THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF DANCE AND WELLBEING
Vicky Karkou, Oliver Sue and Sophia Lycouris, Eds.
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 97-112
DANCING TO RESIST, REDUCE AND ESCAPE STRESS
JUDITH LYNNE HANNA
Dance can be seen as an evolutionary gift that supports self-protection and enables
wellbeing. Since early history and across cultures, humans have turned to dance as a
talisman to cope with stress. Through its cognitive direction, emotional impact, and
physical energy, dance is a means to resist, reduce, and escape stress. Integrating brain,
body, and self, dance can also be seen as a form of exercise that is communicative with its
own languages. Dance-stress connections are played out on theater stages, in the
professional dance career, in amateur dance, and through therapeutic interventions. In this
chapter, conceptualizations of dance, stress, relationships between them, and stress
management are presented. Both stress and dance are multifaceted and involve
potential, interpretation, and action. The chapter concludes that stress and dance are
subjective and objective as well as positive and negative, and awareness of
these possibilities can lead to actions for wellbeing.
Key Words: cognition, culture, dance, emotion, evidence, exercise, language, perception, stress,
UNENDING horrific man-made and natural disasters as well as daily life lead almost all persons to
complain of stress at some point in their lives. They call out for wellbeing, a feeling of satisfaction
with one’s physical and psychological health, social relations, and work situation. Adults, students
in school and extracurricular activities, and family members at home may find an answer to coping
with stress in dancing and watching dance. Like a diamond with radiant facets, dance attracts our
attention, usually feels good to do, and has the potential to meet our needs for stress relief and good
In this chapter I address the concepts of dance, stress, and wellbeing. Then I offer evidence
of coping with stress through dance: personal and cultural experiences, physical exercise research,
and the language component that makes dance a unique form of physical exercise. I refer to studies
of marginalized groups that cope with stress through dance. On the basis of involvement in the
dance world for more than half a century and numerous reports, I describe both the positive and
negative stressors in dance education, professional dance, and amateur dance. I note research that
documents dance therapy programs for diverse populations and problems that help people deal with
I intend to address what gives dance the potential power to help individuals and groups
resist, reduce or escape from harmful stressors. I draw upon field, historical, clinical, and laboratory
work. Research studies in neuroscience provide evidence for the predominance of the brain in mind
and body. We have learned about the plasticity of the brain, and thus a life-long ability for humans
to make new synaptic connections (Ratey 2008), the basis of emotion and the links between body
and feelings (Damasio 2010), and the role of mirror neurons in the brains of dancer and viewer
linked to empathy (Bläsing et al. 2012; Calvo-Merino et al. 2010).
Human dancing emerges from an evolutionary process lasting millions of years. Across
cultures, people do more than attend to motion as a tool for survival — to distinguish prey and
predator, to select a mate, and anticipate others’ actions and respond accordingly for cooperation or
fighting as other animals. Humans dance, a form of multi-sensory movement that also
communicates as well as being a means of coping with stress. In addition, dance shapes and
sharpens body and brain (Hanna 2015).
Dance, too, can be a stressor (especially for dancers, parents, choreographers, production
staffers, dance critics, and others in the professional dance world). As is the case with all healing
approaches, there may be counter indications. What is a stressor for one person may not be for
someone else. It all depends upon one’s views about the body and dance as well as one’s
personality, culture, and social context. A person perceives and appraises an issue within a
framework of beliefs, goals, personal resources, demands, constraints, and opportunities. Appraisal
may be instantaneous or reflective Lazarus 1966; McEwen 2002; Sapolsky 2004; Ratey 2008; Hoge
THE CONCEPT OF DANCE
Elaborated in To Dance Is Human (Hanna 1987), the word ‘dance’ refers to human behavior
composed of, from the dancer's perspective, of purposeful, intentionally rhythmical, and culturally
patterned sequences of nonverbal body movements other than ordinary motor activities in space
with effort. The movement is frequently accompanied by music along with its particular health
benefits (MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell 2012). In addition, the movement may have an acting
quality, such as pantomime and role-playing, and be performed alone or with others. Usually
involving sight, sound, touch, smell, and kinesthetic feeling, dance may provide the performer and
spectator with a captivating multi-sensory experience.
The language of dance bears some similarities to verbal language (including sign language).
