In conversation with Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang



I've always had a keen interest in dance, yoga, and any form of body movement, and have found ways to incorporate it throughout my entire life. My love for dance was sparked as a young boy, when I was a competitive Irish dancer, and that passion carried me through many years. These days, I find myself dancing alone in my apartment to lift my mood and spirit. It amazes me just how much of an immediate effect movement can have on my overall being. 

My love of dance led me to discover Dancing is the Best Medicine, co-authored by Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang. It's a brilliant new book on the benefits of dance and movement for better brain and body health. 

The book takes readers on an in-depth exploration of movement and music, from early humans up until today, with the authors showing the proven benefits of dance for our heart, lungs, bones, nervous system, and brain. 

Readers of this fascinating new book, forthcoming from Greystone Books on October 26th, will come away with a wide range of dances to try, including salsa, ballet, hip hop, and more, as well as a scientific understanding of how dance benefits every aspect of our lives.

I was curious to meet with the authors behind the book for a more in depth look at how dance can be used as a form of medicine for depression, anxiety, and so much more. 

Courtesy of Greystone Books

Julia, you started ballet were very young and have now turned your love of dance into your life's work. What does a typical day look like for you?

As varied as possible! As you can imagine, as an artist, routines and structure are a bit complicated for me. As a scientist (my job today), however, at times, I have to be very structured and conscientious. That's where my dancing background helps me the most nowadays. On the one hand, as a dancer you're trained to be very disciplined and you can get yourself to do whatever. On the other hand, when I dance (which I do every day), I'm free of bounds. I can improvise and go with the flow and the music. That helps me to keep the balance at times where I have to stick within rules, routines, and structures (and bureaucracy).

In general, I start with some writing time in the morning in a café where I leave my mind free to choose what we work on (scientists have to do a lot of writing...). That's my most productive time of day. Then follow many research-related tasks like lab-business, admin, student support, mentoring, teaching, some thinking and literature review, and admin again. In the evening, if I don't have to work (scientists often work 24/7), I usually dance, in some way or another. Argentine tango, the occasional Zumba class, some online dancing, etc. And if I get too tangled up in bureaucracy and routines during my day I may also plug in the earphones and dance along some Argentine tango tune in my office (when no-one is watching, don't tell anyone!). That gets my productivity levels back up.

Dong-Seon, I was fascinated to read that you used dance as a form of medicine for depression. Could you tell me more about that and how that led to the work you do today?

There are many strategies to treat depression, but commonly, "regular physical exercise" is under the top recommendations, accompanied by "learning to express emotions". Also, "avoiding isolation", in other words, "social contact" is important. Dance provides all of it, together with a sense of accomplishment that you learned something new, and it's fun! Thus, in cases of mild depression, when I see friends struggling with it, I recommend dancing very often. 

These days, I'm working as a science communicator, and also do some counseling work from time to time, and promoting dance experience is a powerful tool. 

Your new book, Dancing is the Best Medicine, explores the mental and physical benefits of dance. What would you say are some of the immediate benefits? 

D-S: Anything new to learn takes time. In the case of dancing, it's the same. However, I can promise you, that after just a few weeks or months of dance lessons, you'll be a much much more happier person, (given that you found the right dance for yourself). And there are few other options, which can make you so much healthier and happier within such a short time. 

JC: The feel-good boost that you get out of it. And the great thing is that: when we feel happy, this tells our brain "all is fine" which in turn switches on the body's relaxation response, which in turn regulated immune response and metabolism, getting some crucial healthy house-keeping done (for nerve cells and friends). This means, while we giggle in delight dancing the night away, our body happily gets busy with being healthy. And when the body is healthy this makes us feel good. If you do that repeatedly you can see how dancing strings together one day after the other of health and wellbeing, like the rhythm to which we dance. Just keep doing it and you'll see 😄

One important thing to remember is that the important health and wellbeing effects are quite specific to hobby dancing, so when you dance for recreational reasons. If you let competitiveness and perfectionism creep in and steal your peace of mind, this is a no no. As you start comparing yourself, your body or your dancing to others', this is a type of stress for the body too. Stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) get out and about in our blood, preparing us for a fight. We're not likely to have great health effects out of that. Therefore: professionals and recreational dancers alike: make sure to factor in as much recreational non-competitive dance time as possible if you're interested in getting health and wellbeing effects under you belt :)

Julia F. Christensen

With chapters like Dancing As Therapy, Prescribe Dance Not Drugs, and Dance as an Elixir of Life, what are you hoping readers will take away from this book?

