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To dance or not to dance? Arts and wellbeing

I’ve always loved being creative. As a child and teenager, my outlet was dancing. I practiced a few types of dance – ballet, tap, jazz, modern expression – and I LOVED it! There were several reasons why I loved it. It was a form of exercise which we know will make you feel better and I developed some wonderful friendships and relationships through our collective love for dance. I was an anxious child so was dance a form of therapy? Creative arts can be used to treat psychological disorders and to foster wellbeing and can include dance therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, writing therapy and art therapy.

These therapies are usually run by mental health professionals and can often use other psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to reduce symptoms of mental illness like depression and anxiety, age related issues, cancer, family and relationship problems. But my dance ‘therapy’ didn’t involve CBT and so research would define this as a participatory art which are usually community-based programs.

Studies providing evidence of participatory arts are preliminary but suggest that participation arts such as music, drama, handicrafts, dance and creative writing improve emotional, social, physical and organizational wellbeing. Based on my experience with dance, I can agree with these benefits, however there is a lack of evidence to confirm this with research using small sample sizes, having a limited representation of all genders and using varying definitions of wellbeing. A qualitative literature review of participatory arts found a strong relationship between positive psychological outcomes using the CHIME framework for mental health recovery i.e. connectedness, hope, identity, meaning in life and empowerment. The largest impact was connectedness where participants felt a sense of belonging however it wasn’t clear as to whether the art program enabled this connection or if it was the common experience of mental illness. This connectedness may be achieved via other interventions such as playing team sports or eating a meal together. So what other aspect of the arts enables positive wellbeing?

When it comes to determining factors relating specifically to the arts that contribute to wellbeing, the research is young and so needs to be interpreted with caution. Emotional regulation tends to be a common outcome of participatory arts. They have been shown to enable positive emotions such as joy and happiness and reduce negative emotions such stress. They also enable deep concertation, possibly flow which allows relief of the symptoms of mental illness and also allow for an outlet of emotions which participants find liberating and cathartic. This highlights that the arts are a great tool for those who find it difficult to express their emotions such as children or those who are shy. The arts also help with meaning making or reidentification of identity, and the acquisition of a new skill promoted self-esteem and self-belief. However, if you are a perfectionist or believe that you lack artistic ability you might have trouble sticking with an art program or exercise. If you are unsure and want to try an independent arts exercise first, an interesting one that you can do on your own and only requires a pen and paper is called a Zentangle.

Ultimately, the majority of benefits you will gain through the arts (as shown through my experience in participating in dance) is via a participatory art program, so if you are wanting to have a go, follow these steps:

1. Assess what type of arts you would like to try. The options include art, dance, music, writing or drama

2. Research community programs in your area. If one doesn’t exist, you could approach them about starting a class. My local neighbourhood offers a ‘Knit n Natter’ class where you bring your own knitting and share afternoon tea!

3. Sign up to the class!

4. Attend the class with the willingness to participate and contribute to the group discussions to get the most out of the experience.

5. Have fun!

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