Clegg (2004) points out that “speech refers to the oral/auditory medium that we use to convey the
sounds associated with human languages. Language, on the other hand, is the method of conveying
complex concepts and ideas with or without resource to sound” (p. 8). Galaburda, Kosslyn, &
Christen (2002), argue that there are multiple possible “languages of thought” that play different roles
in the life of the mind but nonetheless work together (p.1). “Representations of information,
Judith Lynne Hanna
representations of relations, and a set of rules for how the relations can be used to combine and
manipulate representations” constitute a language (p. 200).
Both dance and verbal language have vocabulary (locomotion and gestures in dance) and
grammar (rules in different verbal languages and dance traditions for putting the vocabulary together
and, in each dance tradition, justifying how one movement can follow another). And both non-verbal
dance and verbal language have semantics (meaning). Verbal language strings together sequences of
words, and dance strings together sequences of movement. However, dance more often resembles
poetry, with its multiple, symbolic, and elusive meanings, than it resembles prose. Dance can be
mimetic or abstract. It is more difficult to communicate complex logical structures with dance than it is
with verbal language. Although spoken language can simply be meaningless sounds, and movements
can be mere motion, listeners and viewers tend to read meaning into what they hear and see
Since everybody has some of the same features, and time, space, and energy are universals
in human life, people may erroneously assume that these are experienced in a universal manner by
everyone. Similarly dance is assumed to be a universal form of communication. But culture,
context, and knowledge of a dance genre affect one’s understanding of it (Hanna 2002). Verbal
languages, too, are usually not understood by people unfamiliar with them.
THE CONCEPT OF STRESS
Let me now turn to ‘stress’. Icy hands in a hot room; blushing, trembling extremities, shortness of
breath, and furtive eyes; tears and other emotional outbursts; nervousness and increased
perspiration; extra trips to the bathroom; a cry of pain due to injury; and a host of diseases. These
are the tell-tale signs of excessive stress.
At other times only the stressed person is aware of such symptoms as a palpitating heart,
muscular tension, faintness, back strain, depression, anxiety, difficulty in swallowing, headaches,
loss of appetite, intestinal and eating disorders, insomnia, and emotions of frustration and
resentment (Yamaguchi et al. 2003; Wittstein et al. 2005; Wilson 1991).
Stress refers to the perception of threat of physical or psychological harm that pushes a
person towards the limits of his or her adaptive capacity (McEwen 2002; Sapolsky 2004; Ratey
2008; Hoge 2010). Note that the fight-or-flight syndrome does not require an emergency. Even
everyday worries and pressures or the anticipation of a threatening situation or extraordinary
excitement may trigger the response.
The term stress is relatively new. Stress was called shell shock in World War I, combat
fatigue and concentration camp syndrome in World War II, and post-traumatic stress disorder
following the Viet Nam War (Brewin 2003). Today the term stress is an umbrella for conflict,
frustration, trauma, alienation, anxiety, and depression (Rand 2004). Many difficulties previously
labeled in various ways from the time of our earliest records are now subsumed under the term
stress (Ben-Ezra 2002; Hanna 2006).
Chronic stress is ongoing and unresolved, whereas acute stress is brief and time-limited.
Eustress refers to catalyzing adaptive, productive, and creative efforts to solve problems and to
motivate persons to high peaks of performance. Distress overworks and exhausts the body's
defenses against the harmful effects of stress.
Under stress, the brain’s limbic system -- responsible for emotions, memory, and learning
--triggers an alarm reaction. The brain’s amygdala orchestrates feelings with hormonal responses
and mediates the influence of emotion (the awareness and appraisal of feeling) on cognition. The
amygdala stimulates the hypothalamus (it controls heart rate, blood pressure, sleep/wakefulness,
Judith Lynne Hanna
most of the information from the internal body system, the autonomic functions, and hormone
regulation) to send a message to the adrenal glands that spill out stress hormones. These activate the
fight-or-flight response, increasing the production of the inflammatory hormones adrenaline (epi-
nephrine) and cortisol. They work together to speed heart rate, increase metabolism and blood pres-
sure, shunt blood way from organs into muscles, lower pain sensitivity, and enhance attention, all
beneficial for survival.
