Dance movement as medicine: transforming neurological challenges
Movement as medicine- how can dance movement help in the treatment of some medical conditions, including neurological ones.
“Movement as medicine refers to the tendency of active people to have healthier muscles and flexibility than inactive people.” Photo Credit: Emma Warren, Photo: Camilla Greenwell. Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Movement as medicine
How can dance movement as medicine help in the treatment of some neurological conditions, including ADHD and dyspraxia.
“Five, six, seven, eight!” It’s a Wednesday night at an adult contemporary dance class at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in south London. I’m a lifelong dancer, but this was not my usual habitat: I’d been going to nightclubs and dark basements since my mid-teens and spent a professional lifetime writing about dance music, whether that was house and techno, or drum ’n’ bass and grime.
I could confidently find my spot on the dance floor in any situation, whether that was a live jazz jam in south London or a Wednesday night in a dive bar in São Paulo, where DJ Nuts played rare Brazilian seven-inches to a crowd who knew all the words – and all the moves – to all the songs. I’d class myself as a decent dancer with an above-decent experience of the dance floor.
It came as a surprise, then, that I was terrible at contemporary dance. I couldn’t pick up the steps, and whole sections of movement slipped out of my head as soon as we’d learned them. I turned right when we were supposed to turn left and I spent most of the first year finishing dance phrases facing the opposite direction to the rest of the class.
I’d improvise whole sections in the middle until I could find the steps again, my memory blanking out instructions like an out-of-control ‘delete’ button. Not matter how hard I tried, I could not absorb the teacher’s instructions.
This was extremely annoying, especially given my fluency and confidence in the dark corners of a club. I’d joke in the changing rooms – my legs are dyslexic! – but deep down it was frustrating and embarrassing. Sometimes I’d find a flow, though, and this was joyful. It kept me coming back week in, week out, for nearly two years.
Eventually, I realized that the problem wasn’t “dyslexic legs”. The problem was that I have many symptoms of dyspraxia, something that commonly occurs in people like me who have a diagnosis of neurofibromatosis, the most common of the rare neurological disorders.
What is Movement as Medicine?
Clumsiness and chromosome 17
Throughout my life, a distinct lack of coordination has followed me, especially when stress enters the picture. Simple mental arithmetic evades me, and my friends often find amusement in my comically poor sense of direction. I've consistently thrived in improvisational situations, outshining my ability to adhere to set instructions. In a comprehensive 2017 study encompassing 159 children afflicted with this neurogenetic condition, a staggering 61 percent displayed severe motor difficulties, frequently coinciding with diagnoses of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.
My struggles with physical awkwardness weren't mere personal traits but rather linked to chromosome 17, the site of the genetic anomaly responsible for neurofibromatosis. This study's authors underscored the tendency to underestimate the significance of developmental motor challenges within clinical settings, despite their potential to profoundly impact a child's quality of life. They highlighted compelling evidence that early interventions targeting motor skills, such as participation in dance classes, could yield positive outcomes. Additionally, the authors referred to a 2009 study that demonstrated a decrease in emotional and behavioral issues among motor-affected children with ADHD who underwent physiotherapy.
Dyspraxia movement and dance
There was a specific reason I found it so hard to learn steps. Verbal instructions are difficult for neurodivergent dancers because dyspraxia affects how we process information. Dr. Julian Ahmed is a consultant in audiovestibular medicine at Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital.
“Auditory processing disorder has a huge crossover with dyspraxia and dyslexia. These will often co-occur with ADHD or autism,” he says. “In simple terms, information from our eyes and muscles doesn’t match up or get integrated into the coordination center of the brain. We know what we want to do, but the body doesn’t obey.”
“Technique classes are hard on my brain,” says CEO of integrated dance company Croí Glan and fellow dyspraxic Tara Brandle, who trained at Laban in the 1980s, and like me, was an avid clubber. In learning new dances, she relies heavily on muscle memory. “I don’t try and visualize moves; I just trust that my reptile brain knows what’s coming up.”
“If they start going ‘left arm rises up and swings down, drop onto your right foot and swivel’… I’m just lost,” she says. “My head is spinning and I start to feel irritated, panicky. I can’t take it all in.” These days she can easily recognize neurodivergent kinfolk when she’s teaching a class. “It’s this mad mixture,” she says, “of being a good dancer but not being able to remember steps.”
"Verbal instructions are difficult for neurodivergent dancers because dyspraxia affects how we process information."
Evidence that movement as medicine works
There’s emerging evidence to support movement as medicine says Dr. Ahmed, citing Dr. Edward ‘Ned’ Hallowell’s NY Times bestseller ‘Delivered From Distraction’, that complex integration activity like dance or martial arts can have lasting effects, above and beyond becoming a better dancer. “These activities start to get things back into sync,” he says.
Dr. Ahmed’s interest in movement as medicine isn’t entirely clinical: he was diagnosed with ADHD at age 38. Knowing what he knows about complex integration activity, he decided to self-medicate with movement as medicine through skateboarding and by taking up jive, because he figured that the spins, manipulation, and fast legwork required by the dance style would help re-sync his signals.
“I know with hindsight that the periods I did a lot better with my ADHD symptoms were when I was going raving, dancing all night,” he says. “After that, I did martial arts. These were coping strategies that worked. Where I’ve destabilized is when I changed jobs, had to start commuting, couldn’t keep stuff up.”
His experience of using movement as medicine chimed with mine. I’m pretty sure I’d have shown up in the 61 percent of people with motor issues in the neurofibromatosis study if they’d studied me pre-dance. I’m also pretty sure that I’d have slipped out of that category if they repeated the tests after a year at Laban.
I was still a beginner, but I no longer finished all the phrases facing the wrong way. My legs became less ‘dyslexic’ and the rest of me followed – I am better at planning and organization and I’m more acquainted with my lefts and rights. I’m still pretty bad at directions but, hey, it’s dancing, not magic.
Movement as medicine photography by Camilla Greenwell
Emma Warren, the author of "Movement as Medicine," is the author of ‘Make Some Space’, which she wrote and published in 2019. A companion pamphlet, ‘Document Your Culture’, is out on 31 August 2020. She is working on a new book about dancing.