I, as much as anybody, can attest to the positive effect that dance and movement have on our bodies physically. Our hearts and lungs, muscular system, and strength can all be greatly improved by movement and dance. It’s just well-known that exercising has a positive impact on us physically when done healthily and safely.
But what about the effect it has on our mental health? Well for me, I haven’t always put the two together.
I’ve danced all my life. I have vivid memories of the hours I spent in front of the TV watching the kids on Barney the Dinosaur and joining them with their dance routines or more times than not, going completely rogue and choreographing my own dances. I had loads of friends growing up thankfully but still found that a massive chunk of my childhood was me, by myself in my room, dancing. It didn’t matter what CD I got my hands on, I would dance to track after track and visualise the dancers alongside me on the stage and the hundreds and thousands of audience members watching me (while giving all the attitude and sass that I could as a 6-year-old). It's quite strange actually because even though I was on my own, for sometimes long periods, I don’t remember feeling alone or sad, I just remember being so happy, excited, and invigorated afterward. And of course, when it would be time to go to my weekly dance lessons, I would be like a kid on Christmas morning with the excitement, before rushing straight home to perfect what I had just learned before the next week. I just felt happiest when I danced.
In the years that followed I would have looked at all of this and not put much thought into it and the effect it had on me and my mindset. It wasn’t until I got older, and more to the point, until I stopped dancing completely for a few years that I realised how much of an effect dance had on me. Not only physically, but mentally too.
As I got older, I never wanted to stop dancing, even as my friends starting to stop for different reasons. Sometimes it wasn’t by choice, it was more that things got in the way; work, studies, boys, socialising. And although I had all these things in my life too, they always fell second to my dancing. Whilst in secondary school I started working as a student-teacher for my dance school, and when I left school and started college and had other jobs, I always made sure they fit around my dancing so I could keep going. Then in 2014 when I was 24, I decided it was the time to “grow up” (inverted commas because I fell into the trap of believing that to be a grown-up meant I had to stop dancing), and get a “real job”. I was moving from Ireland to the UK to live with my boyfriend and needed a new full-time job, and having no connections with any dance schools in the UK, I thought it would be the best time to do so.
I stopped dancing for a full 2 years for the first time ever. And initially, I didn't mind. There was so much going on that I didn’t really have time to miss dancing. Having just moved, I put a lot of my feelings and emotions down to homesickness, stress, and settling into my new surroundings. But after a few months, I started to really miss moving and music. So instead of doing what I innately knew would help (dance), I joined a gym for the first time in my life! After realising working out alone wasn’t the one, I decided to try some of the exercise classes, and this started to make me feel good. I loved the upbeat music and “dance-like” rhythm of the boxercise or aerobic-style classes, but after a couple of weeks, I got bored and stopped.
This trial and error of different things continued for another year and a half. At the same time, I really wasn’t feeling good or happy. I wasn’t myself and I wasn’t the girl my boyfriend had fallen in love with and I started to doubt my decision to move countries. I had essentially gone from being someone busy with exciting things, highly independent, and creative at home to someone working a full-time office job, with no creative outlet, and who was highly dependent on my boyfriend. Due to this, our relationship started to suffer and I knew a massive chunk of it was because of how low, unfulfilled, and downright crap I felt. And in April 2016, after a pretty bad argument, which left me booking a same-day flight home to have “crisis talks” with my family, I promised that I would and could make it work. I knew I couldn’t help my relationship until I tried to help myself, but I still wasn't 100% sure how. And then, in the August of the same year, I started back dancing.
At this time, I still hadn’t figured out that stopping dancing had been a massive catalyst in my lacking self-esteem, my confidence, and my overall mental health. I only started again because I saw an Adults dance company on Facebook who did girly-commercial style dancing a stone throws from me, called the Neptune Girls and I thought it looked cool. However, after my very first, not-so-good, and quite shaky lesson, I felt different. I didn't fully understand it at the time but I just remember feeling like the girl who walked into the studio that evening was not the same person who strutted out. And as the weeks went on this got stronger and stronger.
