Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out: How Dancing Creates Freedom in the Body and Mind


Why do we dance? Although each person’s reasons might be different, many people admit that dancing gives them access to their hidden truths. One might enthusiastically welcome an invitation to a dance party as an opportunity for letting loose, releasing tension and discovering a joyous feeling, seemingly part of our natural selves, but lost to us in our daily hectic lives. Dance is also popularly used by dance therapists to navigate very deep trauma, in order to free the victim of it. Dance can help us hook up to the true genius lurking behind the cover-up of social convention that can sometimes prevent us from connecting to certain aspects of the self.

Though dance can be done in silence, it is typically done to a beat. Music gives a mood and vibration that we can feel in our bodies. Almost inevitably, we start moving. For most people, it is simply intuitive.

Socially, dancers and dances have become icons of freedom. Think of Josephine Baker in her Danse banane, a classic striptease she performed adorned in a skirt of bananas. Another iconographic figure is Martha Graham, a contemporary American who gave birth to modern dance. Many of her dances examined the emotional life of women, perhaps most notably her lengthy ballet Clytemnestra, about a queen who eventually kills her king. Her choreography was not initially reviewed as pretty or desirable; nonetheless, her pieces intensely reflected the inner landscape of women and critiqued or commented on the status quo.

What exactly is this connection between dance and a free feeling? Some common definitions of freedom refer to a person who is not in slavery, or those who enjoy personal liberty, as well as one’s will, thought, choice, and action being independent and unrestricted. Freedom, whether it be social or personal, has been a common ultimate pursuit throughout history. It is the cause behind revolutions and the American counterculture movement of the 1960s that found students abandoning their homes and religions to experiment with drugs and examine new thought and consciousness philosophies.

In theory, dance therapists practice on the premise that dance can free their clients from the repercussions of past trauma in their daily lives. In this way, the profession hinges on the idea that dance frees the spirit. In recent years, dance therapy has arisen as a method by which non-dancers can experience the physical and emotional therapeutic benefits of examining new ways of moving their bodies. The American Dance Therapy Association defines dance therapy as the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual.”

Feelings are generated through an intricate relationship between the functioning of the brain and body. Does dance generate a feeling of bliss and freedom commonly thought of as a state of ecstasy in the brain by meditators? Many practitioners of mindfulness seek a state of equanimity — a constant satisfaction undisturbed by gain or loss. Many studies have shown the benefits of meditation in lowering brainwaves, allowing the practitioner to achieve a more relaxed state of being. The consciousness community sometimes calls this feeling ecstasy. An article in The New York Times called “Learning His Body, Learning To Dance” talked about an actor with cerebral palsy who had had 12 years of physical therapy before finding therapeutic work with a choreographer which dramatically improved the way he walked and felt. Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder in which the brain does not send the proper signals to the muscles, affecting gait and other movements. Those with severe cases use wheelchairs.

The actor was rehearsing choreography designed to gently move him beyond his perceived limits, and, in the process, he experienced a dramatic shift in the way he viewed himself and his possibilities. The actor reported gaining the ability to feel sensations in his body he had not been able to feel for 30 years. The choreographer saw the actor step outside of his typical movement patterning. Combined with a tension-releasing shaking technique, his body changed. Following came a positive emotional shift and increased freedom in the body, mind, and spirit.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, dealing with the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity, dancing was deemed better than other activities. While dancing which focused on style or retracing the same memorized paths did not make a dramatic difference, improvisation was a powerful tool for elderly persons to overcome mental dullness. Through dance, Alzheimer’s and dementia patients retained their ability to think independently. According to the study, the key was to involve the subjects in split-second, rapid-fire decision-making.

Dance can be used as a tool to create an experience of freedom translated as confidence and the feeling of expanded possibilities and growth. Healthy dancers generally enjoy agility and mental awareness as they age, so long as they keep moving. A combination of spontaneous movement and learned sequences seems to strike the right balance between mental acuity and freeing the spirit.

Dance therapist Wendy Waxman has worked with different types of populations and people of all ages with such conditions as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders to reclaim and reintegrate the body after traumatic events. “I had a woman who had a hard time getting organized,” says Waxman. “I had her choose a spot and move to it, and another spot and move to it to get a sense of completion. She would lose her way. We found she couldn’t finish things. She had a hard time doing direct movements, so we used direct and indirect and Laban techniques — strong and light, quick and slow. We worked with different aspects of the personality, giving permission to the different parts of the self. Those all can be related in dance, so we’re not just pretending.”

The result: increased body awareness. Suddenly, people wake up to sensations outside of their typical realm. They gain a new awareness of themselves, not only physically but emotionally. “They feel not only more free, but that they are able to access their power, the masculine and feminine,” says Waxman. “They have a great access to themselves, parts that have been denied or disowned. Someone who might be afraid, might access courage through movement.” It seems that it is only after people see and hear the truth through their bodies that they become free to make real changes.

Waxman described how dancing makes her feel, saying “I love dancing. I love moving, and when I’m dancing I sometimes feel I’m being moved. I can feel totally comfortable with all the parts of myself that want expression.”

Sally Gebler is a massage and dance facilitator. Her goal is to create safe environments for people to get to know their bodies. The takeaway for the participants is a release of negative emotions and an opportunity to get clarity on personal issues. “The stories of our lives are carried inside ourselves as archetypal rhythms in the body,” says Gebler. “Dance allows us to release stuff that’s getting in the way, whether we are conscious of it or not—for example, mind-chatter or the distractions that pull us away from our authentic selves.”

Researchers who followed nearly 500 people in a 21-year study found that dancing learned steps reduced the likelihood of dementia by 76 percent. The ability to quickly and continuously process information seems to give us the ability to start every day at a zero point from which we can move into new experiences, wholly embracing the possibilities.

In reality, there is no source that can explain exactly why we like to dance. Perhaps that is the secret to its success. It is simply one with nature; an instinct that helps us connect to and use our most authentic selves.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2012 issue.

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