This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
Before the pandemic hit, I would go to pubs and clubs almost every weekend. And not just to drink a few beers, see my mates and have a laugh. Primarily, I wanted to dance. To me, dancing is the most important part of going out. On the dance floor, you can be surrounded by a hundred strangers and still express yourself without shame or self-consciousness. There’s an unwritten rule: you can go bonkers on the dance floor, and nobody will care. You don’t need to focus on anything, crack jokes or engage in deep chats – you just move in your own way.
Unfortunately, dancing is basically a sin right now. We live in a still and dance-less world. It’s frowned upon at weddings, not recommended in pubs, and in many places only possible in our own homes. Ironically, this is a time when we would most benefit from it. “Dancing forms a connection with the emotional centres in your brain,” said dance psychologist Dr. Peter Lovatt, in The Telegraph. “A lot of people consider dancing to be an emotional outlet. Dancing often releases pure happiness but also sadness. It’s cathartic. It’s letting go of what’s bottled up.”
Dance therapist Pedro Gutiérrez, who teaches movement therapy in Barcelona, agrees: “That’s why people go to clubs at the weekend. Take children for example. We grant them the ability to play, sing and dance. As we grow older that spontaneity fades away and we become more rigid. People look for that playfulness again while dancing. It sets your body free, beyond the stiff straitjacket of norms and structure.”
What issues has he noticed in his classes since the pandemic hit? “Anxiety is the recurring issue of our times,” Gutiérrez says. “Everything is uncertain. Nobody knows what will happen. In dance therapy, we learn to breathe calmly again, we make a connection with others and sink into our bodies. Music creates a sacred space in which we allow our body to move, become playful and let go.”
Dancing even forms neural connections in our brain, which help us to reduce our chances of sickness and disease. A study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, compared the influence of several physical activities such as walking, swimming, cycling and dancing on dementia. It turned out dancing was the most beneficial by far, and could reduce the risk of dementia by 76 percent.
And there’s more. “It’s scientifically proven that dancing helps us with social bonding,” said Dr Lovatt. “The synchrony that occurs when people dance to a beat together is a powerful way to make a connection. Plus, physical contact induces endorphins and lowers the stress hormone cortisol, making us happier.”
Physical contact: remember that? “Under normal circumstances, people make physical contact during my sessions,” says Gutiérrez, who is still managing to do some dance therapy classes, “but with everyone wearing a mask they now make visual contact instead. They dance with each other from a distance. But because they coordinate their movements, they still pass on their energy.”
Nightclub owners haven’t given up on their mission to get us moving just yet. In Belgium, Ghent’s Kompass Klub was organising so-called “bubble raves”, in which groups of four people can book a table for their club nights, though everyone needs to stay seated.
“In a weird way we’ve become so attached to our chairs in the Western world,” says Brussels-based dancer and teacher Shelbatra “Shelly” Jashari. “Since the start of the COVID-19, crisis we’re obligated to sit down even more.” In her “Chair Dancing”, course, Jashari tried to reinvent the chair. Every Tuesday night, she takes over a small room in C12 nightclub in Brussels. “The chair is your dance partner, but it also makes you keep your distance from the other participants while still sharing their energy.”
I decided to head down to C12 to test Lovatt, Gutiérrez and Jashari’s findings first-hand. When I arrive, 12 chairs are spread out across a red-lit room. Participant Zoë-Louise tells me that most people who come to the class are frequent clubbers before the pandemic. “We’re passionate about this space and because of this class we can still dance here,” she says.
We take our seats one by one. Jashari shows us the movements, slow and sensual, to the sound of Jessie Ware’s “Wildest Moments”. We swing our legs around like roundhouse kicks, lay them over the back of our chairs and curl our backs until we’re upside down, staring at our instructor with blood running to our heads. It’s far from easy. The chair turns out to be a rigid object and we’re supposed to move around elegantly.
But as the class goes on we grow in confidence. We’re laughing, actually laughing, and I feel a strange connection to everyone, including my chair. There’s a bizarre and alien sensation rising from my stomach into my chest and up to my brain. My spine tingles. Ah yes, I remember now... this is what endorphins feel like.