Dance is popularly treated as an art form, which consists of body movement in connection to a specific rhythm. Dance is a very broad discipline with multiple categories depending on style, origin, cultural associations and over time, improvisations have built up even more sub-categories.
While it is easy to name the forms of dance existing today, the origins of dancing as a broad practice are not as easy to trace, unlike hunting tools or scripted literature. This is mainly because dancing occurred in real-time and was difficult to record.
Archaeological evidence for early dance includes 9,000-year-old paintings in India at the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, and Egyptian tomb paintings depicting dancing figures, dated c. 3300 BC. It has been proposed that before the invention of written languages, dance was an important part of the oral and performance methods of passing stories down from generation to generation. Dance is also an important aspect of survival, through the act of mating in animal world. Thus, it can be concluded that dancing forms deep cultural roots in every society of this world. However, beneath the surface of secular, ritualistic, abstract, and interpretive dancing remains the foundation of holistic health and healing.
Physical Healing through Dance
Abhinaya Darpana (The mirror of gesture) by Nandikeshwara is by far one of the most elaborate historical texts available on technique and grammar of body movements in dance. It has a shloka (category of verse line deriving from Vedic tradition) which mentions the essential qualities of a dancer, and goes as following:
Javaha, Sthiratwam, Rekha cha
Bhramari, Drishti, Shramaha
Medha, Shraddha, Vacho, Geetham
Paathra praanaa Dasha Smruthaha
Agility, steadiness, graceful lines,
Balance in circular motions, expressive eyes, endurance/hard work,
Intelligence, devotion/ concentration, good speech, understanding of music/rhythm
are the 10 core qualities of a dancer.
Every classical dance form has movements which are based on thorough understanding of physical anatomy. Each movement involves technique. The right technique helps in strength building, flexibility and stamina over multiple body parts at once. There are various forms of physical exercises which resemble dancing, such as gymnastics, yoga and aerobics and all of them utilize the same science towards physical health. Dancing becomes more evolved due to multiple factors that need synchronization all at once, making it a more inclusive and enthralling activity. Additionally, when doing one particular fitness activity, it works on certain group of muscles, but not others. Cross training is used amongst people in the physical health realm to remove this unevenness.
Dance incorporates so many variations of movement that, when combined, these routines themselves become cross-training activities. For example, classical dances, like Bharatnatyam or ballet, focus a lot on lower body strength; whereas dancing styles like belly dance, have a lot of core and upper body strength exercises. A dancer who experiments with various forms can end up working almost every muscle in the body, astonishingly, even the eyes.
A lot of strength building exercises done in classical dances are also an advanced version of physiotherapy. The body structure healing that happens with proper technique in classical dance is slow but steady, and makes the body less prone to injury, due to strong or sudden movements.
Mental Healing through Dance
Dance cannot exist without some important elements like music and rhythm, beats and tempo. The music that is being played has got a lot to do with muscular movements that are associated with that. Sound frequency and vibrations are known to cause mental peace and calmness. Chanting works on the same premise. When sound frequency and vibrations are manifested through body movements, it is the entire physical being along with the mind that is being aligned to those energies. Dancing involves expression as one of its most essential qualities. This requires a dancer to own the character being displayed and referred to in the music. This process heightens the empathy and awareness of a myriad of emotions, consequently helping dancers to be better adept at dealing with challenges. The process of growth in dancing is very similar to running a marathon or trekking long routes. It requires mental strength to push for even 0.5 inch extra stretch or to move into a new pose. The endurance and devotion has a positive ripple effect on a person’s personality. There have been various studies showing better EQ amongst those who dance, as opposed to those who do not.
Traditionally, dancing has been associated with celebration in social settings. This inherently has led to folk dance and music being cheerful and uplifting in nature. The notes and movements are representative of emotions such as joy. In the animal kingdom, for a lot of species, dancing is a mating ritual, which is indicative of heightened passion and action.
Such expression of mind through physical manifestation has proven to be beneficial for mental health.
Spiritual Healing through Dance
A more recent evolution of dance is the use of dance movements to support emotional and intellectual healing. Dance movement therapy/psychotherapy (DMT) has been slowly gaining popularity all over the world. Dancing has been used in some traditions as a healing technique for birth, sickness, etc. This school of thought believes that dance is not just an expressive art, but also a method which can positively impact the mover/dancer. There is a general opinion that dance/movement as active imagination was originated by Jung in 1916. Marian Chace spearheaded the movement of dance in the medical community as a form of therapy.
The premise of DMT is based on the interaction of physical and mental well-being, overlapping with the benefits of the aforementioned areas. Research has found that using dance movements as a form of therapy activates several brain functions simultaneously: kinaesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional ones. This type of movement requires mental, physical, and emotional strength to work simultaneously. Since dancing is based on non-verbal cues, it becomes a more accessible form of therapy for people with communication challenges.
Dance as therapy works to improve the social dynamics of a mover by offering a deeper sense of self-awareness through a meditative process that involves movement, motion, and a realization of one’s body. When a mover improves through experimentation, not only does self-awareness improve, but it also helps one to do away with negative energy. It is different from other forms of rehabilitative treatments because it allows creative expression and is a more holistic practice. Circular movements of Sufi saints are a good example of spiritual healing through dancing.
Dancing brings together body, mind and spirit. While dancing, one’s mind flows through memories, uses imagination, perceives surroundings, attends and evaluates conscious and subconscious thoughts. All of that is emitted through the expression of the body, ultimately leading to a harmonious alignment between mind and body. The state of such harmony brings a cathartic and uplifting experience to the dancer. Total engagement brings a sense of wholesomeness to the dancer.
- Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive Aesthetics by Sondra Horton Fraleigh
- Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World by Nathalie Comte
- Dance History: An Introduction by Janet Adshead-Lansdale
- Dance/Movement Therapy. A Healing Art. by Fran Levy J
- Dance Movement Therapy: Theory and Practice By Helen Payne
- Dance Movement Therapy: A Creative Psychotherapeutic Approach By Bonnie Meekums
- The Art and Science of Dance/Movement Therapy: Life Is Dance by Sharon Chaiklin, Hilda Wengrower
- The Power of Dance: Health and Healing by Judith Lynne Hanna