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The next time you’re jamming to a Wiz Khalifa song or rocking out to 1D, take a moment to notice how you feel. Do you think it’s just the upbeat tune that puts you in a better mood? Sure, research has shown that music can have a profound effect on mood, but dance also has emotional, physical, and social benefits.

Dancing for change

Some people dance for the music or pure joy of the movement, but Anna Pasternak, founder of dance-outreach program Movement Exchange, uses her love of dance to create social change. Three times a year, Pasternak and her volunteer high school and college students travel abroad to Panama and India to bring dance workshops to underprivileged youth.

“Movement Exchange is truly the result of my desire as a dancer to make a positive difference in our world. I wanted to give back, and my tool was dance,” she says. Since starting in 2011, Movement Exchange has reached 6,500 young people at orphanages and youth foundations and established six university chapters.

“Through dance education, Movement Exchange nurtures teamwork, empathy, self-worth, and creative and critical thinking in youth, domestically and internationally,” says Pasternak.“ We are providing a safe space to express feelings and emotions through dance. Movement is therapeutic for all of us.”

Students agree that dance is a safe environment to explore self-expression. “It makes me feel free and happy. It allows me to let go and express myself,” says Nathalia, from Trenton, New Jersey.

Whether you want to share your love of dance with the world or break it down in the privacy of your bedroom, there are plenty of reasons to try dancing. Here are 10 surprising reasons to bust a move.

1. Boost your confidence

Ever tackled a hard math problem or memorized the Gettysburg Address? The confidence you get from achieving those goals can be gained through dancing too. “I love dancing. It relieves stress and makes me feel more confident in who I am as a person,” says Megan*, from Worcester, Massachusetts.

Whether it’s learning a complicated step or finally connecting to your body’s movement, dance can help your self-esteem soar. Confidence bloomed in the Movement Exchange volunteers too. “We’ve had people come in with no dance experience. [After] a year or two, now they’re leading dance workshops. They’ve really been empowered and found a home in it,” says Nick Huster, outreach coordinator at Movement Exchange.

How you can build confidence through dance:
  • If you want to work on your pliés or Jazz Square, attend a formal class at a studio. The instructor will help you learn new skills in a structured environment.
  • Dance in front of a mirror and try out your own moves in the privacy of your bedroom.

2. Get fit

Dancing as cardio exercise is growing in popularity, especially in high school physical education programs. You’ve probably also heard of dance fitness crazes like Zumba® and Dance Dance Revolution.

At York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, co-ed Dance Fitness is offered as part of the curriculum.“I can’t get [the students] to stop moving!” says physical education instructor Michelle Scurlock.

“Even if it’s a regular dance class and we’re not moving aerobically, we’re still getting a good workout. We’re moving for 45 minutes straight. It works on flexibility, strength, and other aspects of physical fitness,” says Anna Sapozhnikov, performing arts dance teacher at York.

How you can find dance fitness opportunities:
  • Community centers and gyms usually offer dance exercise classes, like Jazzercise® or Zumba®.
  • Get your DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) on or try out other dance video games like Just Dance and Zumba Fitness.
  • Check out YouTube; there are tons of great dance tutorials.

3. Become a leader

Nick, a 2011 graduate of Indiana University, never thought he would lead a workshop in capoeira, a Brazilian dance incorporating martial arts, when he first volunteered with Movement Exchange. “I hadn’t really taught anything [before],” he says. But the positive reaction from the students gave him confidence and the ability to share his passion. “That was the moment I realized I love the connection with youth.”

Dancers share their stories and inspire others through their movement. To perform a dance routine with a group, you have to work together as part of a team, and that takes leadership skills.

How you can use dance to build leadership skills:
  • Volunteer at an after-school dance class for kids or teach your younger brother/sister some moves.
  • Join a dance outreach organization like Movement Exchange.
  • Get your friends together and choreograph a routine to your favorite song.
  • Start a dance group or club at your school.

4. Connect culturally

Cultures from all over the world have created their own dance styles, some of which are centuries old. Trying out a style of dance from another country can help bridge the cultural divide.

Movement Exchange volunteers have brought their training in Indian dance, West African dance, samba, Chinese ribbon dance, ballet, and Mexican folkloric dance to the workshops in Panama and India, says Kimberly Lucht, director of outreach for Movement Exchange.

Here are some ways you can make cultural connections through dance:
  • Take Flamenco or Salsa lessons and polish your Spanish skills at the same time.
  • Check out a cultural dance performance in your city or town. This can be a great way to learn about a new culture.
  • Attend a unique dance event, such as a historical ball. Organizations like Commonwealth Vintage Dancersand Country Dancers of Rochester host events inspired by different time periods, such as the Regency era in England and Civil War America.

5. Give back

“As a high school or college student, you have a voice and can make a difference in your local or international community,” says Pasternak. “It’s becoming increasingly important in our world to have international experience and [to] be a global citizen.”

Think globally and act locally. Learning to give back unites people by working toward a common goal. If you don’t want to dance or can’t travel abroad, find out how you can start in your own town by helping others:

  • Plant a community garden
  • Give blood (if you’re 17 or older) or volunteer with the American Red Cross
  • Organize a food drive or get involved with global foodbanking
  • Help students who are English language learners by offering assistance with their homework

“It’s really important for people to learn to give back. All the gifts and tools I learned [are] to share with others. I definitely learned to be a bit more selfless,” says Syon, a recent graduate of Azusa Pacific University in California.

