Does Dance Heal?

At 97, Anna Halprin has more energy, rhythm and flexibility than most of us at half her age. When she says that dance is the key to a healthy life, you listen. Check out the video clip.


In many parts of the world and for most of our cultural evolution, this would not be news.

For indigenous cultures dance is central to their cultural expression and experience of community as well as integral to psychological and physical well-being. Dance is expressive, expansive, transformative and celebratory. It marks changes, transitions, victories, and defines tribal identity.

Unfortunately, almost of all of that instinctual and traditional knowledge has been lost to our Northern European/ North American culture. With very limited exceptions, dance has faded from our collective consciousness and cultural expression as irrelevant and anachronistic.


Somewhere along the way we acquired mistrust of the body-mind: intuitive awareness, emotional intelligence, and cellular-memory.

In its stead we have fabricated a very limiting. reductionist model of humanity more closely paralleling the machine or computer than the artist, dancer or lover. We have moved from the dance floor to the psychologist’s couch, exchanged movement and creative expression for textbooks and test-tubes, substituted pleasure and sensuality for puritanical restraint.

In my religious upbringing, I learned to mistrust all physicality - indeed anything pleasurable and natural - as the playground of the devil. Of course dance was near the top of the list, just below sex and jazz music. My philosophical training, in turn, attacked emotions and personal experience as an impediment to logic and all things intuitive and mythical as mere superstition.


Our philosophical sophistication passes for silliness in other parts of the world.

A friend of mine has been parachuted into remote corners of the world, wherever there has been disasters to do trauma-recovery work. She brought back a story of one such venture where our clinically trained therapists were sent into the midst of a tribal conflict in Africa and very quickly sent back home by the residents. As one chief explained, “The wanted to seperate the sick person from family, friends and community, make them sit still in a chair in a dark, empty room and recount to someone they did not know all the horrible things that had happened to them. How can this possibly make one feel better?” It defied their natural instinct of what makes for healing and a balanced psyche, namely community support and inclusion, celebratory dance and other creative and expansive activities.


Science to the rescue?

(As one of my dear dance partners is quick to point out, “Why do we need science to tell us what we already know.” Point well taken.)

Fortunately much of this soulless fabrication of what makes us human is being challenged with the insights of neuroscience, a transition to spirituality over religion, and a heightened awareness and respect for indigenous cultures. Recent studies in addiction and substance abuse have identified that not only is community support and inclusion critical to overcoming addictions, social isolation itself is actually more physically harmful than the addictive substance. When Anna Halprin (see video clip) says that everything from cancer to racism can be healed through dance, she is merely reflecting traditional tribal healing methods that have been practiced for tens of thousands of years. We are now accepting in our North-American medical model that such core human experiences such as community and movement and lover are essential to being happy and healthy.


Tango as healing modality.

In this new healing model, tango has a distinctive role. One of the founders and leaders in trauma therapy, Bessel Van der Kolk, has singled out the restorative effect of tango in that, in addition to sharing all the generic nurturing qualities of dance, it includes a distinctive style (close embrace, asymmetrical call and response) danced to very emotionally expressive music. This combination allows couples the opportunity to explore sensitivity and sensuality in a safe and socially supported environment and to practice and create beautiful and fluid movement which expresses intimacy, attunement and mutuality.

All this in the middle of the #METOO social revolution. Just what the Doctor ordered and just in time.