Dancing for health and empowerment

The impact of dance on the health, well-being and the sense of empowerment of young people is the focus of a new report by scientists in the School of Biomedical Sciences and Yorkshire Dance.

The research, funded by Arts Council England’s Research Grants programme, focused on two groups of young people, aged between 10 and 20, living in an area of East Leeds.

Over 10 months, they took part in free dance sessions for up to two hours every week at Yorkshire Dance’s base at Quarry Hill, Leeds.

Researchers from the University’s School of Biomedical Sciences used a combination of interviews, participant observation, informal conversations and questionnaires to collect data throughout the project. Study results suggest that the young people experienced improved perceptions of their quality of life because of dance.

 Recreational dance helped them to feel happier, increase confidence, develop social skills, express themselves in creative ways, and promote active lifestyles and healthy habits. It also played a role in reducing stress by helping them to cope with difficult issues they faced in their lives.

 Dance, as an art-form, offered a unique opportunity to empower young people to take charge of their own health and well-being, the report found.

 Among the comments from people who took part in the programme were:

  • “I would like probably hit a wall if I was really mad because that’s just the person I am, but with dance you can just channel it in a way and it just gets everything out.”
  • “I feel so much better after I’ve danced. If I’ve spent a day not dancing, I’m not happy.”
  • “Coming to dance helps me concentrate on one thing at a time. Put my problems to one side. It takes my mind off everything, and it gives me less stress.”
  • “You can express how you feel through movements. If I'm feeling angry you'll probably notice because my movement's massive or if I'm feeling a bit tired you'll notice because I'm a little bit down on the floor.”

Impact beyond dancing

Parents and teachers of the participants also observed positive effects that the dance sessions created. One parent said of her daughter: “It’s made her more confident. It’s brought her out of her shell.”

A school teacher said that the dance programme had improved the young people’s social skills and the way they communicated. She said: “They have to work together when performing and devising… but also [have] the confidence to speak out in front of others.  “They are making changes … drinking more water to prevent dehydration. They’ve been more perceptive and aware of their own health and well-being, even with what they eat.”

For some of the participants, dedication to dance and the significant amount of time devoted to the activity resulted in tensions and conflicts with an already busy life – an effect often found when young people take part in sports and activities while trying to balance demands at school.

A small number of the younger participants highlighted occasional tensions within their groups, within the overall context of a positive, beneficial and well-organised sessions.

Read the full report: Dance for Health, Well-being and Empowerment of Young People.

Dr Shaunna Burke, from the School of Biomedical Sciences, lead researcher on the programme, said: “A key challenge remains in providing opportunities for young people who live in deprived communities to participate in health-enhancing activities in order to reduce the negative impact of economic disadvantage on health outcomes.

“Physical activity through community-based dance may provide one solution to this problem by encouraging youth to adopt healthier lifestyles. Our data show that participation in a community-based recreational dance programme improved perceptions of quality of life across psychological, social, and physical domains of well-being.

Wieke Eringa, Artistic Director of Yorkshire Dance, said: “We’re delighted to have been able to work with the team from University of Leeds to back up our own instinctive and observed ideas about the benefits of dance with their robust, rigorous academic research.

“This kind of research evidences how dance can support young people in meeting a growing number of challenges as well as proving stimulating learning. It clearly strengthens the case for investment in dance within schools and in healthcare in order to support wellbeing and self efficacy.”

The company of young people, Yorkshire Dance Youth, continues to meet every Wednesday evening. Anyone aged between 11 and 19 is welcome to join, whatever their level of experience. Yorkshire Dance offers full and partial bursaries to ensure that anyone is able to take part.

Long-term relationship

This programme complements an existing partnership between Yorkshire Dance with the University of Leeds, studying the health and well-being benefits of dance for older adults. The long-running collaboration, supported by the University’s Cultural Institute, provides a tangible example of how knowledge created by researchers and creative practitioners coming together can have a significant impact on people’s lives, contributing new evidence of the impact of dance to health, well-being and empowerment.

A sold-out symposium exploring the intersection of arts and health, hosted by the Cultural Institute, takes place on Wednesday.

Further information

Journalists with questions or interview requests should contact Peter Le Riche, Media Relations Manager, University of Leeds on +44(0)113 343 2049 or email p.leriche@leeds.ac.uk