Why Dancing is Great for our Mental Well-being

Mary-Anne SlezacekContributors

October is Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa, and World Mental Health Day was celebrated on the 10th of October. In 2004, the World Health Organization redefined mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (World Health Organization, 2022). Finally, mental health was regarded not just in terms of the absence of mental illness. It marked the shift towards prioritising mental well-being and living life to the fullest; thriving rather than just surviving. 

It’s been a year, almost to the day, since I discovered swing dance, just when I needed it the most. Cape Town Swing has helped me to thrive, through good times and bad. Dancing is like a balm; it soothes. But it’s also a stimulant: lethargy and fatigue magically disappear as soon as the music starts and a partner holds out their hand to you. When I dance, I feel serene, challenged, empowered and connected to myself, to my partner and to the other dancers around us; all sharing the collective effervescence of this shared love. Sure, sometimes I mess it up and I feel disappointed in myself. Sometimes I feel self-conscious and nervous when dancing with someone more experienced than myself, but I’ve learned to let go of the ego and take each failure as a learning opportunity. After all, when I dance with someone less experienced than myself, I don’t care how many moves they know, I care that they are enjoying the moment and the music.

Post-dance happiness

This is why it’s important to remember that it’s not just the endorphin-releasing physical activity that makes dance so good for our mental health. It’s not just the cognitive skills that are developed and the new neural pathways that are carved, which improve our brain health and slow down ageing. All exercise is good for us, but we need to feel safe.

In an investigation into the negative effects of dance on mental health, the authors point out the many stressors of competitive dance. These can be physical and emotional. Sadly, abuse has always abounded in dance. There have been far too many incidents of sexual, emotional and financial abuse. This, of course, leads to physical and psychological trauma for victims and creates an atmosphere of distrust for everyone else. The international Swing dance community was shocked in 2015 and 2017 by significant transgressions, and Cape Town Swing developed the Safer Spaces policy as a direct response, to avoid anything similar ever happening in our community. 

Pressure to perform, win, and be the best can also be detrimental to mental health. Gruelling training regimes, perfectionism and obsession with body image can lead to huge amounts of stress and anxiety. For certain dance forms, such stressors are considered “part of the deal” by both teachers and students.

Environment is key to mental well-being. Dr Anna Duberg, a physiotherapist and health sciences researcher from Örebro University in Sweden, illustrates this in her TEDx talk, How We Can Dance Our Way to Better Mental Health. Her eight-month dance intervention was set up as a research programme to study how dance can be implemented to reduce stress and increase emotional well-being among teenage girls in Sweden. After the initial eight-month research phase, the programme yielded such incredible results that “Dance for Health” has now trained over 600 instructors and has a huge reach across the country. Its success was due to its guiding principles. I think the Cape Town Swing community will recognise them as the same principles that guide us when we dance:

Joy of movement: No need to think of anything else when you’re moving. “The body goes from being a source of constant worry to becoming more of an amusement park”(Duberg 2023). Self-doubt fades away. There is increased self-trust, which is embodied and portable: new-found confidence can be taken off the dancefloor and into everyday life. Our own body becomes a positive resource. 

Come as you are: No rehearsals and performances. Choreography is part of the programme, but creativity and interpretation are encouraged. This, Dr. Duberg says, opens a world of possibilities by alleviating worries about being “good enough”.

Dancing together: Non-verbal communication through movement, which allows for tremendous social inclusion across boundaries. This means feeling connected to others with similar stress-related problems without having to say a word. 

See what you have: Take a break from your problems. The girls on the programme have said things like, “When I dance I turn into who I really am”, “It’s like you sweat out all the shit from school”, and “When I dance, I feel free”. It’s all about embodying your emotions, trusting your body and claiming more space. Instead of trying to fix what is broken, see what you can do with what you have today.

Move how you feel: No expectations. No judgement. 

