Supporting dance in Canada a healthy strategy for the Government

By Peggy Reddin (Director of Arts Education, Confederation Centre of the Arts)

Dance provides physical, psychological, and social benefits. On the physical side, dance offers an excellent aerobic activity, improving heart and blood vessel function. It improves coordination, balance, and flexibility, and can help with weight loss.

It is also good for brain function. A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that dance is the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia. Similar results were reached in studies of Parkinson’s disease. From the brain’s point of view, there seems to be a special alchemy achieved with the combination of movement and music that is dance.

Very importantly, there is also a greater likelihood of continuing with a dance program over time versus other physical activity, as reported in various studies and also reflected in this comment from one of my former students several years after she graduated from our program, “I think dancing has ingrained the benefits of staying physically active. Fitness is very important to me. I continue to be active, and still take dance classes.”

Another area where dance contributes to the health of young Canadians is as an activity that teens, particularly girls, will embrace even as they become less inclined to participate in organized sport. This is something we encountered many times, to the point where we established beginner teen programs so that people who came relatively late to dance would be able to participate with their peers, rather than trying to fit into a class with much younger students. Feedback has been very positive. This example is from a note received recently from a mother, “My daughter began taking dance at dance umbrella three years ago, at the (it seemed to me) somewhat advanced beginner age of 14. I am so thankful that she had this opportunity. She has grown so much in ability, in confidence, and in comfort with herself and her own body in those three years, and I am sure that much of it has to do with dance.”

This leads me to the psychological benefits of dance, from improved self-esteem to stress reduction. A study published in the Arts in Psychotherapy concluded that dancing should be encouraged as part of treatment for people with depression and anxiety. Over my 30 years of teaching, I have seen first-hand the positive emotional and psychological effects of time spent in the dance studio for so many people, from young children learning to express their feelings through dance to our “Dance for the Health of It” ladies, a group ranging in age from 28 to 68.

Again drawing from the words of a former student, “The number one contribution from dancing is the gift of self-confidence. As a teacher, I consider every lecture I give to be a performance. I…am frequently complimented on my communication skills and ability to command the attention of a room. I 100% believe that this is largely due to dance classes!”

And another, “Thank you for teaching me how to dance. To this day, it has remained one of my only forms of true expression, a place I feel most at home. Whether I am stressed, sad, upset, nervous, I can always express it through dance, without fear of judgment. When I dance, I feel I am totally in control. I have found the feeling of dancing to be one that is impossible to recreate or replace; that feeling of strength, purity, and peace.”

And from a parent whose daughter was going through a particularly difficult time, “My daughter has gotten lost, and dance has been her one constant. She is very much a stranger to me much of the time these days, but every now and then I see my girl, and it makes me hopeful that she will come back to us. After dance class was usually when I saw MY girl, and at home afterwards when she was whirling around the house, and leaping down the hall.”

Beyond the personal health benefits, there are many other skills developed by studying dance. Dance is a collaborative process, whether it is developing a new creation, or simply working toward the same goal in a class. It develops self-discipline and an ability to focus. Just the fact of balancing full-time academic studies with after-school dance activities enhances organizational skills. I can tell you that there is a noticeable difference between the dance and theatre students within the school of performing arts, in their work ethic and ability to see a project through to completion. Dancers will outperform, every time.

Looking at the broader ecology of dance, there are a few points I’d like to make before wrapping up. One is regarding the economic impact of dance. The dance mapping study reports 1,285 schools or places of instruction in our country. In Charlottetown alone, there are four studios focusing on what I would call theatrical dance—that is, ballet, jazz, and contemporary/modern—plus even more traditional dance studios, primarily Celtic, but increasingly more diverse as our population has become more diverse. The economic impact of these schools includes supporting a local dance supply shop. Studios pay rent for space, SOCAN fees, insurance premiums, and support staff. Teachers’ salaries go back into the economy for food, accommodation, health treatments, etc. Even local flower shops and the Dairy Queen feel a significant impact, particularly on performance days. While it has not been studied in detail, the economic impact of dance schools is significant.

When considering how the federal government can best support dance activity, one area that has benefited dance schools was the creation of the children’s fitness and arts tax credits. But please consider the unspoken message of doubling the fitness tax credit to $1,000 while keeping the arts tax credit at $500. For those of us in dance, our clients can choose to claim under either activity, although when the tax credit was first introduced it did take significant argument to convince policy-makers that dance was, in fact, an activity that promoted fitness. However, other arts activities can contribute equally to overall well-being. We can’t separate physical and emotional or psychological health. All are necessary, and an absence of either is equally costly to health care budgets, so I would encourage the committee to ask policy-makers to double the arts tax credit, thereby recognizing the value of all arts activities for youth.

Finally, federal support for national service organizations is extremely important for a healthy milieu, whether one is in early training or full professional career. Provincial service organizations help build a strong dance community locally, but not all provinces have one—mine doesn’t. The work of the Canadian Dance Assembly and the Dancer Transition Resource Centre ensures an overall healthy dance environment, one where talented young dancers can follow their dreams without fear of financial insecurity, and where there are exciting opportunities for them in their home country.

[Photo Credit: alyssa.becker/Flickr]