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Animated Edition - Summer 2007
We all know that dance is good for you, but can we prove it?
Lucy Frazer from Hampshire Dance, Emma Redding and Edel Quin at Laban describe their research into the health benefits for young people participating in dance
In a world where dance can play an increasingly important role in addressing issues such as childhood obesity, there is inevitably a demand for robust evidence demonstrating that dance can indeed have measurable benefits.

An opportunity to produce such evidence arose when Hampshire Dance was approached by the Joint Investment Fund for the Arts (JIF), a consortium of local authorities in the Hampshire region. They wanted to work in partnership to devise a programme focussing on youth dance. JIF was able to contribute significant financial and partnership resources, and were keen for a major part of the programme to focus on the health benefits of dance for young people.

The scope of the opportunity made it possible to involve a large number of young people in a dance experience that would positively impact their health and wellbeing, whilst at the same time rigorously measure the benefits of participation on their physiological and psychological health. Aware of their fast-growing reputation and pioneering work in Dance Science, Hampshire Dance invited Laban to become research partners. Together the two organisations jointly devised the NRG Youth Dance and Health Project, aimed at 11-14 year olds.

Right from the outset we wanted the young people to engage in a positive, creative and enjoyable dance experience. It would be an opportunity for them to feel the physical benefits of taking part, whilst at the same time develop their understanding of the body and how to stay healthy. The project was placed in schools within curriculum time, in order to ensure the inclusion of participants who may not normally choose dance as an activity. This approach enabled 348 young people to participate across nine different schools.

We brought together a team of professional artists from Hampshire who devised the content of the sessions, which had a strong emphasis on creativity. Some dance artists chose to work in a contemporary style and others in a street dance style. Within these styles the primary focus was on the creative approach, allowing young people to respond to tasks and themes through movement of their own. Each session started with a cardio-vascular warm-up, followed by the exploring of themes such as the function of the heart and the benefits of a healthy diet.

In order to scientifically assess the impact of participation on the young people Hampshire Dance and Laban agreed upon two research questions:
  • Does creative dance have an effect on the physical fitness of 11 - 14 year old school children?
  • Does creative dance have an effect on the psychological wellbeing of 11 - 14 year school children?
The project took the form of a 10-week programme. During the first and final weeks, the team of researchers carried out a series of pre and post assessments with each group in their school. The tests were both quantitative and qualitative, and designed to measure both physiological and psychological changes across time.

The physiological assessments measured changes in physical fitness, specifically hamstring flexibility, aerobic capacity and lung capacity. The tests had been used before with this age group and are standardised measures, meaning they are reliable and valid. The psychological areas assessed related to well being such as self-esteem, motivation and attitudes towards dance. These areas were measured through both standardised questionnaires that had been used with this age group and open ended questionnaires devised by the researchers.

The impact on participants and their teachers was evident. Comments from the young people at the end of the project included:

'I can stretch for longer. I've enjoyed dancing more than ever before.'
'I'm now fitter and healthier. I thought it would be boring but it was a lot of fun. I would want to do it again.'

Some of the teachers valued the opportunity of a visiting dance artist leading the sessions, as it provided them with new ideas and approaches refreshing their own teaching practice. For others the benefit clearly lay with the progression they observed in young people's learning - both in their increased knowledge around health and in the development of their skills in dance.

One teacher in particular noticed a positive difference in the girls' responses to dance. Since taking part in the project this particular school has increased the number of Year Nine dance sessions from six to ten, and has introduced some of the health themes from the project into their ongoing schemes of work.

Ordinarily anecdotal comments and stories such as these would be the extent of evidencing the benefits of a dance project such as NRG. However in this instance we were able to take this a stage further by gathering data and scientifically analysing it in order to provide robust evidence. The results from this scientific analysis, which support the positive comments provided by teachers and participants, showed:
  • That creative dance increased physical fitness in all areas assessed - lung capacity, flexibility and aerobic capacity. A statistically significant increase was found among the females
  • That creative dance increased psychological wellbeing in all areas assessed - self-esteem, intrinsic motivation and attitudes towards dance. These changes were positive but statistically not significant.
The importance of these findings is that the project utilised creative dance, an approach that has recognised benefits relating to problem solving, team building and broadening the imagination. But in addition, it has been shown that a creative approach to dance can also have health benefits.

Another key aspect is that the project had a greater impact on the girls. This was a fairly typical group of teenage girls, often a hard-to-reach group when it comes to physical activity, who might not necessarily want to participate in sport. Females who 'drop-out' of most other physical activities at this age could be more inclined to engage in dance if it was available to them. As a result of the evidence provided in this project, dance should be considered a valid alternative to sport and a means of bringing young people into physical activity, promoting not only physical fitness but also psychological wellbeing.

Lastly, the project has offered scientific validation of something we have all believed anecdotally to be true. It provides evidence to support all the current initiatives that are encouraging young people to be more physically active through dance, both in and out of schools. Furthermore it advocates the need for increased resources within the dance sector and for dance within education, health and sport.

The research findings are already having a significant impact, notably at Government level. They were launched to the Culture and Public Health Ministers in March at Laban. The Minister for Public Health, Caroline Flint's, response: "Dance has a great deal to offer people young and old, irrespective of ability and background. Dance can take many forms and embody elements of fun, creativity and performance that makes it an attractive route to a fitter and healthier lifestyle. This research highlights how well people's health can benefit from dance."

So where do we go from here? A natural progression would be to extend the project over a longer period, or to measure the degree of impact dance can have among different demographic groups or within culturally diverse dance styles. Certainly we hope that others will want to benefit from the NRG programme and in order to facilitate that, an interactive CD Rom 'NRG: Be healthy through dance' is now available. However in order to carry out further scientific research into the potential impact of dance, it is hoped that the recent interest from Government, will encourage more resources being made available for future much needed research.

contact Lucy Frazer on lucy.frazer@hampshiredance.org.uk, Emma Redding on e.redding@laban.org and Edel Quin e.quin@laban.org

Further information
Dance Science Research Report  The physiological and psychological effects of creative dance on adolescents: An experimental study. A concise report focussing on the research findings and NRG Youth Dance and Health Project 2005-06 - Evaluation Report. A full evaluation of the project including research findings. Download from www.hampshiredance.org.uk or www.laban.org

NRG: be healthy through dance - CD Rom. (ISBN 978-0-9554468-0-1)
A useful resource for dance teachers and group leaders outlining the creative dance programme. Available from www.egproducts.co.uk

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Animated: Summer 2007