I couldn’t help smiling as I listened to Dr Duberg’s talk, because it all felt so familiar to my own experiences on the dancefloor. And I’m not alone: when I asked the CTS team for their input and experiences, what resonated in each response was the emphasis on community, togetherness and a shared love of dance. The sense of freedom and growth mindset came up repeatedly, of not needing to prove oneself or feel pressured to perform. 

So let’s hear it from the team.

Be forgiving, kind, empathetic and respectful of yourself and others. Enjoy the music, company and dance like there’s no tomorrow. Challenge yourself, outgrow limiting beliefs and have fun.

I have experienced all of the above and more in CTS, and am incredibly grateful to have come across the community.

Anonymous.

For me, a big part of my emotional and mental health is the ability to be and feel creative because 1. my actual income depends on it. 2. it makes me happy and 3. work also often means staring at a laptop screen while the designer brain cells die a slow death during all the daily online meetings.

Swing dance lessons and socials have become another opportunity to express my creative side. They give me the freedom to experiment. Whether it’s through thinking of a move combination on the spot, or deciding what vintage-inspired outfit I’d like to rock at a social – it’s really the small, creative moments that bring me joy.

Anonymous.

Dancing has become a cornerstone of my mental health. It brings together so many things that I love: movement, expression, music, creativity, play, friends, community, touch and adventure. So, no matter how horrible I’m feeling, I always know that dancing is 100% guaranteed to help me feel better. It’s deeply comforting to have such a pure, simple and joyful coping mechanism to weather the storms of life.

Michael Kloos.
Michael in amoment of bliss.

Dancing saved me – for real. And changed my life in ways that I would have never imagined. When I first arrived in South Africa I struggled to communicate in English (being a Portuguese speaker, plus the unique South African accent didn’t make my life any easier), I missed my community and it was winter (taking into account I’m from Brazil, the rainy and cold weather made me feel miserable to say the least). With that being said, one can only imagine how challenging my first months here felt. I’d never heard about Lindy Hop til then – I had no idea what it was about but it looked like a friendly community to be part of. Joining the Tuesday dance classes was my way to feel more comfortable with the language, to meet people and to move my body (and feel warmer). 

I’m so glad I did this – here I am, 6 years later, carrying lots of people really close to my heart, with my passport full of stamps from dancing in so many different countries and dancing in the kitchen with my baby and my dance-and-life-partner.

Gabriela Ventapane.
Gabi and baby Elena at the CTS Halloween party 2023.

I’m an ambivert who works remotely full-time (and often alone from home) and so I sit behind the screen for long periods of time. I have strong perfectionistic tendencies, which can often lead to increased stress and anxiety at work. Anyone who is in the same work situation can tell you that that is not great for one’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Therefore, one of the first things that I did when I moved back to Cape Town last year, was to join Cape Town Swing, to make sure that I get out, learn something new, exercise, and meet new people. Now, swing dancing has become such an important part of my life, because it plays such a central role in my overall well-being. 

Over the past year I have made several close friends, and as I get more involved, am meeting more and more cool people. I haven’t felt this sense of community and belonging for a long time. I love the music and the different types of people, young and old, that it brings together. I love learning more about the music and dance history. I have always enjoyed dancing, but when I dance to swing music with others, I feel pure joy. It is the joy on people’s faces. Even if I’m not dancing myself, when I watch others dancing lindy hop or solo jazzing, I can’t help but smile. Sometimes, I smile and laugh so much that my “smile” muscles start hurting. The music is uplifting and dancing to it is playful and creative. I forget about the stress from work, my financial worries, and the worries of the world. I am in the moment and I feel fully alive. 

Dancing is part of what it means to be a human being. Dancing is instant happiness – and hope. I’d guess that it has a very low carbon footprint, and that it doesn’t have to cost a thing. All we need is music

Anonymous.

Swing dancing can really help people find new ways to connect. In 2022 my dad Tommy visited for two months and he learnt to swing dance with me in Cape Town. He carried on classes when he returned home to England and a year later in October 2023, he was the life and soul of the floor at my sister’s 60th birthday party, which featured a live swing band. He danced with absolutely everyone including his two daughters and had the time of his life. My dad lost his wife of 59 years to a stroke earlier in 2022 and learning swing dancing has been a way for him to connect and have fun with other people – a vital component of mental health. He is 82 years old.  