After the body has mobilized the alarm reaction, and the stressful situation is coped with, the
second phase of the stress response kicks in to produce from the adrenal cortex anti-inflammatory
hormones that limit the extent of inflammation against stressors and return the body to normal.
However, constant stress prevents the body from returning to normal. High adrenaline and
cortisol levels that persist may cause blood sugar imbalances, blood pressure problems, and a whit-
tling away at muscle tissue, bone density, and immunity. Stressful experiences can change the
physical structure and function of the brain, affecting wiring and thus cognitive performance
making a person feel unmotivated and mentally exhausted. Formation of new neural connections in
the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for encoding new memories, becomes blocked,
hindering memory and the mental flexibility needed to find alternative solutions. People under
prolonged stress may suffer a changed sense of self that increases the probability of accidents and
certain diseases. Long-term and short-term stress, even a mere few hours, can reduce cellular
connections in the hippocampus.
Lazarus (1966) finds stress and emotion conjoined. Anger, anxiety (uncertainty), fright (a
sudden and overwhelming concrete physical danger), guilt, and shame (not about a provocative act
but the implication that we deserve to be disgraced or humiliated), sadness, envy, jealousy, and
disgust may be a part of distress. “Coping potential arises from the personal conviction that we can
or cannot act successfully to ameliorate or eliminate a harm or threat, or bring to fruition a
challenge or benefit” (p. 93). When we reappraise a threat, we may alter our emotions by creating
new meaning of the stressful encounter. This may diffuse anger, fear, anxiety, etc.
Dance has the potential to diminish threat and transform emotions. To prevent or cope with
distress, some people talk with friends, drink, eat, become violent, seek solitude or turn to religion
(Snyder 2001; Tipton 2003). Yet others dance - do it or watch it. Of course, these activities are not
THE CONCEPT OF WELLBEING
Based on his summary of research and work as a therapist in positive psychology, Seligmann (2011)
proposes components of a “well-being theory” that coping with stress through dance has the
potential to encompass. Wellbeing, he says, “has several measurable elements, each a real thing,
each contributing to well-being, but none defining well-being” (2011, p. 15). Wellbeing theory has
five elements, and each of the five has three properties (pp. 16-20). The elements are
1) positive emotion (pleasurable, hedonic, altered state of consciousness, ecstasy, comfort);
2) engagement (absorption in activity);
3) meaning (belonging to and serving something beyond the self with subjective and
4) accomplishment (achievement, winning, mastery); and
5) positive relationships (support, sympathy, sharing).
The properties of each element are contributing to well-being, pursuit for its own sake, and
measurability independently of the rest of the elements. The discussion below suggests how dance
may envelope these elements and properties.
Judith Lynne Hanna
EVIDENCE FOR COPING WITH STRESS THROUGH DANCE
Personal and Cultural Experiences
How do we know that dance can help us cope with stress? I can attest to personal experience in
responding to family pressures and bad bosses. But more importantly, there is an amazing amount of
historical, anecdotal, and scientific evidence (Hanna 2006). Humans turn to dance for self-protection
and problem-solving - to resist, reduce, or escape stress related to birth, puberty, marriage,
infertility, ecological harm, social disorder, death, and uncertainty. People meet their gods and
demons with danced praise and appeal, possession, masking, and exorcism to prevent stress and to
achieve healing (e.g., Kapferer 1983). The Italians performed the tarantella dance to expurgate the
hairy wolf spider’s agonizing venom and also to cope with such problems as a repressed sex drive
(Schneider 1948; DeMartino 1966; Rouget 1985). Dance was thought to purify villages devastated
by the Black Death disease that plagued medieval Europe over a period of many centuries (Hecker
1985; Benedictow 2004; Kelly 2005). Political conquest created stressors of lost land, group
dignity, and self-identity (Mooney 1965; Mitchell 1956). Victims found relief through dance
expressing catharsis (the recollection and release of past repressed distressful emotions such as
anger and fear), identification with the aggressor, accommodation or resistance. Bwiti and Beni
Ngoma dances from Africa (Fernande 1982), and the Ghost Dance (Mooney 1965), Coast Salish
Spirit Dancing (Amoss 1978), Gourd Dance, powwow, and danza de la conquista from the
Americas (Moedano 1972) are further examples.
