It’s a little embarrassing to mention, but one of the major reasons I skipped every single high school dance, including senior prom, is that I had absolutely no idea how to dance — there was also the fact that the food offered at the dances wasn’t up to my picky standards, but that’s irrelevant here. And now, six years after high school, I am still just as clueless about dancing.
Unlike me, a lot of my medical school peers are involved in dance activities, from ballroom to hip-hop, and claim that going to dance classes really helps them shake off any negative feelings from the day. Intrigued, I did a little research. Sure enough, I found several articles espousing the beneficial effects of dance on mental health. One study of adolescent torture survivors found that participating in traditional dances helped alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression and helped foster group identities with fellow dancing peers. Another study of Indonesian children found that those who participated in traditional dance displayed fewer trauma symptoms after the tsunami of 2004, compared to children who did not dance. Finally, a study of college undergraduates found that participants had lower stress, lower negative affect and higher positive affect after a session of dancing. Given these benefits, I figured there could be no harm in learning how to dance; and of course, I wondered if I would finally master the art of not looking like an idiot on the dance floor! Shy about dancing in a group, however, I opted to sign up for a private lesson.
“Since you’re a beginner, we can start with some easier dance steps — have you ever heard of the merengue or cha-cha?” my instructor first asked me. I’d heard of the cha-cha but was under the impression that a merengue was a French dessert (that’s meringue). Despite the fact that I kept stumbling on my own feet — and hers — and always turned in the wrong direction, my teacher was patient with me and told me to just feel the music and move in whatever way felt comfortable. It was easy to listen to her; the Latin beat was exhilarating, and I became a fan of the salsa and cumbia dances that I learned later. By the end of the session, I had gotten the hang of the steps and was in a great mood. Whether it was because of my amped-up heart rate, the swinging upbeat or just moving my body, I wasn’t sure. I put a hand to my forehead and was surprised to feel sweat; I hadn’t even realized how active it was! I knew by the time that I got in the car that this was definitely the best dance experience I’d had.
Reflecting on the experience, I’ve come up with a few theories on why I had so much fun dancing and why it’s so great for mental health. I believe that there are a lot of people like me out there — people who think they’re too uncoordinated or clumsy. With the right instructor, like mine, dances that seem inaccessible are deconstructed but not dumbed down. The steps are simple enough that everyone can do it, and that brings about a sense of pride and achievement in being able to, if not master, at least have an idea of how to perform the dance. Not only does learning a new ability raise one’s self-confidence, but I believe that the act of having a partner — physical contact — also raises one’s mood. Studies show that we feel more connected to someone if they touch us, and connection, in turn, improves mood, sense of belonging and mental health. Also, dance is very free-form; while dances do have set steps, the ways that the steps can be performed varies between individuals. Having a creative outlet, as I learned from one of my former adventures, greatly improves mental health. Finally, research, as well as my own personal experience, have supported the theory that music has a definite impact on our moods. That upbeat salsa music definitely improved mine.
I have a new understanding of dance now: to get a lot out of the experience, one doesn’t have to be a great dancer or even have any sense of coordination. It’s about letting oneself go in the moment, enjoying the beat of the music while one moves her body. It’s also a great way to bond with a friend or meet new people not affiliated with the medical school, so I’d definitely recommend it! Whether I’ll make an appearance at next year’s med school prom is still debatable, but I think I got a great workout, realized that my body was more capable than I gave it credit for, and above all else, had a lot of fun.
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.