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Natural Awakenings Twin Cities

Dancing To Your Own Drummer: The Healing Power of Movement

Apr 30, 2020 08:30AM ● By Marlaina Donato

Luis Molinero /

Movement comes in many colors, from modern dance to country line dancing, and there’s something for everyone, including those that claim to have two left feet. Dancing is healthy for the heart and improves cognitive function by forging new neural pathways in the brain. It builds stronger bones, helps balance and improves flexibility and endurance. Putting on dancing shoes also has a positive effect on depressive disorders, flooding the brain with endorphins that uplift mood and jumpstart motivation. Dance has found its way into the clinical setting as a psychotherapeutic tool for healing trauma, eating disorders and addictions.

Dancing, in essence, is for everyone. “Dance is a human right, a feature of almost every culture in the world, and our natural inclination to dance is one of the things that makes us human,” says David Leventhal, program director of Dance for PD, a nonprofit Parkinson’s Disease program of the Mark Morris Dance Group, in Brooklyn.

Valerie Durham, a modern dancer in Baltimore specializing in the Isadora Duncan technique, concurs, “Birds don’t consider if they have talent for singing, they just sing. They sing because they have a voice. Similarly, dance is a right offered to anyone with a body.”

A Deterrent for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease and Cancer

Going dancing on a Friday night also proves to nourish the brain. A 2017 study published in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience shows evidence that dance increases white matter that diminishes with cognitive decline. An older study sponsored by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and published in the New England Journal of Medicine spotlights data gathered during a 21-year period and reveals that regular social dancing can reduce the risk for dementia in seniors by 76 percent.

“A number of peer-reviewed research studies point to dance’s ability to improve motor skills and function of people living with Parkinson’s disease—balance, gait and tremor. Dance is expressive, giving people a creative voice when it feels that their capacity for physical, vocal and facial expression is being taken away,” says Leventhal.

Durham, who worked with patients at the University of Florida Shands Hospital Arts in Medicine Program in the 1990s, witnessed memorable responses from cancer patients. “We danced with patients who were attached to IVs and those even in the ICU, some who were partially or even completely paralyzed, people who maybe could dance only with their eyes. And yet they danced,” marvels Durham. “Getting the lymphatic system, endorphins and breath flowing all elevate the body out of pain mode.”

Dancing from the Soul

All forms of dancing have the capability to free the spirit and heal deep emotional wounds buried in the memory-holding fascia of the body’s soft tissues. Ecstatic dance, which has roots in ancient spiritual practices, is an unstructured option that dilutes limiting, self-conscious habits. These days, ecstatic dance gatherings have been organized in cities around the world.

“There’s a vast movement in the dance world that has nothing to do with performance, but rather, is done for the joy of inhabiting a body in motion. Ecstatic dance is a free-form conscious dance and is a vibrant global community for people who love music and movement,” says Donna Carroll, founder of Ecstatic Dance International, in San Francisco. “When we can be courageous enough to turn away from our cultural norms that say you need ‘talent’ to dance, we get a chance to experience music through our bodies, and it can be quite pleasurable and life-affirming. Ecstatic dance is one of the most effective methods to return to what matters, to our bodies, to our ‘home’, and is accessible for people of all abilities.”

In her artistic sphere of performance art, Durham has seen her students blossom from the inside-out. “They are able to connect with the deep wisdom in their bodies, thereby releasing old energetic wounds. Depression and anxiety are relieved during dance because you are so consciously consumed with the present moment of the steps and the music. Dancers will find that they feel more joyful and at peace at the end of a dance session.”

For Leventhal, moving the body is a blessing for all: “Dance should be accessible and enjoyable to everyone, regardless of physical or cognitive challenges.”

Marlaina Donato is an author, composer and painter.