The Daily Telegraph 'Keep dancing' That’s easier said than done – until now... by Linda Kelsey

'Keep dancing?’ That’s easier said than done – until now... by Linda Kelsey

“As winter gloom and existential worries mount, a new dance programme is aiming to boost mental health at just the right time.” The Daily Telegraph’s Linda Kelsey took the Move-Assure Dance for Mental Wellbeing programme for a home-test. This is what she found.

A love of dance is all you need

Even the worst contestants on Strictly fill me with awe for their brilliance. Which probably tells you that dance is neither my forte nor my superpower.

But I do love to dance, preferably when no one else is looking. My partner, on the other hand, is ever-ready to boogie with me, and is inclined to select a track on Spotify when I’m in the middle of stirring something for supper and insist on a spontaneous jive session. He says that when I dance my face lights up, and he’s right; it’s hard not to be happy when you’re dancing, despite the pot on the stove boiling over.

Which is why Move-Assure, the new dance programme for mental wellbeing, has come along – for me, at least, and I suspect many others as winter gloom and existential worries mount – at just the right moment. With a history of anxiety and depression going back more than two decades, and which occasionally comes back to haunt me, I’ve lately been going through a periodic slump.

When you’re down you feel zapped of energy and it’s hard to get motivated. You certainly don’t feel like dancing. But one look at Dame Darcey Bussell’s lovely face and encouraging demeanour, as she takes us through her dance programme alongside Dr Peter Lovatt, a jovial former pro dancer who became a dance psychologist and founded the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire, gets my endorphin levels, if not exactly soaring, at least off the floor.

Dance in the safety of your own home

Having the great prima ballerina that is Darcey Bussell as your teacher, if you actually had to be in the same room, would be beyond intimidating. But in the safety of your own home, in an online setting, you have the great advantage of watching while not being watched. She beams out at you and thankfully can’t see you tripping over your own feet, having to repeat the simplest of routines again and again to get it right, or putting her on hold while you go and fortify yourself with a coffee (not recommended).

It feels quite an honour to be put through your paces by a supremely talented ballerina who manages to look genuinely pleased to be giving you a taste of her talent with these short, sharp routines that only command 20 minutes of your time (including the warm-up and cool-down).

In the past 15 years, since formally retiring as a prima ballerina, Dame Darcey has worked tirelessly, and not just as a Strictly judge, to promote dance as something we can all both appreciate and engage in. Her DDMIX (Diverse Dance Mix) programme has been rolled out to state primary schools across the country and is a not-for-profit programme written in line with the national curriculum.

Understanding the impact

Move-Assure takes some of the DDMIX dances and rearranges them specifically as mood-enhancing mini dances which she performs in casual workout wear and trainers alongside the affable Lovatt, also affectionately known as Dr Dance.

She first met Peter Lovatt, she tells me, when she was making the BBC documentary Dancing To Happiness, which investigated why dance, more than any other form of exercise, has such a positive effect on mood and behaviour.

It seemed a natural progression to collaborate with Lovatt and his wife Lindsey, an experienced NHS occupational therapist specialising in mental health, on a programme that was more specifically directed towards mental wellbeing, something that would “focus on those individuals who are perhaps finding it hard to get out of the house each day”. Which is a bit how I’ve been feeling lately. But it could equally be used in the workplace as part of a company wellbeing programme.

Dr Dance has spent more than 20 years working in university laboratories to understand the impacts of movement on a wide range of human characteristics. These include our social relationships, thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as how movement and dance can help us to communicate emotionally or unblock emotions within us.

But it was a brush with cancer that propelled him to use dance to help with the mental challenges associated with the Big C. “I tried to be positive but was overcome with negative/catastrophising thoughts,” he explains. “My emotions bounced all over the place and interpersonal relationships were strained in new ways.”

Finding balance

Dancing, says Lovatt, helped him from diagnosis to surgery preparation and through rehab, to find balance in many areas of his life. “It gave me time off from catastrophising, it helped to control and regulate my emotions and it helped me to connect with Lindsey when neither of us could say what we were thinking. We quickly saw what Move-Assure could be – a dance for mental wellbeing programme, so, together with Darcey, we designed and created the 60 session, 20-week graded programme.”

The virtues of dance for mental, as well as physical, health, have been extolled, too, by Michael Mosley, best known for the 5:2 diet, but also presenter of the BBC’s Just One Thing, the podcast that focuses on individual, scientifically-proven things that can be done to improve your body and soul. He cites studies involving dance and movement that can reduce anxiety and depression as well as improving quality of life and cognitive skills.

One Korean study showed raised levels of serotonin, the mood-stabilising hormone, in depressed teenagers after a 12-week dance programme. Another study cited by Mosley, involving older adults and their hobbies and dancing, was associated with a 76 per cent reduction in the risk of dementia. What’s not to love about an activity that improves your mood and keeps your brain functioning well?

Efficient exercise

My go-to exercise when I feel anxious is walking. I enjoy it for itself and it always helps to calm me. It’s something I will continue to do until I can no longer put one foot in front of the other. But the problem with walking is the time it takes. To get the real health benefits that come with 10,000 steps takes the average person around 1 hour and 40 minutes, not time I can always find in the day; and while a couple of rounds of the block will lift my mood more than if I stay in, it doesn’t feel sufficient.

Let’s be clear, Move-Assure is not a programme designed for dancers, it’s for people who are finding it hard to cope with the normal stresses of life. It’s what I’d call a manageable challenge if you’re not a natural at dance routines, as it demands focus to co-ordinate arms and legs. When I feel anxious I need to be distracted from myself, and dancing is proving to do the trick.

At the start of Week 1, I’m a tad nervous. I begin with the simple wellbeing quiz to test my mood right now. It’s not too great, but, according to the analysis, not as bad as I feared.

The programme starts and Dame Darcey and Dr D introduce themselves as, respectively, The Mover and The Scientist. Each week’s programme of three sessions is accompanied by wellbeing tips, which, with suggestions such as try a new recipe for dinner this week, feel a little basic for my taste but may be what people need to hear when bed is the only thing that beckons and motivation is at rock bottom.

It’s the actual routine that’s causing me concern. What if I can’t do it? Then I remember that there’s no one watching to see me fail and I can always backtrack at the press of a digit on my keyboard and do it again. The warm-up, to a jazzed-up version of Swan Lake, is a cinch and unknots my neck. Then comes Dance No 1, inspired by African rhythms and designed to reduce tension.

A couple of minutes in I’m being asked to step to the side and behind while hovering my arms like I’m pushing down on the hot African air. A few slow goes and some more basic moves and the pace picks up, and I lose it, but I’m also laughing. This is fun. After the cool-down comes a quick free-dance moment as Bussell and Lovatt bounce around on the sand in a seaside setting and I jiggle around my office between the computer and the wall. And that’s it.

Three sessions a week

Based on the recommended three sessions a week I decide to schedule my sessions into a specific, 9am time slot before I start my working day, so it becomes a fixed routine and I’ll be sure to do it. Session No 2 leaves Africa behind and steps into an extremely pared-down version of voguing, devised by gay New Yorkers in the 1980s and popularised by Madonna. Several weeks in to the programme and I’ve tried dances inspired by Bali and Japan, mimicked a lumberjack and done a mini-Charleston.

As a writer who works from a desk at home, and sometimes doesn’t talk to another soul all day, getting into the groove with Darcey and Dr Dance makes me feel more connected to the outside world without being a major interruption. It may just be a coincidence that my mood is improving but I’m inclined to give my dance breaks the benefit of the doubt.