Medical Examiner

Why Dancing Is So Good for Us

Moving to music can help us heal from the toll of tragedy—let’s do it together, now that we can.

A bunch of young adults dancing in an apartment.
gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus

For years, I danced in secret.

I was 6 when the Islamic Revolution erupted in Iran. The strange new laws banned girls from running in public or playing with boys. Spies lurked and listened to private conversations. Protesters were tear-gassed and imprisoned, and anti-revolutionaries were executed. Then the bombs began falling. The Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years and destroyed countless lives.

As dreadful as the war was, the regime’s war on joy hurt in a different way. Our collective spirit wilted as the arts were targeted and most music and dancing became illegal. As years went by and funerals became part of our daily lives, my friends and I grew restless. We broke the law to feed our souls. As an adolescent, I went to my friend’s basement to study but ended up watching contraband Wham! and Madonna videos. We practiced break dancing moves in secret and critiqued one another’s technique.

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Dancing is good for our health—it makes our bodies stronger, and learning new moves can even sharpen the mind. It can also help us heal, including healing from the mental health toll of the past year and a half. “It promotes mindfulness and authentic, genuine responses to life stressors,” says Leela Magavi, the regional medical director of Community Psychiatry in Southern California. Magavi is a strong believer in the power of dance and movement, and has witnessed a clinical response with her patients who dance: improved body image and boosts in mood.

I felt that as a teen, then as a newcomer to the United States, and now in my work with the nonprofit, Musical Ambassadors of Peace. We facilitate ongoing dance sessions as a means of mental health support in migrant shelters in Mexico. Asylum-seeking families residing in these shelters have fled home to escape violence. They are mostly from Central America and parts of Mexico and are waiting to be processed by U.S. authorities. When we dance together, we learn moves from one another, we tap into a sense of connectedness, and we laugh a lot. Children delight in seeing adults let loose and mimic partner-dancing to cumbia. Researchers have taken interest in our sessions and are following our work.

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I joined MAP because I wanted to provide what was denied to me as a child. One incident in particular showed me just how risky dancing in Iran could be. People in our circle did their best to bring a sense of normalcy to their lives by bending the rules. My next-door neighbor, who was terminally ill with a brain tumor, gathered all her strength and threw a birthday party for her teenage daughter.

When I arrived at the party with my mother and sister, I couldn’t relax. While the guests seemed to have momentarily forgotten their woes, I took an inventory of all the ways we could get into trouble. Unrelated men and women had made a circle around the birthday girl, laughing and shimmying to the music as she beamed with delight. The music, recklessly, was louder than during any of the low-key dance sessions with my friend.

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Soon, a whirling wave of panic spread through the house as someone screamed the dreaded words: “The Morality Police!”

Two men armed with AK-47s stormed the place. The guests scrambled, and many took our lead, jumping over the wall into our yard. The Morality Police followed.

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While everyone rushed about, taking off through the front gate, our neighbor, the mother with the brain tumor, collapsed under the willow tree in our front yard. She was having a seizure. One of the men blocked my mother from moving any closer. The other pointed his rifle at us.

“She’s going to die,” my mother pleaded.

“Then let her die,” said the shorter one in a casual tone.

Through a veil of tears, I watched our neighbor shake as the men tore our house apart, looking for party guests and contraband. Disappointed that they found nothing, they warned us they would return later.

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Our neighbor survived that night and so did we. But violence has a way of carving its invisible marks. It shows up in hypervigilance. It shows up in trembling hands. It shows up in nightmares.

When I immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 14 without my parents, I would listen to songs by exiled Iranian pop stars just so I could remember my home and what I had lost. Then I binge-watched MTV and danced. I knew in my bones it would lessen my homesickness and sense of isolation. It turns out that the feedback loop between body and mind helped me regulate my emotions. As the body explores new movements, new perceptions and feelings are given a chance to emerge. New and old movements may evoke repressed memories, allowing them to surface so they can be released. This is why dance movement therapy is particularly successful for some people in easing depression.

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Dancing alone was helpful, but it wasn’t the same as dancing with others. I yearned for a supportive community that would play and laugh with me. Long after my ears stopped listening for the sound of air raids, and my eyes stopped looking for spies, I joined MAP and began holding drum and dance sessions for refugees. In these gatherings held in San Diego and Tijuana, we came up with opening and closing rituals, engaged our five senses, and took time for conscious breathing. We even drummed our feelings. When we debriefed after each session, people often said they forgot their worries and felt a sense of belonging. On different occasions, some noted their headache was gone. Many said the feelings of well-being from the sessions lasted a few days to a week.

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When dancing is performed in community and combined with rituals, the outcomes can be particularly beneficial for the participants. In a small 2015 Duke University study, researchers with the help of the Congolese dancer and educator Mabiba Baegne modified the Zebola ceremony, an African healing practice, to be religion-neutral and to involve only moderate exercise. Most of the 15 study participants who were living with a chronic illness described an increased exercise tolerance, stress reduction, and feelings of group support following the experience.

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“Generally this form of healing (ritualized dancing, singing, chanting, drumming) is referred to as an endogenous healing response,” says Samantha Hurst, a medical anthropologist at the University of California San Diego. Endogenous healing involves the autonomic nervous system that regulates bodily functions, such as the heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. The response “may include susceptibility to suggestion, positive expectation and hope, relaxation, enhancing personal well-being through a support system, and the release of repressed psychological reactions such as guilt, shame, and catharsis.”

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My regular dance sessions with shelters in Tijuana were cut short in 2020, when, for the second time in my life, I found myself hesitant to dance with others. Now, it wasn’t the Morality Police but a virus that made it unsafe to gather for a party. Losing people, not to the war, but to the pandemic, became part of my daily reality. But just as people in Iran refuse to forgo dancing even during the grimmest of circumstances, asylum-seekers stuck in Mexico wanted to keep our sessions going. So last spring, we pivoted to Zoom. I was alone in my living room, while the asylum-seekers were confined in the shelter. There was a lot of trial and error, but we eventually figured things out. I missed being there in person and hugging the kids, but our connection remained intact—we blew kisses to one another and made heart signs with our hands. We yelled, “I love you,” over and over again.

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When an individual moves in a group setting, they receive sensory feedback of their relationship with others. “They perceive themselves as a part of something larger,” dancer and author of Why We Dance Kimerer LaMothe explains. “They share in the common reality of the dance.” Participants also experience being moved by the beat, the song, memories, the collective energy, and other dancers. “This is the paradox of dancing together: a person has the potential to feel both connected and singular. Bonded and uplifted as an individual.”

As we find ways to mitigate the effects of the past 18 months, those of us who can should count on dancing together to enhance a sense of safety and belonging, and to support us in healing. As for me, I’m thrilled that we’ll soon hold our first session in person with refugees in Tijuana.

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