It was a Sunday evening on a hot autumn day. Filled with my own apprehension, I climbed the steps painted with celestial planet symbols to an open, wooden floored room festooned with twinkle lights and roses. Little did I know at the time that I was about to be swept away into a world I had no idea I desperately needed. A world full of passion and artistry and athleticism like I had never experienced before: swing dancing. The two instructors took to the floor to teach us a classic line dance called the Shim Sham. Then it was onto learning East Coast Swing dance. Lastly, a big band took to the stage, and I became irrevocably immersed in the world of social dance.
It was like dancing was to my heart like water is to a parched plant. I had no idea how thirsty I had been for genuinely good self-care. Quite possibly for years.
Swing Nights Denver was my first experience with quality social dance. The instructors, Ceth and Dani, not only teach their community how to dance but also how to be pro-social in ways that our society has lost. They advocate for open-mindedness, self-expression, and non-judgment in their community and weave a beautiful scene of open hearted, inclusive friendship in addition to improving one’s dance skills.
One of the most surprising parts of social dance for me has been the ability to engage in healthy, pro-social forms of touch. In swing dancing, there is very little body contact when compared to other forms of dance such as bachata or blues and most contact is done through the arms, hands, and side of the body. Our society has typically hyper-sexualized touch between two persons but social dance has a way of creating healthy and safe parameters to engage in physical touch with another person.
I go dancing at least once every week and find myself having full conversations with my dance partners without ever saying a word. This is the power of healthy, respectful, and safe touch. More importantly, I enjoy these conversations where I can connect with the heart of my partner without the use of speech when every day is filled with social media, idle chatter, and polite conversation.
Psychological studies of touch seem to indicate these powerful benefits as well. For example, a study conducted by Saunders, Riesel, Klawohn, & Inzlicht (2018) on couples providing interpersonal touch to their romantic partners helped improve not only emotion and stress regulation, but also enhanced “the neurocognitive processes underlying flexible goal-directed behavior” (p.1). Furthermore, Saunders et al. (2018) go on to state that existing research has already demonstrated, “the beneficial influences of supportive interpersonal touch for socialization, wellbeing, and emotion regulation (Coan, 2008; Debrot et al., 2013; Hertenstein et al., 2006). Our results suggest that the positive influence of interpersonal touch might extend beyond these domains by facilitating the neurocognitive processes underlying flexible goal-directed behavior (i.e., cognitive control)” (p.8). This essentially means that you’re able to think through things clearer when under the influence of positive, interpersonal touch because of the way that your neurology responds to it. The researchers define cognitive control as the ability to work towards goal-directed behavior.
Thus, to all the dancers out there that I know are reading this with eager interest, the answer is yes. There is a lot more to dancing that makes it feel so good than you think there is.
Another study looking at the connection between infants and their mothers via the influence of touch by Waters, West, Karnilowicz, & Mendes (2017) suggests that the touch response between a mother and her infant is so strong that infants parasympathetic nervous systems or sympathetic nervous systems can be activated simply through touch with their mothers after they have been through a stressful or relaxing event. To put it simply, if a mom is stress or relaxed, she can communicate this to her baby’s nervous system simply through touch and thus evoke the same type of response.
Touch, especially safe, respectful, pro-social touch is immensely powerful, and these are only two of a myriad of studies suggesting this.
Fast forward a few months and I found myself walking into a mirrored dance studio with an all-female dance group called the Denver Diamond Dolls. Never did I ever think I would find myself there before. We were learning a 1920s Charleston swing-based routine to the musical number “Anything Goes.” When I found out what we’d be wearing, my heart felt like it landed in my stomach and I became extremely anxious. As someone who would be the first to admit her physical insecurities, the idea of wearing a sparkly leotard with long fringe for a skirt was pretty anxiety provoking.
But as the weeks rolled by learning the extremely fun, energetic routine by Lark Mervine, one of the instructors on the Diamond Dolls, much of my insecurity began to melt away. I was puzzled by this and couldn’t figure out how someone such as myself with pretty significant insecurities could start to feel so comfortable in my own skin.
Well, science has spoken and as previously suggested, there’s a lot more to dancing than meets the eye. An exploratory study by Päivi (2014) suggests that by utilizing dance and movement therapy in psychiatric outpatient settings, subjects were able to utilize dancing which is primarily a right hemisphere brain activity to integrate with other right hemisphere brain activities which include “emotional processes, nonverbal communications, attachment, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity” which help in processing “non-conscious self-images, threat detection, bodily-based stress regulation and survival” (p. 219). All this is fancy scientific speech stating that dancing helps integrate a lot of underlying emotional processes that help protect and boost personal body image because it recruits a lot of the part of your brain that help you self-empathize.
If this doesn’t convince you, a meta-analysis by Koch, Kunz, Lykou, & Cruz (2014) just might. They collected data from 23 other studies to find that dance and movement therapy can be attributed to positively “increasing quality of life and decreasing clinical symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Positive effects were also found on the increase of subjective well-being, positive mood, affect, and body image” (p.46). This is conjunction with another study by Kiepe, Stöckigt, & Keil (2012) that showed dance and movement therapy significant decreases symptoms of depression.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s also a handful of studies available looking at the positive impacts of belly dancing on personal perception of body image. But since this is swing dance, I can’t really apply those things here as the two dance disciplines are pretty different. But it’s worth knowing that there’s something about the freedom of movement and female only dance activities that help increase and protect positive body image (Tiggemann, Coutts, & Clark (2014), Downey, Reel, SooHoo, & Zerbib (2010)).
My experiences only confirm these overwhelmingly positive findings. What’s not listed in the literature was the sense of empowerment that I felt. I got to perform in that beautiful, fun, sparkly leotard with silvery fringe in front of my friends and family. With nothing on my legs but dance tights, I felt jitters of nervousness like sparks of energy run through me. Shaking ever so slightly, I remember walking out into the light and seeing the smiling faces of people I really care about. The nerves began to go away as I owned my experience. There was something profoundly empowering to say through my dance, “here I am. This is what I look like and I am proud of who I am.”
Science aside, the history of swing dance is also one of diversity born out of the black history of jazz and blues. While I don’t have time to fully address this here, you can find much more information about this through Swing Nights Denver and the Denver Diamond Dolls.
All I will say is that in addition to the profound scientific, psychological findings of research into dance is a powerful history with the ability to unite people across nationalities, race, culture, and personal backgrounds. It is communication that transcends language and has the ability to bring us closer as a whole people.
I never thought I would try dancing like this and now am completely in love with the art. If dancing is not your thing, I encourage and implore you to find the self-care activity that strikes this kind of chord with you. Dancing is certainly not for everyone but if you have yet to find this spark in your life, I challenge you to check it out and find out for yourself! If this community has taught me anything, it is to be open minded to the new, the unknown, and the challenging because it will help grow and shape me into who I will become and help me meet new friends along the way.
I owe a great deal to Swing Nights Denver and the Denver Diamond Dolls. A big thank you to both communities for helping me through some of the darker parts of my life and showing me that connection sometimes doesn’t need spoken words and that I don’t have to be ashamed of my body. I am free to be self-expressive and am beautiful just as I am, no matter how far along my dance journey I may be.