we unlearn or inhibit this behaviour. Any day, anytime please dance.

THE NORTHERN SOUL DANCERS

northern soul dance class

Sharon L D Sullivan, 59, dance teacher at Northern Soul Dance

When did you first start and why?

I started around 1974, loved Motown music then and just loved the Northern Soul style and music.

How often do you dance?

As a teacher, I dance every day. I Northern Soul dance every day, too.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

In general, it’s fantastic for your mental fitness. Music and dance makes me happy and allows me precious time for myself where I can forget everything for a short time.

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

Yes. I always dance to change my mood.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

Everyone should dance, not only for mental fitness. It supports great body fitness and health, great exercise, it’s sociable and encourages psychological fitness.

solo northern soul dancer

Kenny J Finch, 37, dance teacher at Northern Soul Dance

When did you first start and why?

Started dancing Northern Soul around one and half years ago because I loved the music – although this music and scene was before my time!

How often do you dance?

I try to dance every day and teach Northern Soul at least three times each week.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

I get positive vibes from dancing – you can get lost in the moment and allow your body and mind to be free.

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

Not really, but it does change my mood.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

It is my opinion that if everyone did at least some type of dance say twice each week, their lives would change. Not only is it great for your fitness but it is great fun and you can meet other like-minded people.

Read more: 8 reasons you should be going to the cinema alone

THE STREET STYLES DANCER

Damien Anyasi, 40, dance educator at B-Better Dance Organisation

When did you first start doing this and why?

I first started training in hip hop and street styles in 2001. I was working in central London at the time and one of my colleagues used to always dance at work. I remember thinking, “This is not normal. I need to know more.” We spoke and he took me to the group he was with called 20/20. I’d been training as a musician and felt that exploring dance was a good way to be more of an all-round artist.

How often do you dance?

I actively dance at least four days a week. This could be training, teaching, creating or socially. I’m a fan of all physical pursuits, so it’s easy to enjoy. On occasion, I may explore different forms and have performed many styles from lindy hop to Bollywood. Typically though, I train hip hop, breaking’ waacking, litefeet, choreography and creative exploration.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

As a professional, sometimes dance can be mentally challenging. A desire to excel or raise one’s level can create an internalised pressure. I think all creative people can experience it from time to time. On the whole, dance will uplift your mood, make you feel connected to your body and is a bottomless well of endorphins you can draw from. I know that even when I have a ‘bad session’ there is something to celebrate and you can’t beat that for a payoff.

Do you think it benefits your mental health? 

I would imagine it does benefit my mental health when I’m in the act. The exploration of the music, space, physicality and inner spirit all occur at the same time and that’s a highly personal experience. You can dance however you wish, and you don’t even need music, as I believe we have an innate human connection to movement and rhythms. Creativity and exploration is an ‘inside game’ and dynamic movement is an ‘outside game’. No matter whichever resonates with us most, both are great for our overall mental wellbeing

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

Typically I’m quite upbeat and don’t really have spells of unhappiness. Everything is a process or a problem to be solved. However, sometimes you do have to ‘get down’ to shake off a feeling or create a feeling. For example, sometimes I’ll catch myself saying, “I need to dance right now”, so I guess, yes, I do dance to raise my mood occasionally.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

Dance is inherent in every culture across the planet. Rhythmic movement is at the root of human existence: our breathing is in rhythm, our heartbeat is in rhythm, our speech pattern has rhythm, etc. Yes, if you dance less than once a week you may actually be standing in the way of your body’s natural desires, so I would encourage everyone to explore this natural and beautiful art form. The worst that can happen is you get a sweat on! I’m sure we can agree that that is good for us.

THE IRISH DANCERS

irish dancr dancing for mental health

Daria Kolesova, 31, film studio strategist

When did you first start doing this and why?

I started quite late, when I was 18. Usually people start when they’re young kids and they actually retire from competitions at around 18. But Irish dancing came to my country, Russia, quite late and I only found out about it when I was studying at university. I discovered it when I saw some beer commercial on TV that featured Irish dancing. I loved the style so much that I immediately googled schools in my town and just went for a class.

How often do you dance?

At the moment I go to class once a week – it’s hard to find time to do it more often due to my job and other commitments. I retired from competing two and a half years ago, but when I did compete, I would sometimes go to class every single evening after studies or work.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

I decided to come back to class after retiring from competitions because it’s the best way for me to keep fit – it’s both fun and challenging. I did try a few other styles and sports, but nothing works for me as well. It’s actually more like a sport – very athletic, precise and requires a lot of stamina. This is exactly what I feel I lacked in those years without dancing. It’s very important for me to have some physical activity in life as I work at an office and I start feeling tired quicker if I don’t exercise enough or switch activity in general. Irish dancing is a perfect combo of exercise and creativity for me.

Do you think it benefits your mental health?

It definitely lets me leave all my worries behind the classroom door, as while I’m trying to perfect my routine and learn new moves, I don’t have any time to worry about anything else.

Read more: 6 amazing things I discovered in my 30s that I never noticed before

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

This is exactly why I do it actually – I don’t want to compete at the same level anymore, so the main purpose of my dancing now is to feel happier in life.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

It’s a great way to keep fit. I think it’s also a good alternative to gym as it opens up an opportunity to be more creative. It’s both arty and sporty, so people develop themselves in those different directions which can be very helpful in some most unexpected circumstances in life.

————

Bernadett Somogyi, 38, casualty underwriter

When did you first start and why?

I first joined the Delaney Academy of Irish Dance in April this year with the intention of widening my skills, trying something new and to impress my Irish friends. I always had a high regard for Irish dancers who are proud of their heritage and able to perform at a professional level. My admiration for Irish dancers and Irish culture has not stopped since I first saw Riverdance on television.

How often do you dance?

I dance once a week for two hours at the Academy. I also rehearse whenever I can, mainly at weekends, to enable me to progress faster and be able to dance together with the more experienced Irish dancers in the group.

How does it make you feel, physically and mentally?

Since I co-chair the Wellbeing Committee at a global organisation in the City, I understand the importance of physical and mental wellbeing. Being able to Irish dance makes feel closer to the Irish culture and at the same time I feel more accepted within their communities. Physically, dancing increases my muscular strength, endurance and allows me to eat anything I want. Mentally, Irish dancing keeps my mind sharp, reduces my stress level, improves my balance helps me release the tension built up during the day and makes me feel like I am part of a community.

Do you think it benefits your mental health?

It certainly benefits my mental health. Dancing addresses not only the physical and mental wellbeing pillars but the social pillar as well by attending dance classes the dancers also socialise with each other during and after the classes. Irish Dance certainly encourages social interaction and allows the individual to feel included. It is a fun way of burning calories. Mentally, Irish dancing helps me developing new practical skills which has a positive effect on my mental wellbeing. When I fully learn a new step I feel like I accomplished something important which boosts my confidence.

Do you ever dance just to make yourself feel happier?

Yes, I do. Exercising is one factor, but I often dance for fun or to express my emotions.

Do you think people, in general, should dance more?

I think people in general should exercise more in some form or shape. Dance is a good way of expressing yourself and stay in shape at the same time. There are so many different styles ranging from ballet to folk dance to cater for all tastes. There is a style for everyone.

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