Immigrants world-wide have carried their traditional healing arts to other countries. Some
transformation occurs, but so does retention. In the same way that many people accept our
grandparents’ hand-me-down age-old remedies, like chicken soup for a cold, many people also
accept intuitive beliefs in the efficacy of dance to help them cope with stress and achieve wellbeing.
The most significant evidence that dance can help people reduce, resist or escape stress comes from
research findings on dance as physical exercise (Jackson et al., 2004; Brown & Lawton, 1987; Penedo
& Dahn 2005; Snyder 2001). Dance is exercise, and regular exercise is a critical component of ways
that help us guard against the ravages of stress and be resilient to it. Nearly every set of
recommendations for stress management includes exercise as therapy. When you neither fight nor
flee from stress because physical action is not possible, biochemical elements of energy can remain
in the body and cause harm. Exercise absorbs this energy. Moreover, exercise can provide
distraction, reduce muscle tension, alter mood, improve mental health, and blunt the stress response.
As an individual adapts to the increase in heart rate, pressure of the circulation of blood carrying
oxygen to the muscles and the brain, as well as altering the level of certain brain chemicals and
stress hormones, the body is strengthened and conditioned to react more calmly during stress.
Depression, anxiety disorder, dementia, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, coronary issues, and pain have been
shown to be reduced with exercise (Fox 1999; Verghese et al. 2003; Stein 2005; Tipton 2003; Dunn
et al. 2005; Moffet, Noreau, Parent & Drolet 2002).
In addition, exercise promotes more than physical activity. Ratey (2008), a psychiatrist at
Harvard Medical School, presents research that found exercise involves a plethora of cognitive
brain functions. Throughout life exercise stimulates neurogenesis, the formation of new brain cells
that spark the key molecule of the learning process, glutamate, which stirs up a signaling cascade.
Judith Lynne Hanna
One hundred billion neurons of various types communicate with each other through hundreds of
Each brain cell might receive input from a hundred thousand others before firing off its own
signal….Electrical charges reach synapses (spaces between neurons), a neurotransmitter
carries the message across the synaptic gap in chemical form. The dendrite, or receiving
branch… opens ion channels in the cell membrane to turn the signal back into electricity
(Ratey 2008, p. 36).
Exercise spurs new nerve cell growth from stem cells in the hippocampus and prepares and
stimulates nerve cells to bind to each other, the cellular basis for acquiring new information. The
brain circuits created through movement can be recruited by the prefrontal cortex for thinking and
coping with stress.
As an activity in itself, exercise may lead to emotional changes or even altered states of
consciousness. Exercise apparently releases a copious quantity of opiate beta-endorphins, which are
magical, morphine-like brain chemicals that dull pain, distract one from problems, produce feelings
of analgesia, euphoria, calm, satisfaction, and greater tolerance for pain. The Dogon of Mali
describe their rapid gona dance movement as a relief, like vomiting (Griaule 1985; see Forman,
1983; Insel, Gingrich & Young 2001; Heinrichs, Baumgarten, Kirschbaum, & Ehler 2003; Moffet et
So, why dance rather than engage in other forms of exercise to handle stress? “The more complex
the movements,” Ratey (2008) says, “the more complex the synaptic connections,” (p. 56) and
dance has various levels of complexity. Dance is exercise PLUS. Not only does dance release the
potentially harmful energy in the body that cannot be used in a fight-or-flight stress response, but
dance is also nonverbal language that is akin to cognitive therapy. Dance aesthetically expresses
ideas and feelings. Dance is ‘bodies sounding off’, a form of embodiment that gives concrete form
to emotions and concepts. Moreover, dance can impact the brain’s reward and pleasure system.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control this center which enables a person to take action
to move toward rewards. Associated with pleasurable motivation, improved working memory, and
taking action, dopamine is essential to learning (Floresco 2013). Partner dancing and group dancing
with touching release oxytocin, the “bonding” or “feel good” hormone (Heinrich et al. 2003; Hanna
A dancer may simultaneously be a performer and also a spectator, imagining the dance as
part of performance preparation, seeing oneself (and others in a group dance) in the studio mirror, or
seeing others moving in a group dance onstage. A spectator may be an empathizing ‘dancer’ through
mirror neuron action, more intensely felt by viewers with dance experience. When we watch
someone performing an action, our brains may mirror, simulate, performance of the action we
Communication through dance can offer some of what reading, writing, and body oriented
psychotherapy offer - fantasy, story-telling, performer-audience connection, and spirituality. Mental
representation plays a key role in dance. Mental representations are “activated and produce images
embedded in space and time, which can be translated introspectively, interpreted consciously, and
described schematically” (Bläsing, Tenenbaum, & Schack 2009, p. 350).
