Dancing can stave off dementia, boost your brain and give you a body like Beyoncé. So what’s stopping you? Lyndsey Winship limbers up to get her groove on.
My heart is pounding, my face is bright red, the sweat is pouring, and I swear I haven’t felt this good all week. Through the speakers Beyoncé is asking: who runs the world? Right now, I do, I think, as the whole class salutes the mirror and we bounce on the spot with some serious attitude. I’m at the King’s Cross outpost of fitness studio Frame, an industrial chic space offering cool dance classes, spirulina shakes and motivational mantras, like “Be a badass with a good ass,” or “Stop wishing, start doing,” and my favourite: “Squat like Channing Tatum is watching.”
I’m taking part in a lunchtime ‘Dance Cardio’ class and the fast-moving routines are pushing up my heart rate. I almost don’t notice the effort as we jump, jog, shimmy, swivel and kick our way through floor-filling pop hits. It’s the perfect way to jolt me out of my deskbound torpor and escape my work head for forty-five minutes. Calories are being burnt, that’s for sure, but more than that, there’s pure joy in jumping around to the sound of Girls Aloud.
“We are all about moving your body to make you feel good as a number one priority,” says Jayne Robinson from Frame. “Dance classes are a guaranteed endorphin kick and mood booster.”
We know that dancing can be great exercise, but there’s an increasing amount of scientific research into exactly why, and the many different ways in which dance can be beneficial for both physical and mental health. Endorphins are the morphine-like chemicals that are released by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain during exercise, bringing a sense of pleasure and euphoria and also working as the body’s natural painkillers. Physical exertion also boosts the mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, serotonin and noradrenaline, and generates a protein that can actually help the brain grow new cells and new connections.
Lots of different types of exercise can give you the same benefits, but for an all-encompassing feel-good factor, dance is one of the best, thanks to its multifaceted nature. As dance psychologist (yes, that’s a real job), Dr Peter Lovatt, author of the upcoming book Dance Yourself Happy, has pointed out, dance activates four different types of experience: physical, cognitive, social and emotional, so the benefits are multiplied. It’s why doctors are piloting prescribing Bollywood and Line Dance classes as part of a ‘community prescribing’ initiative, which so far has seen a 20 per cent drop in hospital referrals at one Croydon medical centre.
It’s why major ballet companies, English National Ballet and Scottish Ballet, are helping to run dance classes for Parkinson’s sufferers that have been proven to help improve physical stability, cognitive function and psychological wellbeing among participants. And in the US, new research by neurologist, Dr Joe Verghese, found that in a twenty-one-year study of older people, regular partner dancing was the most effective activity in staving off Alzheimer’s disease, reducing the risk by a huge 76 per cent (significantly better than playing a musical instrument or doing crosswords). The theory behind the statistics is that dance best boosted the brain’s neuroplasticity (its ability to forge new neural pathways) which is exactly what we need to keep our thinking sharp.
Dancing is an ancient impulse; there are cave paintings of dancers dating back to the Stone Age, and moving our bodies in sync with music, and with each other, stimulates the pleasure centres in the brain that like pattern and order. Dance can be a means for emotional expression, a way to let go and a means to increase body confidence. Studies have linked dance to all kinds of improvements in mood and brain function. One experiment showed that people scored higher on problem-solving tests after a short burst of dancing, and another found that creative thinking was improved. Longer term studies have seen participants who take part in dance sessions record reduced anxiety levels and greater confidence. When you know all that, you’ve got to ask: why aren’t we dancing all the time?
If you’re already making excuses about not having time to fit dance into your busy schedule, Frame offer short lunchtime classes at their York Way studio, as well as pre- and post-work sessions, so you can squeeze in a bop during time you’d otherwise be randomly Googling and dropping crumbs in your keyboard. There are also weekend ballet classes and music video dance classes for mastering twerking, hair whips and other R&B staples.
There are even more dance styles on offer down the road at The Place. Just off Euston Road lies the former military drill hall that, in 1969, became London’s first school for contemporary dance. Now known as The Place, the London Contemporary Dance School is still based there, honing the skills of the next generation of professional dancers. There is also a thriving year-round performance programme at their recently refurbished theatre and a busy roster of public dance classes and workshops.
The classes cover a wide range of styles, all taught by top quality teachers, many of whom have worked as professional dancers. All are accompanied by live music, which means you could be dancing to percussion, piano, guitar or even a trumpet or cello.
“Live music creates the most amazing experience for our participants,” says programme manager Vicky Evans. Evans thinks there are six main reasons that people should dance: “It keeps you fit, it relieves and reduces stress, it’s good for your mental health, is a great creative outlet when words may fail, it builds confidence and it’s just a great discipline to learn,” she says. You can try a taster class at The Place to see what style suits you. You might choose ballet, which is great for improving posture, core strength and flexibility; or a contemporary class, which has looser movement and is more creative. Try contact improvisation, a flowing style where you work with other dancers, taking their weight in lifts, rolls and balances. “It’s a safe space to fall, fly and release,” says Evans, “and develops a person’s ability to work with others in a communal space by increasing awareness and receptiveness across the body.” You can delve into emotional states in German Tanztheater, as made famous by legendary choreographer Pina Bausch, or try a new class called Earth Flow, which combines contemporary dance with Caribbean dance and capoeira, accompanied by live beatboxing. All levels are catered for at The Place, from absolute beginners to more experienced dancers. There are even classes especially for the over-60s, and an adult dance company, Scatter, that participants can audition to be part of.
The Place’s studios are filled with people of all ages and sizes but not everyone jumps (literally) at the idea of shaking their thang in front of a mirror, or a brightly-lit room full of strangers. What advice does Evans have for anyone who really wants to dance, but who might be feeling self-conscious? “Probably most people are feeling the same; everyone is in the same boat,” she says. “Dance brings out the very best in people, it allows people to explore their inner passion and The Place is very much a safe environment for that exploration. Dance encourages people to support each other. Coming to a class for the first time, you’re in a space with caring and nurturing people who are all there for the love of dance where all judgement is taken away.”
One person who overcame pre-class nerves is Chris Wiegand, an editor at the Guardian, who has been taking (and loving) an Introduction to Contemporary Dance class at The Place.
“My previous dance experience was limited to nightclubs, weddings and the living room, so the first session felt a little unusual,” he says, but he quickly settled in. “There’s a really welcoming atmosphere in the class. And the live music, which I hadn’t expected, really helps you not just with rhythm but with connecting emotionally to the movement” he says.
What Wiegand says he loves about dancing is “getting energised and expressing myself.” The magic combination of work-out and working-it-out, keeps him coming back each week. “My class is on a Thursday night and is ninety minutes long. I’m normally knackered and slightly wary before we start,” he says, “but you lose yourself within the first few minutes. The class is split between following a routine that is gradually put together by the teacher, and devising your own choreography. This means there’s an exercise-class element, in which you’re all concentrating on the same activities, but there is also an amount of individual freedom to have fun and explore your own movement.”
Dance is the ultimate all-rounder: while you’re having fun, re-energising after a long day and expressing yourself, you’re also strengthening your body, boosting good-mood chemicals and making new brain cells. Wiegand knows that tingle of endorphins well: “The thrill you feel when a dance comes together… Performing with twenty or so others in the room, all moving at the same time, [it] gives you a real rush. You leave on a high.” With so many benefits and a class to suit any body, what are you waiting for?
This article first appeared in the winter 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.