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Studies show that freeform dance has a host of benefits – here Emma Marshall, dance’s Wim Hof explains that it can help you
Picture the scene: you’re at a festival, surrounded by like-minded individuals, dancing to one of your favorite artists as they perform live. The term “dance for happiness” is increasing in Google searches, fueling the long-standing theory that freeform or flow dancing is not only one of the best forms of exercise to tone up a body, but a great way to boost your mental health as well.
“Using dance with clear intention can help release trauma, regulate the nervous system and help the person come back into their body,” says Emma Marshall, founder of Movement is medicinea class that combines the science of somatic therapy with the ancient teachings of ecstatic dance.
Marshall’s practice came about after serious health problems in 2019 that left her unable to walk and not having enough energy to leave the house, so she researched hard on alternative methods like reiki healing and like EFT tapping and ancient theories about the connection between mental and physical health .
“I challenged myself to dance every day, even for a few minutes, posted my videos on Instagram and made a challenge to encourage people to get up and move in their homes during the pandemic,” she explains. The way she danced so freely and intuitively quickly became popular and that’s where her business began.
Marshall’s 60-minute class begins with a somatic meditation that increases body awareness. She then guides participants to release the emotions that have been brought to the surface through embodied dance.
“Freeform and flow dance is first and foremost about guidance on how to tune into your body and then about giving permission to move in a non-judgmental space.”
Eager to learn more? Keep scrolling.
Dancing for Happiness: So, Does It Work?
Short answer: Marshall thinks so, and encourages you to try it if you’re in doubt. The following expert-led tips from the pros will help you along the way.
1. It’s not about how you look
Our society is built on the fact that you have to be good at something to be able to do it, and Marshall’s entire teaching is based on the idea that anyone who can move can dance. “TikTok dance routines give people the medium to be able to express themselves, but it’s all about the aesthetic and if you don’t have coordination, you can get so embarrassed and frustrated that it forces you to give up,” says Emma.
During the class, Marshall encourages participants to stay out of their head (the thinking mind) by keeping their eyes closed and focusing on how it feels, rather than how it looks. This allows the body to take over and move intuitively in a state of flow.
“I can honestly say that if you put me in a choreographed dance class, I wouldn’t be able to do it – because my body wants to move to the beat of the music, rather than being told how to move. I have a good free flow and rhythm because I am connected to my body – but if you put me on Strictly Come Dancingit would be my worst nightmare.”
2. Power to the people
The way the class is taught is by empowering people, encouraging conscious movement and making them feel like they have a choice in everything they do. “It makes people understand how their bodies want to move and how this is connected to emotions,” says Marshall. “The week before, someone might have had high energy, a huge release and felt on top of the world, but a week later because of their condition that day, they have to take it a little slower, and that’s fine,” she explains.
“There is no right or wrong way to move.”
“It’s not like you follow a sequence of yoga poses key to key – there’s guidance at the beginning and it needs to be worked on but when we get to the dance part it’s at your own pace and it’s entirely up to the individual to feel empowered by how they want to move,” she continues.
3. Find your release
Ecstatic dancing is listening to music, removing your vision and getting into a rhythm with some kind of movement. “If there’s no music involved, you can feel like you’re stuck in your head,” says Marshall.
“The music activates that part of your brain on a sensory level so you can tune into the rhythm. For some people it’s easier than others. We’re still going into a somatic release, as it were qi gong on a retreat, it’s the same thing and that’s why we all love raving,” she says.
As we mentioned before – when you go to a festival, you don’t care who is watching you. “You give your body the same effect.” Marshall explains that on a retreat you can be so fixated on the healing aspect and doing it right that it can be a block in itself: “the work is about finding safety and then comes that release.”
4. Bridging the gap between ancient wisdom and the Western world
This practice is about bridging the gap between ancient wisdom and the Western world so that dance therapy can be accessible and inclusive. “As much as I honored ancient practices, they just didn’t click. The Western world is so deeply conditioned that we have separated healing and life that it takes a lot more for us to let go. We have so many blocks ahead of us and it’s not a part of our culture.”
Marshall wants people to see how easy this can be without having to go to a jungle or a retreat in Italy, but practiced in our own homes with the right tools. “I’ve been in heavy breathing before – where people have released but then they’re sent home. I’m mentally strong enough to go home and integrate this into my life – but if you’ve just let go of something, you’ve got to fill that space with something else.”
5. Feel your feelings
As a society, we have become deconditioned to feel and so used to putting our emotions in a box. “Emotional release doesn’t have to be this whole drawn-out process,” says Marshall. “It can be just a five-minute thing. Our emotions are our energy and our energy is waiting to be touched.”
The expert asks the participants at the beginning of the class to honor where they are currently.
“If you don’t feel 100% – that’s okay. Let the tears go, that’s healthy. You might hold on to some pain – you might start laughing – or you might feel excited. If you feel sad, you can come back to joy and you can feel the whole range of emotions in a class. But it’s important for people to realize that it’s completely normal. Once we find where that energy is and work on it, then we get up and dance and that’s when we fill up that space.”
Marshall begins his meditation guidance at the feet as a way to quickly ground people. “I have people check in throughout the class on the chat box on Zoom. I then give people the right tools so they have support and guidance for things that might come to the surface once they get home. There are so many people who have a certain income and do not have access to resources.”
A large part of the practice involves regulating the nervous system by lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels. “You immediately lower your cortisol levels—which is fight, flight and freeze. When you work the vagus nerves and breathe and touch parts of the body, you won’t be firing cortisol.”
The main neurotransmitters responsible for the results achieved from Marshall’s class are acetylcholine, the main neurotransmitter in parasympathetic the nervous system, which is responsible for “rest and digest” and serotonin, the so-called “happy hormone”.
6. Rethink your gym membership
If you’re an avid gym goer, good on you – but if that doesn’t appeal to you, dancing might be your jam. “It’s considered a low-impact workout, the same as yoga classes or walking. Because of the music I play and tuning into the tribal rhythm, people sweat.”
The class includes the slowness of yin yoga in the first half and yang in the second half. 20 minutes of intense dance is more than enough to reach the levels we’re trying to achieve through exercise while releasing the fascia, Marshall shares. “For people who have been through prolonged stress, high-intensity exercises like HIIT training or spin classes can be too much. Low-intensity workouts mean you’re still exercising but not putting your body in that high alert state.” Plus increasing your flexibility helps relieve joint and muscle pain and stiffness.
7. Consider reducing your alcohol intake
Again, this is very personal, but reducing your alcohol intake can increase both your fitness and happiness, the expert shares. “Hedonism is so normalized and as a culture we have the inability to say no,” she explains.
“People think drugs and alcohol bring out their joy, but I think people have to have the right intentions behind it. We are so anxious in social settings on a subconscious level, that’s one of the reasons why this concept came about, she continues.
“I’ve been out a million times and just drank water. It means that I am fully aware and sober and know what is going on. I also feel more confident about self-love and my body and that self-confidence radiates,” she explains. Why is this relevant to dance? Because Marshall has tons of clients who attend her classes who, when they quit drinking, also gave up raving or clubbing. “They’ve lost that part of them and that connection that they once really enjoyed. But once they start dancing and let go of that fear, they regain that sense of freedom and have the confidence to go back out sober.”
Dance for Happiness: 3 Dances to Try Tonight
Ready to give it a shot? These YouTube workouts are free and guaranteed to give you an endorphin boost.
1. Marshall’s movement is medical technology
2. LES MILLS dance session
3. Fitness Marshall dance class