Dance may reflect the status quo or suggest what might be. A person may escape stressors in
a danced fantasy (Kandel 2012). The embodied practice of dance performance may spotlight themes
Judith Lynne Hanna
such as the forbidden, sexuality, oppression, self-identity, aging, death, and other possible stressors.
In this way these themes may be scrutinized and imaginatively played with, distanced, and
consequently made less threatening. Thus there are engagement with meaning, accomplishment, and
positive emotion through dance, elements Seligmann proposes contribute to wellbeing.
Because dance representations of ideas and feelings are pretend and symbolic and therefore
without the impact of real life, the dance medium allows participants a safe opportunity to cope with
threatening problems. Catharsis is common. The danced action is like a rehearsal. If you don’t like a
performance scenario, you can create or watch another, changing it in your mind or in a new
In giving testimony and retelling, dance making or viewing can help people to make sense
of the incomprehensible (Nemetz 2004). By retelling a stressful situation, reliving one’s harrowing
experience over and over again, an individual gets used to telling and expressing the memory and
realizing that it was in the past (Foa, McLean, Capaldi, & Rosenfeld 2013). Dance rehearsal offers a
In dance, military service men and women can confront traumatic experience toward
modifying mal-adaptive beliefs about events, behavior, and symptoms. They can thus begin to
associate cues to bad memories with a sense of current safety. Dance is a venue in which to dream
oneself anew (Gray 2001), even with abstract dances into which meaning can be read by dancer and
spectator. Also, a focus on form may be a distraction from stress. When students dance their
academic subjects, learning may be less stressful.
Bill T. Jones, a charismatic dancer/choreographer, lost his partner and lover, Arnie Zane, to
AIDS. After the death, several of Jones's new dances confronted the pain; he even had one of his
company's dancers, who also had AIDS, participate in a dance even though pain prevented him from
standing on his own. Company members reported that the dances enabled them to better manage the
pain and anguish of loss (Kisselgoff 1989; see also Wallach 1989; Wilson 1991; Gere 2004).
Although dance expression has the potential to move participants in a dance performance to
gain distance and insight to evaluate problems, consider resolutions, and act in a constructive way
outside the dance setting, less frequently the themes portrayed in dance may scrape against raw
nerves and induce stress.
Marginalized groups - ethnic, racial, colonial, gender, sexual (DeFrantz 2004; Meyer 2003; Gold
2001), age, and occupational (Hanna 2012) - may be stressed by stigma, prejudice, and
discrimination in a hostile social environment. There may be expectations of rejection, concealing,
and internalized homophobia. Dance temporarily suspends an ecological setting. Alternatively,
cultural dances ‘speak’ to a sense of belonging, bonding, and pride. Group inclusiveness is self-
empowering. Dance with touch releases oxytocin (Heinrichs et al. 2003; Hanna 1988, 2012).
Renowned African American dancer Pearl Primus (1968) described dance as "the scream which
eases for a while the terrible frustration common to all human beings who because of race, creed or
color are 'invisible.' Dance is the fist," she said, "with which I will fight the scheming ignorance of
prejudice. It is the veiled contempt I feel for those who patronize with false smiles, handouts, empty
promises, insincere compliments" (p. 58).
More than letting off steam, or creating a safe haven, dance is a venue to reduce the stressful
misuse of power and produce social change without violence. A political form of coercion in a
shame-oriented society, unheeded dance communication led to the famous 1929 ‘women's war’ in
Eastern Nigeria. Women went on a rampage, prisoners were released, and people were killed. The
repercussions were widespread both on local and intercontinental levels. Indeed, the mighty British
Judith Lynne Hanna
were forced to alter their colonial administration (Van Allen 1972; Dorward 1982) and attend to
messages conveyed in women’s dancing.
