Why Dancing Is So Good for Us

I have been dancing in secret for years.When the Islamic Revolution in Iran erupted, I was six years old. Strange new laws forbid girls from playing in public with boys and banned them from running. Spies listened to private conversations and lurked in the shadows. Protesters were tear gassed and placed in prison, while anti-revolutionaries were executed. The bombs started to fall. The Iran-Iraq War lasted for eight years and claimed countless lives.The war was terrible, but the regime's war on joy caused more pain than the war. As the arts were taken out of our lives, our collective spirit was shattered and all music and dancing were made illegal. My friends and I became more and more disillusioned as funerals became a part of our everyday lives over the years. To feed our souls, we broke the law. When I was a teenager, I went to my friend's basement to study. But instead of studying, I ended up watching contraband Wham! Madonna videos. We practiced our break dancing moves secretly and critiqued each other's techniques.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementDancing is good for your health. It strengthens our bodies and can help sharpen our minds. Dancing can help us heal from our mental health issues, such as the one-year-and-a half year of decline. It encourages mindfulness and genuine, authentic responses to life stressors. Leela Magavi is the regional medical director for Community Psychiatry Southern California. Magavi believes in the power and beauty of movement and dance, and she has seen a positive clinical response from her patients who have danced: improved body image and mood.As a teenager, as a newcomer to America, and now as an employee of the non-profit, Musical Ambassadors of Peace, I felt the same. As a way to provide mental health support for migrants in Mexico, we facilitate dance classes. These shelters are home to asylum-seeking families who fled violence at home. These asylum-seeking families are mostly from Central America and Mexico. They are currently awaiting processing by U.S. authorities. We learn from each other, share moves, and laugh a lot when we dance together. Children love to see adults having fun and imitating their partner's cumbia moves. Our sessions have attracted the attention of researchers who are now following our work closely.AdvertisementAdvertisementI joined MAP to give back what I was denied as a child. I was shocked by how dangerous it could be to dance in Iran. Our circle tried to restore a sense of normalcy by breaking the rules. My neighbor next door, who had a terminal brain tumor, pulled out all the stops and hosted a birthday party to celebrate her daughter's 17th birthday.My mother and sister arrived with me at the party. I was unable to relax when I arrived. I was unable to relax as the guests seemed to forget their troubles for a while, so I began to take stock of all the possible problems we could be in. As the birthday girl smiled with delight, unrelated men and women formed a circle around her. My friend had been dancing with me at low-key, but louder music.AdvertisementSoon panic spread throughout the house when someone shouted the dreaded words, The Morality Police!Two men armed only with AK-47s stormed into the building. The guests ran, but many followed our lead and jumped over the wall into our yard. The Morality Police was next.AdvertisementI knew deep down that dancing would reduce my homesickness, isolation and loneliness.Everyone raced to the front gate and rushed around, but our neighbor with the brain tumor collapsed underneath the willow tree in the front yard. She was experiencing a seizure. My mother was stopped by one of the men. One of the men pointed his rifle at us.My mother begged her to live, she said.In casual tones, the shorter one said "Let her die".I was surrounded by tears as I watched my neighbor's house be torn apart by men looking for contraband and party guests. We were disappointed to learn that they had not found anything, but they promised we they would be back later.AdvertisementWe and our neighbor both survived that night. Violence has a way to leave its marks. It manifests in hypervigilance. It can also be seen in shaking hands. It can cause nightmares.My parents were not there when I moved to the U.S. as a teenager. I listened to Iranian pop songs to help me remember where I was from and what I had lost. I then binge-watched MTV, and danced. It would help me feel less homesick and isolated. My emotions were managed by the feedback loop between my body and my mind. New perceptions and feelings emerge as the body explores new movements. Repressed memories may be triggered by new and old movements, which allows them to come out. Dance movement therapy can be a great way to ease depression.AdvertisementAdvertisementAlthough dancing alone was beneficial, it wasn't the same as dancing with other people. I long for a community of people who would laugh and play with me. After my ears had stopped hearing the sounds of air raids and my eyes stopped searching for spy spies, my heart joined MAP to start holding dance and drum sessions for refugees. We created opening and closing rituals, used our five senses and practiced conscious breathing. Even, we even drummed our emotions. People often felt like they had forgotten their worries and felt connected to others when we finished each session. Some people noticed that their headaches disappeared on different occasions. Many people reported feeling a sense of well-being after the sessions for a few days or a week.AdvertisementThe results of dancing in community can prove to be especially beneficial when they are combined with rituals. Researchers at Duke University modified the Zebola ceremony (an African healing practice) to be non-religious and required only moderate exercise in a small study. The experience led to a significant improvement in exercise tolerance and stress reduction for most of the study participants. They also felt more supported by the group.AdvertisementAdvertisementSamantha Hurst, a medical analogist at the University of California San Diego, said that this type of healing (ritualized singing, dancing, chanting and drumming), is generally referred to as an "endogenous healing response". Endogenous healing refers to the autonomic nervous systems that regulate bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion and respiration. This response can include the ability to accept suggestion, positive expectation, hope, relaxation, personal well-being, and release of psychological reactions like guilt, shame and catharsis.AdvertisementIn 2020, my regular dance sessions in Tijuana with shelters were cut short because I became hesitant to dance with other people for the second consecutive time. It wasn't the Morality Police that made it impossible to have a party. My daily reality was that I lost people to the pandemic and not the war. As people in Iran won't stop dancing, asylum seekers stuck in Mexico also wanted to keep the sessions going. We decided to move to Zoom last spring. While the asylum-seekers were kept in the shelter, I was the only one in my living area. It took a lot of trial-and-error, but eventually we figured it out. Although I was unable to be there in person, hugging the children and giving them hugs, our connection was strong. We made heart signs with our hands and gave kisses. We shouted "I love you" over and over.AdvertisementAdvertisementIndividuals receive sensory feedback about their relationships with others when they move in a group setting. Kimerer LaMothe, author of Why We Dance, explains that they see themselves as part of something bigger. They share the common reality of dance. The paradox of dancing together is that a person can feel both connected to others and unique. As an individual, you will feel more connected and lifted up.We are all working together to find ways to reduce the negative effects of the last 18 months. Those of us who have the ability should continue to dance together to increase a sense safety and belonging and support our healing. I am thrilled to announce that we will soon be holding our first session with refugees in Tijuana.