Shaking the Blues Away
Updated: Feb 20
Imagine me, nine years old: my teeth are too big for my head, my head is too big for my body, I feed my Barbie dolls Smarties because they’re just the right size to be Barbie cookies (and by feed my Barbie dolls, I obviously mean that I was eating all of the Smarties). I have also just auditioned for a ballet company and made it! It’s the best time of my life. I’ve peaked. For our first performance, we’re dancing to a whole medley of Doris Day songs, the most important of which is “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” The secondmost important song, however, is “Shaking the Blues Away.” As you can envision, there are many pre-teen girls doing awkward yet enthusiastic jazz hands and it is glorious.
Now, imagine me in my early twenties: I am (somehow) a college graduate but I dream about a time when I was too young to be expected to pay my own rent. It’s been eight years since I took an actual ballet class (a fact that shakes me to my core), but you know what I still do? That’s right: I do what Doris Day told me to and I shake my blues away.
Since the beginning of time (probably), people have been using dance as a way to express emotions and bond with other people. (I think that might be a line from Hairspray.) In more recent years, there has been an increase in people using dance to overcome mental challenges and to learn how to become more in tune with their bodies. Personally, I think that everyone should be dancing all the time. Life should be a poorly choreographed flash mob, in the sense that it isn’t choreographed at all and everyone is just doing whatever they want. Maybe what I really mean is that life should be a mosh pit with less yelling and more boundaries.
There are so many incredible things about dancing, not the least of which is the health benefits. Crazy as it seems, dance is a form of exercise! Dancing can increase cardiovascular strength and muscle tone and strengthen bones. It gives you better aerobic and motor fitness and better balance. It’s an especially great workout because the movements are more random than if you’re running or walking, so your body doesn’t get as used to the patterns. Like any exercise, dancing will give you endorphins and help you get more in shape and teach you to be aware of your body. (Don’t take this to the bank as my understanding of biology is not perfect, but I feel like 30% sure that doing ballet while I was growing up is what keeps my metabolism running now; you might say it’s genetics, I say it’s arabesques.)
In addition to the physical benefits of dancing are the mental benefits. Dancing encourages increased mental function (or at least it helps you count to eight almost instinctually). Dance can improve visual recognition, decision-making, spatial awareness, long-term memory, and executive function. It has been connected to improved white matter in the brains of adults, which may help lower the risk of dementia. In some cases, dancing is also used to help people with Parkinson’s disease, as it can lead to a lower risk of falls and better control of motor functioning. If that’s not enough, when I was doing ballet my instructor told me that dancing would make me better at math. Again, I don’t know the science behind it, but let’s just say I was a straight-A math student.
In mind-body practices, dance is used as a form of active meditation. It can get us out of our heads and into the moment, breaking us out of fixed thought patterns. Letting yourself move your body around can help you gain clarity about a situation in the same way that meditation does. It helps you raise your energy levels and changes the energy you feel in a room. It can help you let go and shake off the worries of the day, even if it only lasts for a second. Our minds and our bodies are so interconnected that it is impossible to fully separate them or to argue that they have no influence on each other. Why shouldn’t shaking your body around have a shaking effect on the way that you think?
For many, many years I was told that dance is the universal language, and I think that it’s true. So much of communication is in body language and nonverbal cues, and dance is just an exaggerated form of both. In every culture I can think of people dance to form social bonds, to celebrate milestones, and to express emotions without needing to find words. Unlike language, you often don’t need a translator to understand the message of a dance.
Now that I’ve convinced you that dancing is the best, what I really want to argue for here is doing it spontaneously. I’m not saying that you should start taking dance classes (although you definitely should if you want to). I’m saying that Grey’s Anatomy knows what’s up when Cristina and Meredith start dancing in their living room or that room in the hospital with all the beds that I can’t remember the name of. If you need to plan it, you can, but sometimes all you really need is to just turn on the music and stand there until your body starts moving and your brain relaxes. Let it sweep you away.
If you’re a brain in a jar, dancing will not be beneficial to you, but as a helpful neighborly type, that is what I suggest. Turn on the music and let your body do whatever it wants. Stop thinking that you have to be in control of every moment and every aspect of your life. Dancing is so much fun, and it can spread into every aspect of your life if you’re willing to let it. When you’re sad or lethargic, it’s easy to sit there and keep feeling that way forever, but movement can help you get past that. When your body is stuck in one place it tends to feel like your entire being is bogged down, but it doesn’t have to be true. Wiggle your fingers. Shake your legs. Jump around a little bit. Close your eyes so you can’t see how silly (or elegant) you look in any reflective surfaces. Your dancing doesn’t need to be graceful, because you aren’t doing it for anyone else. Just shake your blues (or whatever you need to) away.
Do you enjoy dancing? What are some of your favorite songs to dance to or places to dance? Let us know in the comments! (And share your favorite dance moves so we know what to do next time we need a dance party.)