/ 28 March 2024

Lose yourself in dance and music to heal

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Footloose: Whether it’s whirling dervishes or stadiums filled with people dancing to their favourite bands, movement is joyful medicine . Photo: Mireya Acierto/Getty Images
God Edition
Dr Skye

On an expansive farm called Elandskloof, rows of tall, ancient trees, a river running through the land and a container of mountains held space for more than three thousand people attending Retreat Yourself this month. Joined by other open-hearted, truth-seeking souls, my family and I bathed in the Utopian safety, community, music and joy at this annual gathering. 

People usually experience collective ecstasy through sex, drugs, cults and God, but these contexts often hide a darker undertone. In a world fast failing at mental wellness, where antidepressants are the 12th-most commonly prescribed drug in the United States and one in five Americans take psychiatric medicine, finding healthy balms for the human spirit is vital. 

In 2021, the global value of music festival events was $62  million. The value of the global market for antidepressant medicines was $16.6 billion. It’s ironic that gatherings that facilitate human connection through sound and dance are mostly undervalued by society and that the Western paradigm has cultivated a suspicion of gatherings that centre on ecstatic dance, psychedelic exploration and the collective healing of music and movement. 

It’s clear from detailed early depictions from the Old and New Testament that prayer could include music, instruments, dancing and community. In Exodus, of the Old Testament, Miriam led her sisterhood to the beat of a drum. King David danced before the lord with all of his limbs in the book of Samuel. The men of Ancient Greece were often proficient in song and instrumentation centred on the belief that music was an embodiment of mathematics, a manifestation of the human soul and the depths of the cosmos. 

It’s curious that the New Testa-ment does not make reference to prayer or ritual where music and dance were a part of the religious lived experience. In John’s visions of the heavenly realms, he has sight of circles of worship, harps and dance, but this is not present in the lives of those earthbound. 

It seems odd that these easily accessible human experiences were not woven deeply into the fibre of religious practice. 

The Qu’ran does not make explicit mention of song or dance, and in some schools of thought music is even thought to be prohibited. Sufi mystics turn this on its head and are known to whirl wildly and chant to invoke divine presence and connection to God. We are all familiar with how integral song and dance are in African culture, marking all rituals of celebration, loss and prayer.

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Give it a whirl: Moving to music with the people you care about is the best medicine. Photo: David Turnley/Getty Images

Although there are sects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that continue to make use of the dancing body for praise and elevation of the Divine, what you will find in most services in houses of worship across the world is a much more restrained physical practice. 

Standing, sitting or bowing seem to be the order of the day, forgive the pun. 

Several small studies have tried to elucidate the biochemistry of song and dance and it’s clear that these practices reduce cortisol levels, increase protective immune cells and stimulate release of endorphins and dopamine. 

So I think it’s time: let us shrug off the austerity of our religious doctrine, reclaim foot-tapping and ululating and bum-wagging in time to the beat. 

Let’s bring the energy of the dervish into the mundane so that we can enliven our bodies and protect our minds from the erosion so characteristic of the time.

It feels obvious to remind you that communal dance is a wonderful form of medicine that will exercise your heart muscle and protect your bones from osteoporosis. And to assure you that this kind of collective effervescence, to borrow a term from psychologist Dacher Keltner, “quiets the voice of that interfering and nagging neurotic”. 

In a study in Germany, patients receiving an elective procedure were randomised to receive either a music relaxation experience or a benzodiazepine pre-med. 

The music group showed statistically significant reductions in anxiety compared to the midazolam group. 

It makes sense that the antidepressant benefits of cardiovascular exercise coupled with community and music will have a compounded positive effect. Although the world of psychiatric care is evolving its treatment of trauma, pain and loss, most psychiatric facilities still don’t even have a gym, let alone a dance class for those admitted to such institutions. 

Tragically, according to ScienceDirect, the world’s number one preferred leisure activity is watching TV

The need is clear. Make time to move to music with people that you care about or relate to. Shed the limitations and judgment of the observational gaze of others and instead turn yourself generously inward. Praise your lived experience with all of your limbs so that you can bring more play, joy and healing to the world. Let’s dance!

Skye Scott is a GP based in Sandton. She has a special interest in patient education, integrative medicine and mental wellbeing.