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/
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!