'Free moving' dance has healing benefits for mental health

UCLA Health study shows conscious, or ecstatic, dance helps those struggling with depression and anxiety.

Conscious dance, which encourages self-discovery through unchoreographed movement, produced mental health benefits among the vast majority of participants with depression, anxiety or history of trauma, according to a new UCLA Health study.

The research, based on a survey of 1,000 dancers across the world, was published online in the August issue of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.

Senior author Prabha Siddarth, PhD, a research statistician at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said the benefits seem undeniable.

For instance, 98% of all dancers said the practice improved their mood. Large percentages also reported that conscious dance helped them let go of distressing thoughts and gave them greater confidence and more compassion.

Janet Lo, a UCLA graduate who teaches a healing-focused style of dance, participated in the conscious dance study. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

“The number of participants who reported a therapeutic benefit was really large,” Dr. Siddarth said. “That was the most surprising thing to me – the percentage of participants who were so benefited by this.”

Conscious dance is practiced globally, in group settings, with music ranging from instrumental to electronic music played by a DJ. Some forms, such as ecstatic dance, can be associated with rave culture, but alcohol and drugs are prohibited. The practice emphasizes emotional safety and consent, with all actions voluntary, including whether to dance with others or alone.

“It is free flow, it’s free moving,” Dr. Siddarth said. “It invites reflection. It’s more meditative rather than physical. Because it is self-led, it makes it easier to let go. You’re not following rules or instructions.”

Dr. Siddarth said she would like to see more research on how conscious dance can be incorporated into treatment for mental health conditions.

Study findings

The study was conceived by Kelsey Laird, PhD, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher at the time who is now a practicing psychologist in Northern California. In 2019, the research team surveyed roughly 1,000 conscious dancers, half from the U.S. and 73% female.

Janet Lo said conscious dance has helped her deal with body shame. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Among them, 81% self-reported a stress-related health condition: chronic pain, history of substance abuse or addiction, depression, anxiety or history of trauma. The vast majority of those surveyed reported that conscious dance helped them cope with their condition, ranging from 88% among those with a history of addiction to 96% for participants with anxiety or depression.

“They all said things like, ‘I feel more present in my body.’ ‘I feel more present in the moment.’ ‘I’m more relaxed.’ ‘I have a greater sense of meaning.’ ‘I have a greater sense of purpose,’” Dr. Siddarth said.

The spontaneity, inward focus and sensory awareness of the movement, Dr. Siddarth said, allows participants to go into what they call “being in the zone” or in the “the flow.”

“When one does that you sort of let go of your prefrontal activity,” she said. “You allow your emotional brain to take over. That’s at least the hypothesis of why it has these beneficial psychological, well-being effects.”

Dr. Siddarth said the study was unable to conclude why so many conscious dance participants reported mental health conditions, or whether those who have such conditions are most likely to benefit and therefore more interested in sharing their experience with researchers.

“It may be that those are the people who are driven to participate in this form of dance or it may be that those are the ones who are motivated to respond to our study,” she said. “That distinction is not possible for us to make.”

She said the practice is very accessible to older adults, with some survey participants in their 70s and 80s.

“We found this form of dance was particularly helpful for people with self-reported mental health conditions but I think it could be so generally useful to everyone with every day, ordinary stress, especially with COVID,” Dr. Siddarth said. “While it is physical, it’s not necessarily a difficult physical practice. It’s something that can be easily incorporated into an older person’s routine.”

A new body language

One study participant, Janet Lo of Los Angeles, said she’s found freedom, healing and a way to express herself outside of words.

“I always loved dance and wanted a safer space,” said Lo, a UCLA graduate. “I didn’t want to go out to the clubs anymore or take an official class where I was just learning choreography. It’s like a freedom to just show up and move through whatever you need to move through. It’s less performative. It felt more like you can just express yourself and come home to your body.”

"It’s like a freedom to just show up and move through whatever you need to move through," says Janet Lo, who teaches a healing-focused style of conscious dance. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Lo, 37, teaches a healing-focused style of conscious dance, called Dance from the Heart, through Critical Mass Dance Company, a nonprofit founded by fellow UCLA alumnus Elena Sophia Kozak.

Lo said the dance form has helped her deal with body shame and reclaim her body and movement as a woman of color.

“The first couple times you’re like, ‘Uh, what am I supposed to do?’ Because you’re just so not used to it,” she said. “It’s a very slow process of I’m allowed to let out that quirky side or that inner child that just wants to hop or skip.”

Lo said trauma, anxiety and depression can cause people to disassociate and disconnect from their bodies, but conscious dance allows them to get in touch with all their senses.

“There’s things that I cannot express with words that I feel, that come out in movement,” Lo said. “It’s like relearning a different kind of body language, even something subtle like a wiggle of a finger or flick of a wrist.”

Lo said the practice results in a more regulated mood for herself and she related to the 95% of survey participants who reported feeling more aware of their emotions.

“I think that’s really cool that the findings speak to that for a lot of people,” she said. “It’s such a healing thing and it’s so fun. I would love for it to become a household name.”

Learn more about the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

Courtney Perkes is the author of this article.

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