The Evolution of Western Thought in Dance and Health

The positive and negative aspects of the dichotomous relationship that dance and health share have been debated throughout history.  In early 21st century western culture, dance and other somatic practices are hailed as therapy for the mind, body, and spirit.  However, 19th century European views of physical and mental health’s relationship to dance differ from 21st century ideals.  Early 19th century implications of dance and health were strongly influenced by even earlier Renaissance and Baroque teachings, and manifested on stage in the ballet Giselle, first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1841.  Dance, intentionally or not, reflects the scientific and social ideas of its time. In its ominous choreography and parabolic libretto, the Perrot ballet extolls the dangers of dance for one’s health in the mind of the 19th century physician.

Views of dance and health in the 1800s differ from the 2000s due to their lack of scientific knowledge, the Church’s strong hold on social ties, and lingering Renaissance ideologies.  In that era, restrictions were put on dance to avoid endangering one’s health. Until 1700, medicine relied on humoral doctrine, the practice that there were four fluids of the body (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) whose balance determined the health of the individual.  An imbalance of these fluids resulted in an affectation of either mind or body (Arcangeli 4).  In the 21st century such a notion is disregarded, but advanced scientific knowledge was not available two hundred years ago.  In terms of social standing, the 19th century Church still played a large role in implementing societal values.  Being able to move gracefully displayed pure morals and a place among the upper class, but dancing immoderately hinted at sexual promiscuity.  The Wilis of Giselle exemplify this idea, as they are supposed to love to dance too much and die as a result, an implication, many scholars say, of orgasm (Cordova 115).  Giselle enraptures the audience as “both the everyday young girl and the otherworldly evanescent feminine figure” (114).  She is the perfect woman, yet still meets her downfall by dancing, warning the audience of the dire consequences of giving in to the sexual waywardness of dance.  As the ballet starts, Giselle’s love of dancing is endearing, for not all dancing is condemned, just an exorbitant amount.  Through dramatic pantomime, slashing arm gestures, and sorrowful expressions (Giselle 00:17:25-00:19:35), Giselle’s mother tries to warn her about the fate of the Wilis. Giselle however, does not heed this warning, and her stable waltzes warp into the dance of death that marks the second act.

I argue that the influence of Renaissance views can be seen in the dance of death described above.  Renaissance physicians taught that excessive effort was harmful to the human body and that a lot of dancing, while making one stronger, exhausted one’s resources and shortened his or her lifespan (Arcangeli 6).  Each person had a predetermined amount of life force, and over-exertion prematurely took away from the set number of years allotted to that individual.  Those with illness and injury would have been advised not to dance, as their lives already hung in a precarious balance (18-19).  In Act II, this sinister perspective emerges as Giselle is forced into a dance of death, where Hilarion meets his demise and Albrecht nearly follows suit.  However, this occurs in Act II, not Act I.  Act I is full of both the playful dancing of the village people in the folk dances of the corps, and the virtuosic dancing of Giselle and Albrecht.  This act is characterized by life, light, laughter, and love, suggesting that an appropriate amount of dance could be used as a preventative measure for disease, a form of exercise, but also an overall way to stay healthy.  Giselle’s carefree dancing, before she disregards her mother’s warning, shows the physical health benefits dance has on an individual.  It is only when Giselle succumbs to the sinful temptation of dance in transition to the next act that she meets her end. Thus, both positive and negative views of dance in terms of physical health of the body made an appearance on stage, which reinforced these ideas for the 19th century European audience.

Renaissance and Baroque ideas are reflected in 19th century mental health as well.  As discussed above, over-indulging in dance was social suicide.  The audience appreciated dance as an art and as a form of entertainment, but did not want to see its racier side.  Giselle condemns this dark side of dance in the Wili scene, where a horde of young girls are punished by unconsummated marriages and death for their rebellious love of dance.  Again though, the right amount of dance was praised as being healthy.  Renaissance physicians therefore recognized the benefits of dance for the mind in suppression of the catamenia, cachexies, jaundice, and melancholics (Arcangeli 24). Dance taught good morals to both participant and audience, harkening to earlier days when the Church declared that if something was beautiful, it must be good.  In terms of spiritual health, John Weaver of the Baroque era described a simple dancer’s walk as “the very soul of gracefulness” (Weaver 133).  This grace was another moral teaching for both the dancers and the audience that bled into the 1800s and brought health to the soul in the Church’s eyes.  Act I’s Giselle is virtuosic, light, and airy in her dancing and through this, maintains good moral standing in her village, and catches the eye of a nobleman.  In a way, the nature of her movement exalt her above the rest of her fellow common-folk.  Similarly, Albrecht’s virtuosity reveals his social stature, while Hilarion’s dancing is folksy and peasant-like in comparison.  In this contrast of steps and abilities between characters, Giselle confirms the assumptions about dance that a western 19th century audience would have had.

While there are similarities between 19th and 21st century thoughts regarding dance being healthy for both body and mind, that of the 21st century evolved to exclude the negative consequences of dance in western culture.  Dance therapy in both a physical and mental sense is a rapidly growing field and is earning respect in scientific communities as its benefits continue to be realized.  Just as ballet was the dance of the 19th century through which current culture was translated to the audience, Dance for Parkinson’s is a 21st century movement that can be analyzed for its societal significance.  The value of Dance for Parkinson’s can be seen through its use of movement to push back the physical and mental effects of Parkinson’s disease.

