Lara Ellen Dose claims that dance can have a tangible effect on the health of the nation.
The National Network for the Arts in Health (NNAH) has long argued that the arts improve health. For some, this is clear. Yet, as a nation, we still apologise for investing in the future of arts and culture. But what practical contribution can the arts really make in improving health, and reaching those Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets?
Politicians appear to be sufficiently brave to set targets high enough to raise eyebrows and expectations, but too scared to try anything innovative to ensure these are achieved. The government has responded with a tried and tested answer: increase the number of opportunities for physical activity and sport. For example, £2.6m will be invested through the ten Local Exercise Action Pilots (LEAP), less than 5% of which has been allocated to dance ? much less any other arts activity.
Something, of course, must be done. The strain alone on the National Health Service from health targets is great. In 2000, there were over 100,000 deaths from coronary heart disease. There are 1.3 million people in England with diabetes. Each year, 110,000 people in England have their first stroke, with just under 30% expected to have subsequent strokes. Over 400,000 older people are admitted to hospital following a fall each year, with 14,000 annually dying from an osteoporotic hip fracture. And all of this, of course, has a price tag.
But is sport the only option? There is often a stigma associated with team sports and exercise where a person is overweight or obese. Asthma and depression are also closely linked and embarrassment from poor self-image when wearing a gym kit or a swimming costume does not encourage people who feel this to take part in sport. The arts have also made a significant contribution to tackling many of the causes at the root of a lack of physical activity. For instance, studies such as Bronchial Boogie have shown that people suffering from asthma ? even those with severe asthma ? who sing or play a wind instrument improve significantly, and use their inhalers less. Furthermore, feeling better about yourself mentally is a step closer to feeling better physically and this has an impact on even wider community targets.
And what of the elderly? Even walking can pose problems following a double hip replacement. Dancing and creative movement for older people offers more flexibility and involves a broader spectrum of physical abilities. For instance, you can dance standing or sitting, in a group or alone. Creative movement in older people improves agility, reducing the risk of falls. It also increases circulation, lowering the risk of urinary tract infection, another major example of ill health in the elderly. When combined with singing and reminiscence work, creative movement has had a significant impact on lucidity in early Alzheimer?s patients.
Young or old, we are, indeed, a dancing nation. The Foundation for Community Dance told us in its video and publication, Dancing Nation, ?in the year 2000, over 4 million people took part in dance activities in their local communities initiated by dance professionals, companies and agencies in England alone?. We all dance. Each of us has a song that makes us want to wiggle each time we hear it. An innate desire for creative movement and dance knows no age barrier or physical restriction.
Gateshead learned about the appeal of dance over exercise through a set of healthy heart posters created by artists John Angus and Alison Jones. The 12 posters were sponsored by MSD Limited and distributed to many health centres across the country. The artist created one image of a person dancing with the message ?Dancing makes the heart grow stronger.? When first presented, those commissioning the project argued the poster should encourage ?exercise?, not ?dance?. In the end, a compromise was reached. They published a limited print run of both messages, with health centres having the opportunity to chose. The overwhelming number agreed with the artist, ?Dancing makes the heart grow stronger.?
There are ten LEAP initiatives in England in Primary Care Trusts (PCT) in Durham Dales, North Kirklees, Ashton, Leigh and Wigan, Dudley, Beacon & Castle (with Dudley South), Nottingham City, Great Yarmouth, West of Cornwall, Plymouth, Hastings & St Leonard?s and Wandsworth. Artists should engage in dialogue with these organisations, and present dance and creative movement as an innovative way of achieving PSA targets that will engage a broader spectrum of the community, regardless of age or physical ability, whether urban or rural. Both NNAH and the Foundation for Community Dance have information and resources, including articles and publications that offer convincing testimonies to help you make your case. Pointing to initiatives in other areas can go a long way to convincing others that dance is an important option.
Finally, it is essential to feed information back about dance and creative movement initiatives for these and other target audiences. The more information these organisations hold, the more we are able to share with others.