Health Benefits of Dancing (+ Interview With Dance Artist Franki Graham)
Whether you dance as a performance artist or for recreational exercise, dancing offers several tremendous physical, mental, and emotional health benefits. Read below to learn more about these benefits, and look for a special interview with dance artist Franki Graham. Then get up out of your chair, crank up your favorite song, and dance!
#1 – Body Power
Dancing builds our inherently powerful bodies by strengthening and toning muscles in the legs, glutes, hips, abs, lower back, and, depending on the type of dance, the arms and shoulders.
This strengthening leads to better balance and a boost in stamina, allowing us to move for longer periods of time without tiring easily.
Dancing stretches and lengthens these muscles, easing kinks and knots. It also loosens creaky joints. As we (safely) move and stretch, our muscles and joints work together to enhance flexibility and improve posture.
There’s a circular relationship between dancing and our bodies (one might call it a . . . dance): Dancing requires strength and flexibility from us yet provides them in return.
This physical activity is aerobic and, depending on how often we dance, can lead to weight loss if desired. It can also ease symptoms associated with disorders like fibromyalgia, IBS-C (irritable bowel syndrome with constipation), and if you’re like me — SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).
#2 – Brain “Food”
Through coordination, dancing gives our brains an ample dose of cognitive nourishment and exercise. After all, they have to translate what our instructors demonstrate (or what we picture in our heads) to our bodies.
Through repetitive practice, dancing also boosts memory and concentration. It forces us to remember the steps we’ve learned and to notice musical patterns so we can stay on-beat. If we’re not feeling a song’s rhythm with our bodies just yet, our brains work to help us keep the time (e.g., 5-6-7-8).
What’s more, some fascinating studies suggest that dance-induced brain-training can actually slow and reverse brain-aging. Though more research is in the works, there’s a hopeful chance that dancing regularly could help prevent or defer neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
If that doesn’t make every one of us able-bodied people ready to dance, I don’t know what will!
#3 – Emotional Force
Dancing helps us cope with stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol and increasing endorphins, those “happy” hormones that clear our minds with a refreshing burst of emotional energy. There’s a catharsis to dancing. It helps us release emotions we may not even realize we had stowed away.
Dance, as both a discipline and a workout, offers us a sort of literal symbolism. It grounds us — in multiple senses of the word — pushing us to literally notice the ground or floor beneath our feet, become more aware of gravity’s force and the vigor of our bodies against it, and through this movement, realize our emotional willpower to overcome obstacles.
The social aspect also catalyzes emotional stabilization. We dance with people who automatically share something in common with us: They’re people to move with . . . people to talk to.
Dancing helps us see beyond a chaotic headspace and burdened heart. We can look outward instead of in, re-engage our senses, move through grief, express creativity, appreciate what our bodies can do, and build confidence through it all.
I began contemporary dance* lessons a few months ago, and I’m a total newbie. For eight years of my childhood, dance (ballet, tap, and jazz) was a major hobby and discipline, but that ended when I was 12.
Fast forward to now being a woman in my late twenties: My body is obviously different. Although I can cut a mean rug at weddings and parties, I’m definitely not as flexible as I was back then, and though my body is stronger in many ways, it’s weaker in others.
Since starting these classes, however, I’ve noticed an increase in muscular flexibility and joint mobility. My core, lower back, hips, and legs are stronger. Some movements and postures that were once unstable are steadier now, and I can lean, maneuver, and balance into them with more confidence. I still have a long way forward before I’ll get to where I want to be, but that will come with time, practice, and patience.
Speaking of patience, I am easily impatient with myself because I like to do things correctly by at least the second time. But these structured lessons are slowly nudging me to pay more attention to my strengths and embrace the “lag-behinds” as a part of the process.
Anxieties I may carry with me to class melt away with the stiffness that comes from working at my computer. The exercise part of dance eases my tension headaches and digestive distress.
Moving just helps me feel better. My entire body — muscles, bones, and organs — becomes less tight.
Dancing also taps into my creative, inquisitive, and adventurous sides, and it intersects with my musicianship. Thus, learning it as an art form sort of gives me an adrenaline rush. I leave class with sharpened mental clarity and with an emotional and physical energy I didn’t have when I entered the studio.
It doesn’t matter if you want to regularly throw dance parties with your friends, learn to breakdance, or do salsa, swing, ballet, or ballroom. Although each type of dance emphasizes different areas of the body, you can experience your own version of these powerful health benefits, too.
[*Note: Contemporary dance infuses elements of jazz, ballet, and modern dance. The “contemporary dance” term is often interchanged with “modern dance.” You’ll find varying opinions on how similar they are.]