6. Learn a new language

You don’t have to speak the same language to communicate through dance. Even if you don’t dance, researchers agree that body language speaks more for you than the words you say. How you stand, sit, and move can give others clues about your personality and mood.

Dance can be considered a language on its own. When Movement Exchange volunteers travel to Panama and India, they break the language barrier through dance. Whether the dance tells a Panamanian folktale or simply involves the entire group of locals and volunteers moving as one, dance unites and creates a global community.

7. Make new friends

“I have met some of my dearest friends through dance,” says Julia, a high school junior from Tucson, Arizona. “The relationships I have made with other dancers are friendships that I treasure and will truly last a lifetime.”

It can be hard for some of us to make friends and get involved socially in high school. But many dance communities are welcoming to everyone, regardless of skill. Love Irish step dance? Tango? Hip hop? You’re bound to find things you have in common with the other dancers and form new friendships.

Here are some ways you can make social connections through dance:
  • Join a dance club or meet-up with friends to work on a routine.
  • Did you get partnered in P.E. with someone new? Laugh off your embarrassing dance skills together.
  • Maybe the quiet girl from science class is a hip hop phenom. Try asking her for a few dance pointers. She might even help you understand your bio homework.
  • Meet other dancers at a flash mob or dance show.
  • Get involved with a theater group at school or in your community.

8. Express yourself

Thirty-six percent of students say their favorite place to dance is in public, like at a wedding or club, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. About the same number of students (35 percent) said they’d rather dance in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Wherever you decide to do it, dance can help you feel good. “I enjoy dancing because it is pure expression. I just feel happy because I can [dance] without any cares,” says Adam*, first-year student at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

Dance is a freeing art form that enables everyone, without judgment, to explore how the body moves and communicates with the audience. “Students don’t have to use their voices to communicate,” says Anna Sapozhnikov, performing arts dance instructor at York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois. “I see the biggest change in [shy students]. It’s a place for them to express themselves.”

Here’s how you can try some creative self-expression:
  • Attach your phone to some speakers and have a dance party in your living room.
  • Take a private dance class not associated with your school. Being in a different environment might help you feel more comfortable.
  • Check out YouTube instructional videos for all types of dance.
Try these channels:
  • VincaniTV: Awesome breakdancing tips.
  • DanceTutorialsLIVE: Lessons from world-renowned dance teachers.
  • Addicted2Salsa: Step-by-step salsa instructions.
  • JamTimeDanceTV: Easy hip-hop routines.

9. Relieve stress and anxiety

Ever felt better after doing something you enjoy? Dance has been linked to reduced stress and anxiety. While the research on its effectiveness is somewhat limited, the American Cancer Society recommends dance therapy as a way to improve self-esteem and lower stress.

Dance is sometimes used as a therapy tool for its physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Research has shown that it can reduce the anxiety of patients who have cancer. A 2009 study also found that participants who tango danced with a partner had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

“Dancing isn’t my [favorite] activity, but it’s fun and relieves stress. When I’m not stressed I am definitely a happy person,” says a first-year graduate student*.

10. Love your body

It’s not how you look; it’s how you move. York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois uses Dance Fitness class to help students connect to how their bodies move.

Slideshows about dance history show students pictures of different-sized performers. “It really helps [students] see that any body can move,” says Anna Sapozhnikov, York’s performing arts dance instructor.

Research has shown that dance can help improve body image and self-esteem. A 2006 study involving 50 British girls ages 13–14 demonstrated that a 6-week dance aerobic program helped the participants have a more positive body image and sense of self-worth, along with reduced dissatisfaction with their bodies.

*Names changed for privacy

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Article sources

Anna Pasternak, founder, Movement Exchange, Half Moon Bay, CA.

Kimberly Lucht, outreach coordinator, Movement Exchange, Half Moon Bay, CA.

Anna Sapozhnikov, performing arts instructor, York Community High School, Elmhurst, Illinois.

Michelle Scurlock, physical education instructor, York Community High School, Elmhurst, Illinois.

Adams, K. (2012, December). Making it happen: Dancing to change. Dance Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.dancemagazine.com/issues/December-2012/Making-It-Happen-Dancing-to-Change

American Cancer Society. (2008, November 1). Dance therapy. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/mindbodyandspirit/dance-therapy

Boehm, K., Cramer, H., Staroszynski, T., & Ostermann, T. (2014). Arts therapies for anxiety, depression, and quality of life in breast cancer patients: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2014/103297/

Burgess, G., Grogan, S., & Burwitz, L. (2006). Effects of a 6-week aerobic dance intervention on body image and physical self-perceptions in adolescent girls. Body Image, 3(1), 57. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1740144505000811

Carney, C. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363. Retrieved from https://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/dana_carney/power.poses.PS.2010.pdf

Kourkouta, L., Rarra, A., Mavroeidi, A., & Prodromidis, K. (2014). The contribution of dance on children’s health. Progress in Health Sciences, 4(1), 229. Retrieved from https://go.galegroup.com/ps/dispBasicSearch.do?prodId=HRCA&userGroupName=mlin_c_beaman

Murcia, C. Q., Bongard, S., & Kreutz, G. (2009). Emotional and neurohumoral responses to dancing Tango Argentino: The effects of music and partner. Music and Medicine, 1(1), 14. Retrieved from https://mmd.sagepub.com/content/1/1/14.short

Oreck, Barry. (2006). Artistic choices: A study of teachers who use the arts in the classroom. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 7(8). Retrieved from https://www.ijea.org/v7n8/

York Community High School. (n.d.). Physical education. Retrieved from https://york.elmhurst205.org/PE