By Jordi Baltà Portolés (@jordibalta) | “Through the constant movement of connecting the internal with the external and viceversa, dance can activate the body and the perception towards a more sensitive, listening-oriented way of living. Furthermore, dance as a social practice, or a collective practice, can act as a setting in which to train being with others, balancing individual and communal dimensions, needs and intentions.’
HOW DANCE CAN CONTRIBUTE TO HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
These were the reflections of two dance artists based in Italy, who took part in the #DanceAndWellBeing campaign organised by the European Dancehouse Network (EDN) last year. The EDN currently involves 47 venues in 28 countries. Held in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, #DanceAndWellBeing was a programme of online dance classes facilitated by artists in several European dance venues. This is one of many examples that demonstrate how the relationship between the arts, health and well-being has gained increasing international attention in recent years.
These connections are explored in Dance and Well-Being: Review of evidence and policy perspectives. How dance can contribute to ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, a new report commissioned by the EDN and written by Trànsit Projectes. One of the elements addressed by the report is how dance, when connected to health and well-being, can contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included in the UN’s 2030 Agenda.
The evidence presented in the report suggests that dance can contribute to improving mental health and well-being (target 3.4), raising awareness about communicable diseases and the prevention and treatment of substance abuse (targets 3.3 and 3.5), empowering and promoting the inclusion of disadvantaged groups (target 10.2) and providing universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible spaces, including for older persons and persons with disabilities (target 11.7). Some of the findings of the report are summarised hereafter.
The contribution of dance to health and well-being
Among the most significant contribution to the debate on the arts, health and well-being in recent years is the scoping review published by the Regional Office for Europe of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019, which analysed over 900 publications published since 2000. Authors Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn suggested that, “because they operate simultaneously on the individual and social, as well as physical and mental, levels, arts-based health interventions are uniquely placed to address the full complexity of the challenges that being healthy and well are increasingly recognised to present”.
The WHO Europe report established many connections between dance, health and well-being. In the areas of prevention and promotion, for instance, it showed that dance could contribute to better stress management and prevention, improve body consciousness and lead to healthier behaviour, enhance subjective well-being, improve memory, learning and attention, and, when done as part of a group, contribute to social bonding and to building social and community capital within societies.
As regards the management and treatment of health conditions, the report collected evidence describing how engagement in dance and other arts practices could reduce anxiety and depression in children and adolescents, help people with post-traumatic stress disorder to build a healthy relationship with their body, and improve the quality of life of people with Parkinson’s disease, among others.
These findings build on a large number of small-scale projects, as well as some established programmes and policies in several countries, which are connecting the arts and health – including dance projects in hospitals and care homes, partnerships between arts and health organisations, and some public policies supporting developments in this area. In the Île-de-France region, the Culture and Health programme, established in 2005, supports several projects connecting the arts and health each year, which need to engage professional artists. In Finland, the Dance Ambassadors initiative brings professional dance artists to work in nursing homes, schools, nurseries and immigration reception centres, to enable movement and foster physical and mental health and well-being.
The inclusive dimension of dance and health
Work connecting dance and health can not only improve participants’ health, but also help reduce inequalities in access to culture. This can be explained because disadvantaged and marginalised groups are more often affected by ill-health and, as a result, they take part in programmes connecting the arts and health more frequently than other social groups.
Many of the initiatives in this field are addressed to elderly persons, persons with disabilities and other groups experiencing significant health conditions. One good example of this was the ‘Pleasure on the Chair’ online project for elderly people, developed by choreographer Sara Sguotti at the Centro per la Scena Contemporanea in Bassano del Grappa, Italy, during the Covid-19 lockdown. According to one of the participants, this was ‘the perfect thing at the perfect moment’, because it allowed them to ‘reappropriate their own bodies’.
In several countries, ‘arts on prescription’ schemes, in which healthcare, social care or other relevant local organisations refer a person to an arts or cultural programme, with a view to improving their health and well-being, have been established. An evaluation of the Kulturvitaminer (Culture Vitamins) programme implemented in Aalborg, Denmark, suggested that participants, who were suffering from mild to moderate depression, stress or anxiety before enrolling in the programme, had increased their energy levels, self-esteem, and motivation as a result.
How to strengthen work around dance and health
The report conducted by Trànsit Projectes on behalf of the EDN identifies an ‘ecosystem’ of measures which connect with and enrich one another – arts and health programmes on the ground are facilitated when there are specific public strategies and policies in this field, and where accompanying research, knowledge-sharing, networking and capacity-building to strengthen developments in this field also exists. Several recommendations to improve work in this area at local, national and European level are formulated.
It is also important to take into account that, as previous research by BOP and Aesop has suggested, in projects connecting the arts and health good health outcomes cannot be achieved without arts outcomes being achieved – that is, the quality of the arts-based process and the dance experience matters highly.
Research has also warned against seeing the arts as a ‘universal palliative’ – while there is substantial evidence about how dance and other artforms can contribute to health and well-being, this does not apply to all health conditions or circumstances. However, structured conversations between the arts and health communities could contribute to developing more complex reflections on existing and potential connections.
Finally, as the report also argues, reflections on health, well-being and care in the field of the arts needs to encompass a concern with the physical and mental health and well-being of dancers, choreographers and other artists and arts professionals, including how working and funding conditions may affect them, and should lead to adopting measures to address them.
These ideas are reinforced today by the centrality of health, well-being and care in all our societies following the Covid-19 pandemic, which serves as a backdrop to this report.