Through the dance, young Ubakala Igbo girls in Nigeria try to cope with the stressors of
maturing, marrying, living among strangers, being fertile, and giving birth. In the Nkwa Edere
dance, shoulder shimmying and side-to-side pelvis swinging highlight breast development and other
pubescent body changes. There are also dances for the death of an aged man or woman that remind
participants of the coming of their own deaths and help them cope with the wrenched and dislocated
part of the fabric of social relationships caused by a death (Hanna 1987).
Educational and Professional Dance
Individuals usually find strength against stress in the self-mastery required in learning a dance
technique, from ballet to hip-hop. They may gain the support of others in cohesive group dancing
that in itself is a kind of therapy (Heinrichs et al. 2003). Performers pay tribute to human fortitude
as they express the sense of doing something and being in control. Of course, dance is art and
entertainment that diverts performers and audiences alike from stressors.
In any setting, dance may have positive and/or negative stresses. Children’s wellbeing is
threatened when parents, teachers or coaches ask them to accomplish more in dance than they are
physically and emotionally ready for. A child younger than eight years old lacks bones that are
sufficiently strong to withstand the prolonged physical discipline required to master techniques like
ballet. Age, development, and expectations affect readiness, although some youngsters are naturally
precocious. Juggling academic requirements and dance classes, or being unable to go to friends’
parties because of class or rehearsal commitments, may also be stressful.
Some parents impose stress on their offspring when they attempt to realize their own
romantic theatrical ambitions through them, and the youngsters are unable or unwilling to do so
(Conraths-Lange 2003). Youngsters may also impose unrealistic demands upon themselves.
Students read about dance, the competitions, prizes and scholarships - and some push themselves in
ways that become stressful. Changes in puberty may lead to a pre-professional dancer’s body
becoming no longer appropriate for a ballet career (Buckroyd 2000).
Being the butt of bias, neglected, branded disloyal or the victim of intrigue in someone’s
pursuit of self-advancement can stress any type of dancer. So too can competition, cooperation, and
performance in class, for roles and onstage (Forsythe 1996). While students compete for the
teacher’s attention and approval, teachers compete for students. Students who want exposure to a
variety of dance styles often face possessive teachers who ‘want you under their wing’. Burnout,
physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion from an inability to cope with the demands of dance and
consequent loss of interest in dance, affect children and adults alike.
Pursuing a dance career is a passion that can reap great rewards. Motivation to dance
professionally often includes the satisfaction of achieving what others want to do, try to do, but
cannot do well, and the exhilaration of performance and audience approval. Professionals perform
for others and in place of others. But as with most occupations, there are stressors, some specific to
the dance profession (Abrams 1985-86; Bentley 1982; 1986; Helin 1989; Kirkland 1986; Hamilton,
Hella, & Hamilton 1995). Financial rewards (except for a few superstars) are low, the economics of
the dance process, production, and performance are difficult, and a performing career is brief.
Watching one's weight and fitness are constant concerns. Perfectionists stress about whether their
work measures up to high standards. Yet successful dancers have a burning sense of conviction that
allows them to overcome these stressors as well as negative attitudes toward a dance career,
physical demands, and hazards of injury, competition, and the occasional mistreatment by teachers,
coaches, choreographers, and company managers.
Judith Lynne Hanna
Performance anxiety affects novice and pro alike (Aaron 1986). Paul Taylor (1999), the
renowned choreographer, writes in his autobiography: “Stage fright. Some clone, not me, is cowering
offstage and covered with icy sweat, his palms and soles slippery, temples booming, tongue dry,
seizured, sizzled. It’s plain to see that the reason for greasepaint is to prevent your skin from
betraying its cowardly color” (p. 39).
Choreographers may experience anxiety about being able to produce, especially under
pressures of deadlines and limited resources. Although choreographers must innovate as Western
aesthetics dictate, too much innovation can lose audiences unfamiliar with or unreceptive to the
avant-garde. The creator as unique and marvelous has the negative counterpart as loner-outsider,
troublemaker, and uncommitted.
Yet, good stress often catapults dance participants toward recognition and spurs the creation
of innovative work and more effective dance education and arts management. Many in the dance
world thrive because of its stressful challenges and risks.