D-S: We want people to be able to fight depression, anxiety, and burnout syndrome, and a lot of other problems, by having a powerful tool, dancing, in their hands. Surely, in some cases, you NEED to see a doctor, and get medication. But, especially these days, after COVID-19, when more than 70% of the whole population feels stressed, down, and close to a burn-out, we really want people to try something new, which is a great therapy for your body and soul. 

JC: It would be great if people could start seeing dance as an activity that does more for us than just "be fun", by discovering the very promising positive consequences of dancing from young to old age... Dancing is a human need! Don't resist it. In fact, as we outline in the book, our brain WANTS to dance...

As someone with anxiety, I was particularly interested in the section of the book which addresses this issue. What dance and movement advice do you have for someone with anxiety and how could it be helpful?

JC: Then we're two 😉

One important thing is: Dancing switches off the "thought carousel" (what psychologists would call anxious rumination). While we dance, be it just freestyle, or any choreographed solo, couple, or group dance like Zumba, Argentine tango, or Greek Sirtaki, our brain has to do many things at once. Dancing is a multitasking exercise for our brain. This keeps it deliciously busy, in fact, too busy to have anything else in mind while dancing. For instance, we've got all our senses engaged while dancing. This includes also our interoception, exteroception and propioception (the senses for "myself and my feelings", sense of space and sense of my body and my limbs in relation to each other). What's more, we need to coordinate our body in synch with the music, and maybe with other people. This means that our brain needs many different systems to be "on" while dancing, and we simply can't attend to any thoughts from the day that may still linger in our mind. There aren't enough resources for that. Metaphorically speaking, there is "no space left" to ponder anything else than the next dance step or you'll fall over.

Point two is "dance it out!" We're still very much at the start of researching dance with scientific methods, however, what may make dancing different from other hobbies, could be that it doesn't just give us endorphin rushes because of the physical exercise. Dancing is not just about getting external rewards of being fitter, stronger, faster (btw this motivation might make you feel even more anxious, so leaving behind this competitive mindset while dancing will help too). This means that dancing doesn't only give us pleasure for a short moment (a few seconds of dopamine rush!), but may even contribute to more long-lasting feelings of happiness. While dancing, our brain engages in learning, meaning-making and self-expression, and those three things seem to engage more broad networks of our brain, in addition, to the reward systems of the brain. This altogether may be the reason why dancing produces this more long-lasting feeling of joy and wellbeing in the everyday. "Dance it out" was a slongan in one series you may know... and this really works!

My hunch is that this is why dancing helps us to "move on" from anxious feelings and ruminations, even if just for a while. After a dance episode we're in a different "place", our brain has activated other thoughts, other feelings... We feel light...

D-S: Personally, I would try dances which are close to a "moving meditation", including Qi Gong, or a slow Tango Argentino. The reason is, you become more attentive to your body and your breathing and your steps, which helps to calm yourself. The music played together also helps.

Dong-Seon Chang

I'm always interested in what my interviewees are reading. Are either of you reading anything at the moment? Anything on the must-read list for the coming months?

D-S: These days, I'm reading a lot of books which deal with the future, and upcoming changes: Experience on Demand by Jeremy Bailenson, The Neurogeneration by Tan Le, The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr, The Deep History of Ourselves by Joseph Ledoux, and Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman-Barrett. Among them, there is a book I really love and recommend: The War for Kindness by Neuroscientist Jamil Jaki.

JC: At the existentialist café: Freedom Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. A lovely person recommended it to me after reading my piece on AEON about authenticity in dance and the arts, and how that can help us to live a better life.

Julia F. Christensen, Ph.D., studied psychology and neuroscience in Spain, France, and the UK and received her Ph.D. from the University of the Balearic Islands. Reports on her research into dance and the brain are published widely including in the New York Times. Based in London, she loves to dance the tango.

Dong-Seon Chang, Ph.D., studied cognitive science at Rutgers and received his Ph.D. from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics at Tübingen. He is a popular TV presenter and speaker, and the winner of several science slams. Based in Seoul, he loves to swing dance.

Dancing is the Best Medicine is available for purchase in paperback format from Greystone Books or Indigo. Check GoodReads for additional retailers.