Dancers have long known the transformative power of dance. But now more medical and wellness experts are harnessing the discipline to bring positive change to the wider population.
The ability of dance to reshape the mind as much as the body forms the focus of Canada's first-ever dance-therapy symposium, launching Friday at Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto.
The First National Symposium on Dance and Well-Being, as the two-day event is called, will bring together doctors, scientists, researchers and dancers – including members of the Mark Morris Dance Group – from Canada and the United States to advance the study of dance therapy, an evidence-based practice used to treat a range of medical disorders, from Parkinson's disease to mental illness and autism.
"No matter what the pathology, dance can make people feel better. It can heal," says Alain Dancyger, the executive director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, who helped organize the symposium.
The Toronto event is a Les Grands Ballets initiative, an outgrowth of the National Centre for Dance Therapy (NCDT), which the company launched in Montreal three years ago, in partnership with four university health centres. Still in its development stage, the NCDT will become fully operational with the move in 2017 into Édifice Wilder: Espace Danse, a $25.8-million building which will also serve as the new downtown home of Les Grands Ballets and other Montreal dance organizations.
"Our focus is the impact that dance can have on an individual's well-being and on all levels, physical, emotional, cognitive and psychological," explains NCDT director Christian Sénéchal, also a symposium co-ordinator.
The inaugural symposium will consist of eight workshops, six discussion forums and five research projects involving 30 experts. More than 200 dance and health professionals are expected to attend.
Among the participants is Patricia Capello, a long-time dance and movement therapist who will present a paper on her work with patients at a psychiatric facility in New York.
"[The symposium] is an opportunity for dancers, dance therapists and members of the health-care community to collaborate in demonstrating the powerful ability of the dancing and moving body to heal and support mental and physical health," says Capello, a resident of Brooklyn.
Dr. Kara Patterson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, will present a paper outlining the findings of a systematic review in which dance helped patients with neurological problems regain balance, gait and functional mobility.
"I think anyone who has been involved in a program that uses dance as a form of therapy knows there is huge potential for positive benefits," Patterson says. "But in order for dance to become an accepted form of rehabilitation we need more scientific research that carefully and systematically examines the safety and effects of dance in people with different conditions."
Research will likely surge with the development of the country's first master's degree in dance therapy, which the NCDT is creating in conjunction with McGill, Concordia and the University of Quebec at Montreal. Toronto's York University offered the country's first courses in dance therapy in the 1970s, about a decade after former modern dancer Marian Chace founded North America's first dance-therapy program in New York. Dance therapy is now practised around the world.
In London, the Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing Project, an initiative of the Royal Academy of Dance, uses creative movement to improve the health and longevity of the elderly. It's a new spin on an old story.
Therapeutic dances are as old as civilization itself. Ecstatic trance dances, African Ashanti healing dances and Egyptian belly dance are just some examples of ancient folk-dance traditions that continue to highlight altered states of consciousness along with physical healing.
For Dancyger at Les Grands Ballets, the symposium is about raising the bar on a subject relevant to all Canadians. "It is precisely because we are a ballet company that allows us to be champions of well-being through dance," he says.
"Movement affects the mind as much as the body. It's a holistic vision."