When disease takes hold of the body, there is a tendency for patients to suffer from a disconnect between mind and body, to the point of some patients being unable to even sense touch (Kolk 89).  Renaissance thought prescribed moving as little as possible as the solution to heal.  Early 21st century science challenges this notion, and finds that moving in opposition to the effects of the disease and/or physical trauma reestablishes this crucial mind-body connection.  For example, Parkinson’s Disease attacks the nervous system, resulting in a loss of balance, cognition, motor skills, and physical confidence, all of which can lead to depression (Mark).  Dance for Parkinson’s is an organization that was founded through the collaboration of the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group to counteract the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.  Dance as a whole connects the mind to the body and helps gain specific control of a focused body part and its functions.  Frequent exercise is essential for even healthy individuals to keep a consistent level of efficient movement.  Dance for Parkinson’s adds to this healthful moving by incorporating specific exercises that move the body against the symptoms of the disease.  For example, varying the size of steps in place or across the floor coordinates balance when it begins to deteriorate.  Parkinson’s causes the body to crunch and contract inwards, so movement reaching to the edge of an individual’s kinesphere is encouraged.  Wide, sweeping gestures are used for all limbs of the body: arms, legs, and head. Another exercise is the puppet exercise, where one partner is the puppet and another is the puppeteer.  The puppeteer touches various parts of the puppet’s body, and the puppet initiates movement from the area of contact; this exercise focuses control in specific body parts, which increases motor function and helps with the symptom of shaky hands.  Simply learning and remembering these exercises helps with cognition, showing one important role that dance plays in mental health.

Besides the physical advantages to dance therapy, mental wellness can be tied to dance as well.  Dance is gaining validity in medicine in acceptance as a valuable tool to overcoming psychological trauma.  In Dance for Parkinson’s, dance is also used to build community, to create human to human connections, and to ward off depression.  Psychotherapeutically, even those with a history of physical abuse crave both human connection and contact. There is inherent internal conflict in craving touch while being simultaneously frightened by it; dance therapy can alleviate this emotional stress (which often ends up being manifested into physical tensity.  The mirroring exercise used in the Dance for Parkinson’s class, in which one partner mirrors the other, can be used to release tension.  If Partner A is tense, Partner B can mirror this tension.  Partner B can then invite breath into the body and slowly relax.  This in turn causes Partner A to relax as their mirror neurons naturally start to send signals to the body to mirror Partner B’s movements.  The mirroring exercise demonstrates the clear connection between mind and body.  When the tension in the body is released, the tension in the mind is released as well, for “We pick up not only another person’s movement but [his or] her emotional state and intentions” (Kolk 59).  In Dance Therapy sessions involving a person whose trauma occurred when the person was young, prior to them developing speech, moving as a baby or toddler helps them remember and vocalize their trauma (Malchiodi 73-74), for the body keeps the score.  In physically traumatic situations, the trauma can stem from a sense of entrapment, be it from an assailant or from freezing up within one’s own body.  Recalling the trauma, and being able to literally move through it, as in dance, helps mental recovery even when the patient has been tortured for years by flashbacks and horrific memories (Kolk 217-219).  Thus, movement connects the mind and body and can help one regain a sense of agency.  Early 19th century dance taught that movement helps mental health a small amount, but 21st century dance teaches that it helps on a much larger scale.

I argue that mind and body are one based on the scientific evidence of the 21st century, and that this is communicated through a current dance form of the time period: Dance for Parkinson’s.  In the same way, ballet was used to relate the cultural ideas regarding dance and health to its 19th century audiences.  Giselle presented dance to the audience as a thick slice of decadent chocolate cake in that a small amount is good, but too much is detrimental to one’s health.  Today, Dance Therapy is a tossed salad, a mixture of treatment possibilities that can be used to treat both physical and mental ailments, reflecting 21st century thought on how movement is essential for both the healthy, and sick, body and mind.  Today when a dancer is injured, he or she is encouraged to modify his or her movement, but to keep dancing, because that is better for the body than the alternative of not dancing at all—this would not have been the case in 19th century Europe.  Social implications of dance lessen as society becomes more progressive, and every day new scientific studies of dance are undertaken as technology and an increase in knowledge develops.  In this way, western thought on dance and health has evolved to be more inclusive of the positive effects on mind and body that dance has to offer.



Works Cited

Arcangeli, Alessandro. “Dance and Health: The Renaissance Physicians’ View,”

Dance Research, vol. 18, no. 1 (Summer 2000), 3-30.

Cordova, Sarah Davies. “Romantic Ballet in France: 1830-1850.” The Cambridge

Companion to Ballet. Kant, Marion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 113-


Kolk, Bessel A. van der. The Body Keeps the Score. New York City: Penguin Group, 2014.

Malchiodi, Cathy A. Expressive Therapies. New York City: The Guilford Press, 2005.

Mark Morris Dance Group. Dance for PD. 2016. <;.

Weaver, John. “Rules and Institutions for Dancing.” Life and Works of John Weaver. Ralph,

Richard. Brooklyn: Dance Horizons, 1985. 1004-1021.

“Giselle—From the Royal Opera House,” Films Media Group, 2008,



*special thanks to Kat Sprudzs for the revision process



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s