Photo by Michaela Xydi
Barcelona is a city that likes to dance. You can find dance schools and clubs that offer everything from waltz classes for weddings to hip hop for kids or salsa for seniors. For centuries, dance has been an important part of the culture and an important local pastime: the opening scene of La plaça del Diamant begins at a dance, for instance, and every festival here includes music and dancing. However, it’s been proven that dance provides a lot more than a great way to spend your free time. As a dance teacher, I have witnessed first-hand the various positive effects that it can have on students, while Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) is a recognised way to treat different ailments, both physical and mental.
Dance has been an important part of ceremonial and religious events, self expression and health in most cultures throughout history. Barcelona’s dance scene is a good example of this, with a variety of genres popular here for centuries due in no small part to the cultural melting-pot that the city represents. Gypsy immigration in the 15th century, for example, brought about a diversification in local dance, while flamenco arrived in 1827 with the premiere of La Gitanilla at the Teatre de la Santa Creu (currently known as the Teatre Principal). The salsa scene began to thrive here at the end of the Eighties, although one of Barcelona’s first salsa clubs, ‘Bikini’, opened its doors back in the Fifties. And let’s not forget the sardana, Catalunya’s national dance. An ancient custom with roots that are difficult to trace, it was revived in the 19th century and is still widely danced today. Banned during the Franco dictatorship, the sardana has taken on a larger political significance and has become a unifying symbol of Catalan cultural identity. My student Meritxell, a fervent pro-independence supporter, says “there is nothing like that in any other part of the world and it distinguishes us.”
Whatever your motivation, there is no lack of opportunity to get your body moving here. So what are the benefits of an hour or more of dance? DMT is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.” The use of dance as a complement to conventional Western medical therapy began in 1942 through the work of Marian Chace, one of the founders of modern dance therapy. In 1993, the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institute of Health in the US provided a research grant to explore dance therapy for people with medical illnesses. There are now more than 1,200 dance therapists in the United States and abroad, and in 2001, the Asociación Danza Movimiento Terapia Española (ADMTE) was born here in Spain.
Isabel Gomà, a Catalan psychologist and trained Dance Movement Therapist, says: “In general we could say that DMT allows you to get to know yourself from a new point of view, explore different aspects in an experimental way, integrating thoughts, emotions and sensations that at times seem disparate.”
Using dance as a way to understand the self has taken root in Barcelona. For example, the Yoga Transforma centre in the Bonanova neighbourhood offers group courses in the exploration of subjects such as self confidence and the connection between the mind and body, all done via movement.
Across the globe, dance therapy is being widely used. In a recent study by The American Cancer Society, a group of breast cancer survivors took part in a 12-week DMT class. The women who had dance therapy showed a better movement in their shoulders than those who had not taken the class, and their perceptions of their bodies also improved. A clinical report done by the same organisation suggests that, “Dance therapy helps in developing body image; improving self-concept and self-esteem; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression; decreasing isolation, chronic pain and body tension.”
Technical definitions aside, on a day-to-day basis dance is utilised as a positive means to increase communication skills and feelings of well-being, something that dance teachers bear witness to in every class. My own background is as a Bollywood dance instructor, a career which I began in London in 2003. Bollywood dance provides knowledge of another wonderfully rich culture, one which is steeped in Hindu spirituality. It is also an energetic, at times comical and romanticised musical experience. In 2005, I was dancing in Mumbai, and during 2007, I lived and taught in South America. At the end of 2008, I moved to the Costa Brava to train under the salsa partnership, LatinJam, and so began my own love affair with Catalunya and its dance scene.
The job of a dance teacher is multi-faceted—we aim to destroy any bad energy that arrives in the dance studio in the form of tired students, and to turn this into a transformative moment in which one can shake off any accumulated anxiety. An exciting realisation for a dance educator is that the skills gained and the emotions explored in our dance classes can easily be transferred to any aspect of one’s life, both professional and personal. As such, I spoke to various Barcelona-based colleagues about how dance can function as therapy for its practitioners.
Sharmini Tharmaratnam is a Sri Lankan/Dutch teacher of classical and contemporary dances from India. She believes that any activity in which you are forced to focus can be perceived as a therapy. “It is scientifically proven how sounds, colours, touch and smells influence the chakras or points of energy in the body, and can really serve as a medical therapy.” For her, dance is freedom.
David Cascón García is a Barcelona-born dance instructor. He specialises in lambazouk (the fusion of the Brazilian dance lambada with modernised zouk music, which originated in the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique), salsa and bachata, and is director of the company Lambazouk Emotion. He confirms my belief that dance instructors are ‘bad energy destroyers’, quoting the Latin phrase ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body). He adds that “there is nothing that I dislike about dance in its purest definition”, highlighting the intensely positive relationship that dancers have with their work.
Similarly, Xavi Mártinez López, of the group ZoukLambada Barcelona, says that their motto is, “To dance is the closest thing to being happy.”
Maybe the key to dance as therapy is the freedom of expression that it provides. Every student or patient dances differently, which is worthy of celebration. When practised in the supportive environment of a DMT clinic or studio, the group nature of the classes offers a chance to intimately connect with others, whilst curing mental or physical ailments. A dance class offers a dose of self-healing without having to enrol in a specific therapy-based course, but the emphasis is still clearly on the improvement of health. Teaching others to dance is a vocation that improves quality of life and heightens our very sense of being alive.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
I asked different dance students and practitioners what they get out of dancing.
CARLOS, one of my zouk dance partners: “At a mental level dance offers me peace and a way of escaping, and a [transformation] of problems from negative to positive.” He believes that there should be a consultancy in all hospitals in which they would give prescriptions for an hour or two of dance per day for all illnesses.
MÓNICA, one of my students: “For me the word is disconnection. In an hour you have to concentrate on being sexy, romantic, fun, to keep up, to think in the hands and feet... and all the while laughing so much.”
Tomasz, a student of lambazouk, is trained in martial arts. Recovering from an accident he decided to drop this potentially dangerous contact sport for salsa. He now combines salsa classes with zouk parties, dancing on a weekly basis. By nature Tomasz is very shy and dance helps him to control his body and gestures much better, and to feel much more confident in various social situations, including giving business talks in front of an audience.
Nuria from the group ZoukLambada Barcelona: “To teach dance is to help students get to know their bodies better, to exercise and to smile at life. Smiling is beneficial for the mind and emotions, and in turn helps to combat stress.”
Jessica, a salsa and zouk dancer: “Emotionally, how many of us... have felt disillusioned before going out to dance, and once having ended the session have left with our batteries charged and full of vitality?”
American Dance Therapy Assocation: www.adta.org
US National Institute of Health: www.nih.gov
Isabel Gomà: firstname.lastname@example.org
American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org