It probably took a good 6 to 12 months before I looked back and was able to piece it all together. Dancing for me wasn’t just a hobby, it wasn’t just a job and it wasn’t just exercise. It was like therapy in physical form. It felt like I was under a spell as soon as the music started. Any worries, stresses, or problems seemed non-existence during this time. I could dance and move without the constant barrage of thoughts and noise of life whirling round and round in my head. They would still come back once I stopped, but I felt able to deal with them again with fresh eyes and a new perspective. And of course, this not only affected my mindset, mentality, and headspace but also filtered into my relationship and other aspects of my life.
Now, I’m completely aware of how dramatic this may all sound, but that’s because for me it was dramatic. In the space of a year, I went from flying home to figure out my life, what I was going to do, and potentially where I was going to live, to getting engaged, really enjoying my job, and also feeling like my “old self” once again. Returning to dance was like a domino effect on so many parts of my life, and I fully believe that if I didn’t go back things would probably not be the way they are for me today.
The years when I didn't dance were the times in my life when I struggled most with my mental health. I craved music and movement but nothing ever fully satisfied that and it became detrimental to so many areas of my life. Of course, other things were affecting how I felt too but dance had always been, and probably always will be, my release and escape, and without it, I wasn't sure how to cope with everything that was going on.
I say that I am someone who doesn't "suffer" from my mental health thankfully. And by that, I mean that I've never had any medical or other support to help it. But just as we all have physical health; mental health is also something we all have. They can both be good and healthy at times, bad at others, and something we need help with along the way too. We all know there are things we can do to help look after ourselves physically; like drinking water, eating nourishing food, and getting enough sleep. But are we as aware of the things we can try and do to maintain our mental health? We wouldn't wait for our physical health to reach rock bottom before we start to look after it and the same applies to our mental health; being mindful of doing the things that nurture and improve it when we can.
For me, it's dancing. In a studio or class setting. In a nightclub, freestyling away to my heart's content without a care in the world. Or even just in my kitchen, cranking the radio right up and moving around in whatever way feels good. I realise that now. And there are still days now when I feel like the last thing I want to do is move let alone dance, but these are the days that I need to dance the most and the times it has the biggest impact.
I dance now for me, my body, and more importantly, for my mind.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can get help locally by visiting the Health and Care page of www.portsmouth.gov.uk or talking to your GP, Postive Minds. https://www.positivemindsportsmouth.org.uk/ , Talking Change https://www.talkingchange.nhs.uk/ or CALM https://www.thecalmzone.net/about-calm/what-is-calm/
I’m a young woman who has been lucky enough to be offered lots of awesome opportunities; I feel as though it’s my responsibility to speak out about the inequity of opportunities, also. But at the same time, I feel that by sharing successes, we can create positive change through a positive focus. It might be the final push that encourages that young person to apply for an internship or encourages a board to give another young person a seat at the table. So I’ll attempt to do both.
I have been incredibly lucky. I’ve been offered some great experiences, and a fair few have come along in sort of a domino effect. The story I always share when talking about what I do is this:
I’m a student and youth activist. I have always been involved in student voice type things, but in secondary school, an opportunity arose for some of the members of our student council to take part in a Portsmouth-wide student forum, the Council of Portsmouth Students (CoPS). In all honesty, I wasn’t entirely fussed about going - I didn’t really know what it was, but a trip seemed fun, and so I put myself forward. Long story short, I had to rock, paper, scissors for the final place and my goodness, I am so thankful to little Ella for winning that game. I joined the forum and stayed a part of it for 3-4 years, working with schools around LGBTQ+ education and better integration for disabled students, among other things. In the 2nd and 3rd years, I was elected vice-chair of the forum (a big thank you to the facilitators that encouraged me to run that day). -The nerdy little ginger girl won! Those roles alone brought me incredible opportunities; I got to go to board meetings and speak at conferences and even got to go to the House of Commons. Before this, I had never realised that adults and decision-makers cared about the views of young people, and it was eye-opening.