Selina Palm
Selina and her dad.

Here are my two cents regarding swing dancing and mental health. 

The short version is yes, swing dancing definitely helps with my mental health. It is not a foolproof cure when one is visited by the black dog in its subtle shades, but I can say this: 

Swing dancing has provided a sense of stability and routine. This has blossomed into a community that continues to welcome, grow and thrive. It has provided connections on many layers for me. Many times I have had a heavy heart and a throbbing head and I would go to a class or a social and I would feel somewhat better, again in various capacities. Certain people would ask, how I’m doing and I would share a bit. Just a bit, but it would help. 

Once in that space after a little while my focus would be on this place, these people, the music, the atmosphere, who I’m dancing or chatting with right now. It would provide a welcome relief from my mental chatter which unfortunately leans to the negative at times. And also dwells on the worst-case scenario. So when that is all replaced with the input and feelings I’m allowing myself to get in the dance space, there is a bit of relief. A bit more life. And that is sometimes good enough. Just that little bit lighter. A reminder that most of my problems are mental.

Of course, other factors are at play as well, such as brain chemistry, diet, history etc. Our minds are shaped by these factors. Other times I feel totally fine, which is great then those times I’m dancing, it’s even better. So it’s kinda like the tides. And just like the tides, they are always changing. 

Dance has definitely helped my self-esteem in some parts. I never considered myself a dancer till almost 10 years ago when I started this journey and even now I think I’m just ok. I am bold enough to ask anyone to dance nowadays, international instructors included which is great as I can still remember feeling very hesitant about asking people who I saw as way better than me to dance. Same with dancing in the beginning. I had to kinda push through all that. Make the mistakes. Stop saying sorry for silly missteps and slowly, I could just dance. Less mind, more heart and body. It takes a while but you get there. I’d be lying if I said when. That’s your journey to take. 

There are loads of layers in swing dancing that begin to click with time and that’s when it started getting fun and, dare I say, easier. I have my internal quibbles at times about other areas like body image, and perfectionism. I’m nowhere near as competent a solo jazz dancer as I feel I am a partnered dancer, but I also know I don’t practice that enough. Still, I’ll compare myself. It’s silly right? I’m an artist for a living so I’m also aware of my inner critic, who is rather ruthless and always comparing. Comparison is the death of joy. Mark Twain said that, apparently.

Swing dancing has opened up numerous experiences for me and led me to the people who have made the sphere so amazing, both locally and internationally. I’m biased towards more locally for obvious reasons. Come on people. It’s Cape Town Swing. Friendliest scene in the world. You make that happen, so thank you.

So what should have been 2 cents I think is about R20’s worth. Swing dancing and the community especially the Cape Town Swing community have definitely shaped my life for the better, both mentally and physically.

Clinton Jones.
Clinton swinging out with Liza.

In 1912 French sociologist Émile Durkheim came up with the term “collective effervescence” to describe “moments in which people come together in some form of unifying, excitement-inducing activity”. It is the glue that holds groups together and creates euphoria. Durkheim’s theory focused on the collective effervescence of religion, but the idea can be applied to any activity that creates collective elation, such as sports, concerts, religious ceremonies and of course, dancing.

When we dance, we experience personal euphoria as feel-good chemicals are released in our brains while we move and enjoy the music. We experience the oxytocin rush that’s generated by the touch of another human. And we experience collective euphoria as we meld with a group, creating an intense force that lifts us to an almost divine level.

As long as we’re doing it in a safe and loving environment, dance covers all the bases for improved mental well-being.

Further reading by our community members, related to this topic:

How Swing Dancing Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Intimacy by Ruby Paton.

Learning to Swing Again by Phil Rendel.

Dancing My Troubles Away by Mary-Anne Slezacek.