Personal Stories: How Dance Can Be Liberating

Gryphon writer Helena Smith provides a personal account about her love of dance and invites others to try it out also.

‘We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance’. This proverb has now been my Instagram bio for some time (find me if you dare). ‘How profound’, you’re thinking. ‘Couldn’t she just be satisfied with “20 // Leeds”?’ Well, the answer is no. And not only because as a literature student I am expected to write something pretentious and flowery, but because I wholly believe in its message.

Nowadays, we are addicted to the futile and somewhat depressing pursuit of scrolling through our preferred social medium, judging others and even judging ourselves. What’s more, academic and career pressure are constantly increasing and mental health issues are at an all-time high among young people. How can we escape the daily struggles that consume our lives and make us feel substandard, perhaps even like failures?

In answer to this, I don’t believe that we can escape. Our only option is to find time to lift ourselves away, not resist, but elevate ourselves above the drag of modern-day life. And I suggest that this can be done through the medium of dance. Any exercise, of course, will help make us fitter and boost our endorphin levels to make us happier, but dancing is different. It is not only a sport but an art as well. It allows people to simultaneously shape up and express their emotions. Believe it or not, there are other ways to portray your emotional status than posting ‘Mood’ accompanied by a picture of you or your cat pulling an angry face. I would challenge you to channel that feeling, that facial distortion into movement, rather than sitting there idly and stewing in your own teenage angst. Get up, throw your arms in the air, stamp your feet, spin around and around until you fall over, jump up and down until your heart feels like it’ll burst through your chest. And at some incredible moment, you will feel dancer’s high (think of it as healthful intoxication).

I recently watched a documentary presented by Darcey Bussell (isn’t it enough watching her to make you want to pirouette around your bedroom?) who looked at how dance affects certain physical and mental conditions, one of which was Parkinson’s. Sufferers of this degenerative illness which affects the nervous system and muscular control participated in a dance class, and it was breath-taking to watch how much their mobility and movement improved when they were performing a routine they had learnt, and how they regained some control over their bodies. The documentary further looked at a group of teenage girls with severe anxiety disorders. They were taught a dance by a choreographer who had experienced a very difficult history of mental health issues himself. Some of the girls had danced before, some hadn’t. They choreographed the dance together, drawing upon their experiences, using contact work and physical support as a metaphor for the emotional support necessary to begin to recover. It is extremely moving to watch someone use every ounce of their emotion in their movement, using all their energy to fight against a struggle, to physically depict something so hard to explain verbally.

I am of course biased. I have danced since I was three years old, and no, it has not meant I have lived some wholesome, happy life without technology. On the contrary, I have had some pretty difficult times myself. But in those times, I cannot express enough how much dance helped me, in fact, saved me, lifted me up when I felt like I was sinking.

Dancing to your favourite song whilst waiting for your tea to brew is a great place to start. To describe this as escapism, however, is problematic, as you will feel disappointed that your problems have not disappeared when you stop dancing. Instead, look at it as a way to embrace, channel, transform those stresses and pains into something far more tangible. Crush those feelings, step on them, hurl them across the floor, have power over them. Or, tend to those feelings, rock them softly, turn with them, let them dance with you. What a wonderful way to come to terms with your emotions: literally, physically.

Whilst I’m not writing this as a promotional piece, I must draw upon my recent experience with LUU Salsa Society. Lately, I have become completely enchanted by this style of dancing: the exhilarating music; the accepting and diverse range of people with whom I feel I have made lasting connections; the lack of pretence and judgement, whatever your ability. Perhaps the most wonderful element is how quickly I’ve become comfortable with other people. After all, you are put in an embrace with a complete stranger and made to move in a way which takes you out of your comfort zone, causing you to lose your inhibitions. I have brought along flatmates and coursemates, some of whom have never danced before, yet they all agree what a feel-good activity it is. I am not commending myself here, but the inclusivity of the society, its welcoming nature and most importantly, the social and addictive nature of the dance itself.

As you can see, I am not suggesting that you need to aim towards becoming a prima ballerina. Anything from having a boogie at your favourite club, to attending a GIAG with one of the dance societies, to spinning around your room, is dancing. Essentially, don’t be embarrassed to try. ‘Yeah yeah, give it a go, try your best, nothing to lose from trying’ you’re thinking, mockingly. Whilst I am not trying to imitate your parents, they were right. When we are older, we are more concerned about our image, more easily humiliated: ‘What if I make a fool out of myself?’ How about we regain some of that childhood carelessness. We were all happier then anyway. Indeed, to return in a typically literary circular fashion to where we began, we are foolish by nature, so we may as well be twirling, whirling fools, feeling free and fabulous.

By Helena Smith