Now, I understand that not every adult or decision-maker is like this, but that’s just fuel to my fire. Eager to keep doing more, I got involved in projects like Future in Mind, a mental health-focused steering group that used coproduction. Then I was nominated for and presented with a Diana Award, something I will be forever proud of -even though that imposter syndrome pokes its head from time to time.
This domino effect that I talk about, CoPS really kickstarted that for me, so a big thank you to Unloc, who host the forum, for all of the support over the last few years.
Long story short, I was able to get involved in projects working with the Solent NHS Trust, even getting to speak at their AGM. I was voted to be head girl at my secondary school and was also successful in applying to be a youth ambassador for ONE, a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030. For the last three years, I have been able to say that I campaign with other ambassadors and lobby MPs in my free time (which I find pretty amusing). Thanks to this role, I’ve now been to the House of Commons a fair few times, and I still get as excited as the first. I’ve also gotten to participate in the YOUNGA youth delegate programme, working with young activists from around the world to form communiqués ahead of the UN general assembly.
And now, I find myself on two advisory boards; I still campaign with ONE and have just been elected as one of Portsmouth’s Deputy Members of Youth Parliament. It makes me so excited to have the chance to give back to a city that has offered me so much.
However, we all know that not many other young people are as lucky. Nobody would have to rock, paper or scissors in an ideal world to gain access to opportunities. Luck should never play a role in the development of young leaders and change-makers.
One of the biggest challenges I face is learning to say no. I recognise that I am fortunate to be invited to take part in the things that I do, and not enough young women have the same and so it can feel like I am not genuinely valuing what others offer me and that I’m letting down those that aren’t so lucky when I do say no.
As you can guess, with that comes quite a big workload. I’m currently in the midst of exams for my A-Levels, and I have to be quite strict with myself in remembering that, right now, I have to be a student before attempting to be this superhuman youth activist that has endless hours in their day. That doesn’t mean I feel any less guilty, though.
I do want to emphasise that I’m not telling you to stop reaching out to young people to collaborate. There are lots of us that do! But just remember that a majority of opportunities go to the minority, and we are probably working on lots of other things too.
My diary can get pretty busy at times. When working with adults and professionals that don’t usually coproduce with young people, I find that there can be this sort of disbelief at the fact I might not have loads of availability. Yes, I’m at college for regular hours of the day, but I have calls scheduled around that (Dare I say, Zoom has made commutes easier); I have to work, find some time to do ‘normal’ thing (urgh, I hate that word) oh and fit in some food and sleep somewhere. I’m not selling myself as an easy person to work with, but I’m trying to say that there seems to be no middle ground in this world of empowerment. You have all the outreach or none. And for those of us that have lots, we really don’t want to say no (you’ve found a rare one of us if we say no straight away regardless), and if we had a few more hours in the day, there would be no stopping us.
I don’t share the adventures that I’ve had so far in vain, honest! I take every opportunity to encourage decision and change-makers to work with young people and to give them a seat at the decision-making table. And with the world of online conferencing, though I do recognise the inequality amongst tech access, I don’t see any excuse not to branch out and work with a greater variety of young people.
I think empowered generations go on to be responsible generations. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think about a time when we need that any more than now.
Lead Author : Kelly Marie Baker
Kelly-Marie is a tree loving, free spirited mum of two. Based in Southsea, she leads her family on a Home Education journey, learning from life and the world around them. Over the years her creative soul has been fed with the likes of poetry, dance, choreography and, more recently, writing. Her writing is predominantly focused on personal growth and development with a special interest in using the platform to challenge social norms and provoke deep thought. Kelly believes that The Arts are an immensely important tool to communicate complex and delicate issues and is proud to be collaborating with Pamodzi Creatives. Kelly’s favourites are nature, travel, personal development and coffee…all the coffee!