Dancing from the heart

According to psychologists, dance can not only help improve our mood and fitness, it can aid creativity and make us feel more alive. Jini Reddy discovers how even novice dancers have no excuse not to get their bodies moving

My toes are gripping the springy floor and I scan the room. I’m relieved to see that none of my fellow dancers are in a tutu. Our ages run the gamut from 18 to 80 and collectively we’ll never make it onto the West End stage. But no one much cares. The reason? This is a Laban Dance Movement Choir and experience, age and appearance are irrelevant.

“A movement choir is a means of touching and enhancing one’s inner life,” explains choreographer and lecturer Anna Carlisle at a talk that precedes the workshop at Guildford’s University of Surrey. “It’s about simplicity of movement and enabling people to experience alone and together the emotional, physical and spiritual forces united in dance. It’s not necessarily designed for performance to an audience.”

It’s a fantastically accessible form of community dance and a chance to join a large group of people (both trained dancers and novices alike) and over the course of a day or afternoon to work together to create a piece of choreography known as a choir. It was dreamed up in the 1920s by Rudolf Von Laban, a performer and choreographer who was based in Germany and then England. Today, the Laban Guild, which promotes dance and movement inspired by him, is trying to bring it to more people.

“Movement choirs are very much needed in these days of speed, electronic devices, adulation of left-brain thinking, self-centredness and individualism,” says Carlisle.

“Moving our bodies in different ways can help us to think differently and get out of a rut.”

It sounds promising, but I still nervously edge my way onto the studio floor, where we unfurl our bodies in a warm-up. I used to dance at university as part of an amateur ensemble but the intervening years have turned me into a stiff, uncoordinated novice and it’s a shock to the system to suddenly be a part of this confident, moving mass.

“Today is a chance to be creative and take part in something which begins, develops and comes to a climax of oneness and wholeness,” says Susi Thornton, a dancer and choreographer who has taken part in and led movement choirs for many decades. She’s also the woman in charge of turning our 40-strong group of strangers into a tightly knit group by afternoon’s end.

We’re divided into groups, each led by a facilitator, and individual dancers within groups enact loosely defined roles that relate to life as it unfolded in the first world war, our theme. (Its hundredth anniversary is this year). In one bit, I find myself fearfully crouching and crawling away from soldiers who’ve arrived in ‘our’ village. I hide in a thicket made from waving limbs, before being pulled away to march off to war. Other dancers join the march which turns into a big weaving, kinetic circle.

Motifs of loss, parting, the boredom of war and the joy of its ending – all of these are rehearsed and danced until miraculously it all comes together in one gentle, flowing, improvised, and at times synchronised, performance. We reach a climax at the end, and stand united, our arms aloft.

The experience is deepening and ignites a desire to explore other forms of the art.

But why, I wonder, does dance nourish in a way that ordinary exercise doesn’t?

To find out I meet Peter Lovatt, a dance psychologist. Trained in dance and musical theatre – the opposite end of the spectrum to the Laban style of dance – and a reader and lecturer in psychology at the University of Hertfortshire, Lovatt looks at the ways in which the artform impacts on our health and wellbeing.

“Research has shown that moving our bodies in different ways can help us to think differently and get out of a rut,” he says. “For example, standing in a powerful pose changes our hormonal state for the better and moving in an improvised, unplanned way can make us think more creatively. It’s amazing, but the scientific literature suggests that the way we hold and move our body changes our chemistry and our thoughts.”

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Lovatt’s enthusiasm is infectious. At a Dance Psychology Lab event at the Museum of London (in which he demonstrates how dance has been used as a human mating ritual)I witness the way he effortlessly inspires a jam-packed hall to shimmy, salsa and, er, twerk. It’s fun and uplifting – dance for all at its most light-hearted.

“We know that dance is a great way to improve people’s mood and general health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that dancing can help reduce feelings of depression and increase feeling of vigour, making you feel more alive. It has also been shown to help some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease,” he says.

“But there is not one particular dance that is more likely to offer uplift. This is because, like music, different people respond to different types of dance.”

Fired up, I have a one-to-one session with movement teacher and dance artist Alexandra Baybutt which helps me to move and communicate with more grace and power. “You’re padding about like a cat,” she says approvingly at the end of it (in contrast to my plodding steps at the start.)

Propelled onward, I sign up for a class at the learning arm of Rambert, the national company for contemporary dance. Rambert prioritises dance in the community – offering workshops to schoolchildren, teens, adults and seniors alike throughout the UK.

At the end of the first class, I’m sweating and cursing my poor memory and the tortoise-like speed at which I pick up the moves – but I’m also exhilarated, expressing from my heart and experiencing something close to undiluted joy. Not letting my self-doubts stop me from diving back into dance has been a salutary lesson.

If you’re convinced you’ve got two left feet (or have a disability that leaves you unable to walk) take heart from Lovatt’s words: “Everyone has rhythm. Everyone. Our bodies function in rhythms. You might not be able to feel your rhythm, but it’s there waiting for you. Dance, and your rhythm will come.”

The next Movement Choir, Dance in a Day, will take place on 7 November at the Barbican, London