Emily Jenkins works as a dance artist, producer and researcher, interested in the relationship between creativity and wellbeing. She has over ten years experience working in participatory dance, and is a Dance for Health committee member for the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS). In 2016 Emily founded Move Dance Feel, a Community Interest Company offering dance to women affected by cancer, and has since been working in partnership with leading cancer support organisations in London and Bristol integrating dance into their activity programmes. Supported by photography and a short film, this piece of writing explores how dancing individually and collectively gives rise to feelings of joy, and aims to communicate the significance of joy in dance, with specific reference to Move Dance Feel. In August 2020 Emily facilitated a discussion about joy with participants’ of Move Dance Feel, and has interwoven their reflections with her writing

Dancing for Joy


Movement brings people joy. Moving creatively and rhythmically with others can take that joy into entirely new dimensions. 

We derive joy from dance in so many ways - either by participating or watching - yet rarely talk about its significance, nor its impact on people’s health. Joy is often defined as a feeling of great happiness or pleasure but its indistinct nature makes it difficult to quantify, as well as the fact that individuals all experience it differently. It is perhaps for this reason that there is a noticeable lack of writing about this topic in dance literature. In addition, funders’ reporting requirements sometimes disregard the importance of positive feelings like joy in favour of measurable outcomes.

I believe joy deserves more attention as a benefit of dance, specifically in relation to dance and health work. Since founding Move Dance Feel, a creative project designed to support women affected by cancer, I have retrieved remarkable findings as to the benefits of dance, and joy, in this context. Findings have shown: notable improvements in wellbeing and body confidence; an alleviating affect on feelings of stress and anxiety; and a clinically meaningful reduction in fatigue. Whilst these are overwhelmingly positive results, the dance and health sectors remain so preoccupied with evidencing ‘tangible’ outcomes that we as a society neglect to honour what matters most; 

“It makes me feel the absolute joy of being alive!”
This comment from a Move Dance Feel participant not only encapsulates the feeling of pure joy that dance can generate, it also highlights why it is immeasurable, as an enhancement of or appreciation for living is not quantifiable.
For four years I have witnessed the transformative effects of dance for women living with or beyond cancer, including those caring for someone with cancer. Central to this process of transformation has been a rediscovering of joy among participants, both individually and with others. I have seen women arrive to a session seeming tense and depressed, and then leave looking relaxed and smiling. I have felt laughter reverberate around the room so loudly that it immediately dissipates the heaviness of having cancer.

These joyous sensations, caused by the intrinsic effects of dance, are felt throughout the body and dramatically contrast with participants’ experiences outside of the dance space. As one women explains, ‘you are controlled by everything that happens when you have cancer’ and then are wonderfully ‘out of control when dancing’. This juxtaposition only heightens participants’ sense of joy, as dance generates a ‘lightness of being’ when facing the ‘heaviness of appointments and having a needle stuck in your arm’. In Dance Magazine’s 2017 article Does dance have a responsibility to bring us joy?, writer Jo McDonald suggests ‘joy is sweeter when we’ve known darkness’, and that it may have less meaning without its opposite (i). This resonates for some Move Dance Feel participants as they struggle to reflect upon the joy they feel from dance separately from the ‘un-joyful’ experience of cancer.

Whether it manifests instantly or slowly builds over time, there is no question that dance gives rise to feelings of joy. One Move Dance Feel participant commented that when dancing, joy occurs as if a flame were igniting, adding ‘it’s a bit like a night sky and then a comet suddenly appears’. This suddenness can be attributed to certain elements of the dance practice that encourage spontaneous responses, promoting a sense of unexpected discovery. Joy comes from exploring different movement possibilities and discovering how the body can move in new and exciting ways.

Additionally, participants’ feelings of enjoyment are enhanced when collaborating and simultaneously discovering with others, as one women describes;

“The enjoyment comes from a sense of dancing as a joint enterprise…that reciprocity of dancing with someone else encourages you to greater heights, just by the energy that’s generated between you and the other person, or the other people.”
This sense of shared energy and reciprocity explains why dancing together, as opposed to alone, intensifies feelings of joy. Proximity to, and interaction with, others allows for positivity to transfer between people. Move Dance Feel participants repeatedly mention that the shared experience is what makes dancing so important, and that when dance happens in a way that encourages understanding, empathy and acceptance, it builds trust which ‘enables joy to come to the surface much quicker as a result’.
Trust is a prerequisite of joy. In his paper Happiness Doesn’t Come in Bottles, neuroscientist and philosopher Walter Freeman states;
“Joy comes with activities that we share with people we have learned to trust, and that enables us to share meaning across the solipsistic barrier that separates each of us from all others.”

(ii) These two beliefs, that joy occurs when among people we trust and that sharing activities helps us to feel part of something beyond ourselves, are innately present in dance. The more frequent the shared, joy-filled dance experiences, the more we bond with, and have an awareness of, others. This leads to a way of thinking beyond a focus on oneself that usually, as Freeman explained, separates us from others. One Move Dance Feel participant expressed this phenomenon beautifully;
“There’s joy in everyone else’s joy…it’s not just inner…and that’s maybe why dancing together is so potent.”
She went on to explain that this type of joy can be a gradual unfolding, and gave the example of someone attending Move Dance Feel for the first time a little shy and uncertain, then ‘as the weeks go on they really transform, and I experience the joy of their joy’. Integral to this is what another participant named as ‘generosity of spirit’, which due to the expressive nature of dance is more noticeable, and perhaps more achievable, when compared with other physical or creative activities.

As a physical art form it is easy to overlook the emotional benefits of dance. Yet it is precisely this, frequently expressed as feelings of joy, that participants find most profound. Whilst it may be beyond measure, joy urges us to focus on the positive, even amidst the difficulties, bringing new perspectives and restoring balance to our lives. Therefore, do we need to be concerned with measuring outcomes? Joy manifests in dance not only by feeling a sense of connection to others, but also through feeling connected to ourselves. This happens via a constellation of things - the body, the music, the spontaneity, the creativity - that occur often immediately and simultaneously, helping us to live in the present moment and free our minds from distracting or burdensome thoughts. It is both simple and at the same time extraordinarily multifaceted.

Written by Emily Jenkins 
With huge thanks to the women of Move Dance Feel for sharing their experiences of joy
Photography by Camilla Greenwell 
Film by Alice Underwood, featuring Jackie Richards and Orlanda Otley 

(i) McDonald, Jo (2017). Does dance have a responsibility to bring us joy?:  https://dancemagazine.com.au/2017/03/contemporary-dance-responsibility-bring-us-joy/
(ii) Freeman, Walter (1996). Happiness Doesn’t come in Bottles: https://sisyphuslitmag.org/2018/07/happiness-doesnt-come-in-bottles/ 
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