Dancing works wonders for your body, mind, and spirit whether you’re a newbie like me or a pro like modern dance artist Franki Graham. Franki also happens to be my dance instructor. (Surprise!) It’s a privilege to learn under her professional and encouraging guidance.
But before I give too much away, here’s my interview with her:
#1 – How did you get into modern dance? Tell me about this journey.
Dance has been my identity for as long as I can remember. I grew up dancing in studios in Frederick, Maryland, where my love of dance really became a lifestyle, often missing major school and life events because of my dance commitments. But I loved every minute of it and never doubted that dancing should come first above almost everything.
When applying for colleges, I found the Linehan Artist Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. They introduced me to modern dance and solidified my goal of working as a dance artist. My now lifelong mentors at the university showed me the use of dance as an artistic medium and ignited in me a passion to constantly make and perform work.
I was encouraged to study abroad and ended up spending a year in London at the TrinityLaban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. This experience was absolutely transformative for me, challenging my dancing practice and helping me grow as a human. I discovered so much about myself, living and dancing with people from all over the globe.
Returning from my time abroad, I dove into a challenging year of student teaching to finish my dance education certification for the state, in addition to final coursework at UMBC. Acknowledged as a Teacher of Promise, I knew that teaching dance was something I was meant to do. However, after graduation, I found myself back in London working on my master’s degree and dancing with Transitions Dance Company.
My dance training up until this point seemed almost laughable as I dove into long days of classes, rehearsals, and performances. I really embraced the lifestyle of a full-time dancer, including the challenges and tears it sometimes brought.
I had the time of my life as we toured Europe, visiting many new places and learning even more about myself as a dancer and performer. I wrote my thesis on the use of imagination in dance performance, and I am looking forward to when I can pick that research back up again.
Returning home to Maryland, I began a position as the dance teacher for the Performing and Visual Arts Magnet Program in Anne Arundel County. I spent three years working full time at Annapolis High School, helping to develop their dance curriculum and grow the program. This role taught me a lot and ultimately helped me solidify my long-term goals.
#2 – What are your current roles and mission within the dance world?
My tax return will tell you that I am a freelance dance artist. For me, the title means, “freedom to be an artist in all aspects of my life.” I get to dance, choreograph, teach, and collaborate with fabulous artists and people all throughout the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, not only as my passion but also my career. I really get to live this role of “artist.”
My newest and most exciting venture is founding and directing a brand new dance company with my best friend and colleague, Jeanna Riscigno. The mission of our company can be found right in the name: LucidBeings Dance. We aim to awaken all human beings through making and sharing dances that speak to our shared humanity.
We want our dances to resonate through us to the audience and inspire wonder about our relationship with ourselves individually, with each other, and with the world. We want to make dance accessible to all people, not only through performing, but also through teaching and serving the community.
Currently, I also have the pleasure of dancing and teaching with some fantastic organizations in the area, including Baltimore Dance Project, RebollarDance, Kinetics Dance Theatre, the Peabody Preparatory, and Anne Arundel County Public Schools. These organizations advocate for the arts and allow me to do what I do. I am so grateful and honored to be a part of each one of them in some small way!
#3 – Drawing from your own experience, what are the physical benefits of dancing as a form of exercise?
The physical benefits of dance are limitless. In this art form, the body is the medium, and it must be capable of doing anything a choreographer might ask for. Therefore, dancers train their flexibility, strength, coordination, balance, stamina, etc. to safely bring the choreographic vision to life in their bodies.
Dance technique classes organically train all these physical fitness components in service of artistry, immersing novice or professional dancer alike in a full mind-body experience. For me, this means preparing for every technique class, rehearsal, or performance like you would a workout. I live my life in athletic wear and sneakers, always ready to move and sweat.
#4 – Also drawing from your own experience, what are the mental and emotional benefits of dancing?
More than anything else, I believe dancing cultivates an awareness of self that can dramatically change any person’s mental and emotional relationship with the world. When I am truly immersed in movement, the feeling of complete embodiment both fuels and sustains me.
To truly dance and communicate, either on stage or in the studio, I must be present in my whole self — body, mind and spirit — or the magic is lost.
I think this lesson easily translates into all other aspects of life, if I let it. I aspire to bring my full and authentic self to every interaction I have, therefore making me more available and open to the world around me. I find it such a gift that dance can open this path and serve as a vehicle for this practice in my life!
Lauren Smith is passionate about nutrition and holistic health (how the body, mind, and emotions intersect). She lives in Baltimore City, where she writes stuff, plays music, embarks on long power walks through the park, takes modern dance lessons, and enjoys healthy, flavorful cuisine. Lauren has written for a literary journal called Skelter and for Honestbodyfitness.com.