Amateur dance is more relaxed and stress-free than professional dance. Individuals participate in
social dance or dance classes for fun, exercise, self-expression, and socializing. Dance helps people
to resist stress through developing physical fitness and building social support that extend beyond
the dance setting. Stress reduction occurs through the dissipation of everyday tensions of work and
family, as well as tensions that arise from crises. The fantasy and enchantment of a romantic dance
genre offers escape from stress.
Of course, amateur dancers may feel stress because of the inability to master steps or
embarrassment about partnering. Stressors also include inadequate dance-class support from
teachers or classmates, ambiguous performance feedback, performance anxiety, and insufficient
social dance invitations.
Sometimes dance triggers stress that enables you to deal with a greater stressor.
Paradoxically, the pursuit of wellbeing through exercise may result in injury and impaired health.
As critic George Jackson (2007) said, "Dance, that double-edged sword, ought to come with a
warning label, ‘the spice of life or the kiss of death’" (p. 25). However, dance medicine directs us to
ways to make dancing less risky and effective in resisting and reducing stress (Solomon et al. 2005;
Berardi 2005; Peterson 2011).
More than a theater art and a form of leisure, dance is also part of contemporary wellbeing and
medical stress treatment programs. Some dance studios advertise their classes as a way to “dance
away the blues." Extracurricular activities offered to university students include dance as an
antidote to stress. Similarly self-help groups turn to dance as a stress reliever.
Dance/movement therapy (DMT), rooted in dance, psychology, and medicine, bears
resemblances to the therapeutic stress-management dance practices found in non-Western
cultures, past and present. DMT is included in psychiatric hospitals, community health centers,
nursing homes, clinics, special educational settings, prisons, private practice offices, and the
therapist’s or client’s home (Schmais 1985; Lev, 2005; Chaiklin & Wengrower 2009; see Cruz and
Berrol 2012). There are diverse populations and kinds of problems. For example, DMT is offered
to people with anxiety (Lesté and Rust 1990) and depression (Rand 2004). DMT is provided to
battered women (Chang and Leventhal 1995), sexually abused men (Frank 1997), torture victims
(Gray 2001), sexually assaulted women (Bernstein 1995), American Indian college women (Skye,
Judith Lynne Hanna
Christensen, & England 1989), child soldiers for rehabilitation (Harris 2009), and refugees (Singe,
2005). Stress from eating disorders, drug abuse, caregiving, and transitioning out of the military
are other illustrative foci for DMT. This therapeutic approach provides a supportive environment
in which clients usually warm up body parts, expand their range of movement, and create
excitement with music and props. Improvisational exercises, mirroring the movements of another
person, and holding movements are used to express troublesome issues and work through them.
In short, dance is a medium that humans have long held as a key weapon in their arsenal to cope
with the stresses of life -- birth, adolescence, sex, work, marriage, ecological harm, social disorder,
uncertainty, crises, and death. On the basis of historical, ethnographic, scientific, and anecdotal
evidence, it appears that dance has the power to help a person to resist, reduce, or escape stress.
Dance in relationship to stress certainly envelops components that Seligmann (2011)
proposes contribute to wellbeing: dance can provide positive emotion, engagement, meaning,
accomplishment, and positive relationships. Dance is a form of exercise plus the communication of
thoughts and feelings, yielding more dividends than other forms of exercise. Because dance is
physical, cognitive, and emotional, it is a vehicle for a person to cope with stress and become
motivated and invigorated to achieve goals for wellbeing. Excessive stress, distress, on the other
hand, can cause physical harm and impede accomplishments and even managing daily life. When
one neither fights nor flees from stress because physical action is not possible, biochemical
elements of energy can remain in the body and cause harm. However, dance is a medium through
which to discharge the energy and, most significantly, to portray and scrutinize stressors in order to
diminish their threat. Knowledge of the positive and negative aspects of stress and dance can lead
one to appraise threat in order to alter one’s emotion or interpret the threat in new ways.
Aaron, S. (1986). Stage fright: Its role in acting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Abrams, G. L. (1985–1986). Report on the First international conference on mind, body and
the performing arts: Stress processes in the psychology and physiology of music,
dance and drama, New York University, July 15–19, 1985. Dance Research Journal
17 (2) and 18.
Amoss, P. (1978). Coast Salish Spirit Dancing: The survival of an ancestral religion.
Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Benedictow, O. J. (2004). The Black Death 1346–1353: The complete history. Woodbridge,
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