My experience as a dance teacher has shown that our bodies may influence mental processes more than we might initially think.
“I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what is too deep for words.” —Ruth St. Dennis
We generally think of our thoughts and feelings as mental phenomena, but I have always witnessed these in my body. Recent literature on dance and movement supports this idea that our bodies do translate character strengths through movement.
Can particular character strengths be built by certain movement experiences?
This article contains:
Dance Into Your Joy
My interest in the relationship between psychology and movement is directly related to my experience as a dance teacher.
On the first Tuesday of every month, I lead a dance event called “Dance Into Your Joy.” I look forward to these events days in advance, as they fill me—physically and emotionally—with an excitement that’s missing from my everyday life as an organic farmer and life coach.
Working on a farm keeps me active, but these movements are functional rather than expressive—walking, bending over, carrying, shoveling, etc.
By the end of the month, I am excited to have an opportunity to move my body more wholly and completely and in all the ways that are available to me. In my experience, on those Tuesdays, I feel myself grinning from ear to ear within the first 10 minutes of dancing.
“Simply put, dance elevates me to a heightened state of bliss.”
After a few months of being aware of this phenomenon, I wondered if others felt the same way. So I made a point of studying their faces during the event and—unsurprisingly—I saw that brightness in their eyes and that deep attention to the movement that signals a sense of flow.
And so I began to wonder: Why do we have these experiences? And what are we doing that’s creating them?
Dance Away from Anxiety
Studies have shown that movement—and, in particular, dance—can decrease one’s anxiety and boost mood. For instance, Leste and Rust’s (1990) study had patients with anxiety disorders spend time in one of four settings: an exercise class, a music class, a math class, and a modern dance class. At the end of their study, the patients assigned to the modern dance class were the only ones who showed a significant reduction in anxiety.
The recent psychological literature presented here shows that dance can increase confidence, produce a feeling of connection with others, and on a neurological level, maintains healthy brain synapses (Varghese et al., 2003).
Similarly, Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s recent TED talk showed that simply posing in positions that convey confidence can increase levels of testosterone and decrease levels of cortisone. Cuddy reports that these lowered stress levels result in greater success in job interviews.
My next question then became: if sitting or standing in a power pose for a mere three minutes can increase your confidence, how much could you achieve in a full hour of expressive dancing?
If dance can influence our internal processes of thoughts and feelings could it help to build our character strengths as well?
My answer is a resounding yes.
Let’s take a look at how expressive dance allows us to uncover, express, and develop these character strengths.
Dance Towards a Stronger Character
The 24 Character Strengths as presented by Seligman and Peterson(2004) can be conceptualized as the psychological ingredients for displaying human goodness.
Having these strengths has been shown to improve happiness, engagement, life satisfaction and well-being.
According to Seligman and Peterson (2004) character strengths are divided into six groups, each of which pertains to a different essential domain. For the purposes of this article, I will look only at one group; namely Wisdom and Knowledge which Peterson and Seligman (2004) describe as “the cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge.”
Creativity (originality, ingenuity) is “thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; which includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it” -Seligman and Peterson (2004)
Creativity is not just about thinking and conceptualizing with the mind—the body, too, is innately creative. As we listen to music and allow our bodies to respond to it, this natural physical expression of creativity emerges. It comes out in a continuous flow when unimpeded (i.e., in a space of non-judgment and curiosity).
I ensure that the participants in my classes are creative in their movements. In fact, I have given instructions that they must ignore or change something I’ve told them to do, so as to ensure that they are expressing their own novel ways of doing things.
Curiosity (interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience): “Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering”
As we allow our bodies to respond to music, our minds, in turn, let go of self-criticism; at this moment curiosity replaces scrutiny. Instead of worrying about doing the “right” thing, we adopt an inquisitive attitude about our movements, asking ourselves “Isn’t this interesting?” We are not just curious but fascinated by the unfolding of the emerging movement.
My dance classes feature a new playlist each month, as such, dancers constantly ask themselves: “what’s next? How does this piece of music compel me to move?” adding to their experience of surprise and exploration.
Judgment (critical thinking): “Thinking things through and examining them from all sides; not jumping to conclusions; being able to change one’s mind in light of evidence; weighing all evidence fairly”
During my dance classes, participants are offered visualizations and suggestions for movement. However, I always recommend that they make their own decisions rather than following instructions without thought.
For instance, participants must consider if the suggestion suits them—perhaps they are drawn to something else or are engaged in some way with which they want to continue. Further, dancers must check in with their knowledge of themselves and their capabilities to make sure they won’t do any physical harm through movements.
As such, participants consistently make judgment calls, all the while maintaining a sense of open-mindedness and a willingness to explore new territory.
Love of learning: “Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally”
Spending time in expressive dance allows you to connect and deepen your knowledge about the topic most dear and near to you: yourself! Dance enables you to learn about your preferences, your routines, your capabilities, your style, your feelings, how you like to relate, how you like to protect, how open you feel, how much gratitude you feel, how much connection you experience—the list goes on and on.
But it also allows you to expand your skills in other ways, as well. You have the chance to follow, mirror, and borrow from others’ movements, leading you to try new things you’ve never done before. As your body responds to melody, rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing, you listen and develop a deeper appreciation of music.
Perspective (wisdom): “Being able to provide wise counsel to others; having ways of looking at the world that make sense to oneself and to other people”
Expressive dance offers a unique opportunity to provide counsel to others. I encourage this by suggesting that dancers mirror each other’s movements, amplifying them to make them bigger and more obvious. By changing things up in this way and inviting interaction between partners, participants implicitly tell each other: it is okay to be seen; we are safe; we are worthy.
Towards the end of the class, we move out of our personal journey into a group discussion, giving space for individuals to share thoughts, positive and negative feelings, insights, and perspectives to further integrate the experience into our lives.
Ultimately, dance serves as a powerful medium of expression—not just on a physical level, but on a mental and emotional level, too. Both in psychological research and through anecdotal observations in my dance classes, it’s apparent that the connection between dance and thought is a strong one, and warrants further research and exploration.
Have you experienced a character-strength moment on the dance floor? Let us know in our comments section below.
Watch Amy Cuddy in Action
About the Author
Linda Ugelow is a business and mindset mentor, dancer/performer. She helps people transform worry and struggle into inspiration and ease in work and life. Her special love is helping shy entrepreneurs find confidence and joy in connecting with their audiences whether on camera or stage. A master in Expressive Therapies with extensive experience as a movement specialist, Linda’s work is grounded in body-centered awareness. Her writing has been featured on Positively Positive.
Koch, S. C, Brauninger. (2005). International Dance/Movement Therapy Research: Theory, Methods, and Empirical Findings. American Journal of Dance Therapy Vol. 27(1) DOI: 10.1007/s10465-005-6091-7.
Leste, A. & Rust, J. (1990). Effects of dance on anxiety. American Journal of Dance Therapy, 12(1), 19-25.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.
Powers, R. (2010). Use it or Lose it: Dancing makes you smarter. Retrieved from http://socialdance.stanford.edu/syllabi/smarter.htm
Verghese, J., Lipton, R. B., Katz, M. J., Hall, C. B., Derby, C. A., Kuslansky, G., … & Buschke, H. (2003). Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly. New England Journal of Medicine, 348(25), 2508-2516.