From footwork to mental fitness

Exercise in disguise, social dance classes provide a different type of therapy
Illustration by Holly Wales.

We’ve all had struggles in life. Some are life altering, some affect us for days or even weeks, and some affect our mental wellness for the rest of our lives. We all know being more active is a good way to keep your body healthy, but after talking with many, many dancers, and dance instructors, it’s clear dancing can have profound effects on our mental wellbeing as well.

To better understand the benefits of dancing, I spoke with John Jandernoa, a ballroom dance instructor with Arthur Murray in Grand Rapids.  It was helpful to hear Jandernoa talk about what he and others have found happens to the brain and body when you dance, and what happens to his physical and mental awareness when he dances.

“As opposed to just walking or lifting weights,” Jandernoa described how, “when social dancing, you’re concentrating on a pattern, counting, focusing on technique, and communicating with a partner. Doing all that takes a lot of mental energy, but you’re also getting exercise in disguise. I believe dance has more profound benefits, mental health benefits, than exercise alone. Mood is improved as It’s hard not to feel a little joy when moving in harmony to music with someone else!  When neither partner really knows exactly what comes next, but you arrive at the same point anyway, it’s a wonderful magic trick.”

Many dance students who attend The Social Dance studio, Arthur Murray Dance Studio, or Moveir Dance Studio in Grand Rapids, described how taking dance lessons has helped them find found solace, realize newfound confidence, and enjoy improved mental health through ballroom dancing.

“When I come into the studio, I put my troubles down at the door, and when I leave, it’s easier to pick them back up again,” one student noted after taking a dance lesson.

“I don’t have a social life,” another student confided, “this studio gives me a break from the stress of running a business, and the stress of being a parent. I find myself listening to dance music all the time now, and imagining how I’d tango, east coast swing, or foxtrot to the music, usually while in the middle of work, measuring a board, or hanging drywall.” he said.

“Before our last lesson,” he added, “I was having an argument with my wife, just before we arrived at the studio for our lesson. I almost cancelled and went home but decided ‘screw it’ and came in anyway. As soon as my foot crossed the door into the studio, it was all smiles.”

According to this student, “the studio is my ‘happy place. After a few minutes of learning a few new steps, I remembered why I married my wife, and how dumb whatever we were arguing about was.”

I asked the person who I believed was the mother of an exceptionally talented dance student, “How long has your child been dancing?”

“Oh, that’s not my daughter,” she said, “that’s my granddaughter. Her mother killed herself. We were totally lost, totally overcome with grief. Dancing has been the thing that has kept our family together.”

I was at a loss for words after hearing this, but realized how dancing, for many, is much more than learning a few steps. It’s therapy that’s difficult to replicate anywhere else.

“My therapist told me to take more dance lessons, and less therapy sessions,” yet another dance student related, because “learning to dance is doing more for my mental health than the therapy sessions were doing.”  Many therapists agree dance can be incredibly therapeutic as the experience releases endorphins, known as the ‘feel good hormones,’ which reduces stress levels and promotes a sense of joy and wellbeing.

Another dance student’s testimonial was especially touching.

“I was never very popular or very pretty in school. I never thought of myself as smart and was never particularly good at much of anything. I felt hopelessly average at most everything I tried.

One day, my pretty, popular friend asked me to accompany her to a ballroom dance lesson. I thought, SHE wants ME to go with her? So, of course I jumped at the chance to be included. I watched my friend’s lesson for a while, and eventually, an instructor came up to me and asked if I would like to take an introductory lesson. I refused at first, but eventually agreed.

When my friend couldn’t make the next lesson, I almost cancelled too, but decided I would go alone and give it a try. I loved it, and I kept going to lessons long after my friend became too busy to continue. Over time, people at work began commenting on how ‘there was something different’ about me. I smiled a little more easily, walked a little taller. I had found MY THING”, she said, and “it made all the difference.”

A middle-aged autistic dance student described how he was very lonely. It’s no secret that loneliness and social isolation can have detrimental effects on mental health. However, learning to dance and having the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals within a warm and inclusive community helped him form close bonds with others who shared his love of dancing. The camaraderie built within social dancing offered him a vital support network, reduced his feelings of isolation, and contributed to his improved mental wellbeing.

So, in a world where stress and anxiety seem to be constant companions, what was once seen as an elegant pastime reserved for the graceful and refined has now become a powerful tool for enhancing mental health. Ballroom dancing has proven to be a transformative experience for many. Hearing how people gained confidence, formed social connections, reduced stress, and found peace and self-discovery on the dance floor was a common refrain from the dancers with whom I spoke.

Today, social or ballroom dancing is much more than an activity enjoyed by the refined few, it’s a way to lift us up from the depths of sadness, an avenue for finding harmony within ourselves, and within our community. Many students even met their future spouses while learning to dance.

So, why not take the plunge, strap on those dance shoes, embark on a journey of self-improvement, step into the light and out of the shadows, and embrace the joy and elegance of partner dancing? Who knows? You might just find ‘your thing,’ in learning to do something that challenges the mind and body, and maybe even discover your ‘best self’ in the process.

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