Dance/Connect: an exploration of whether online group dance can support the social and mental wellbeing of young people living with anxiety
“I don’t think the first thing I felt was belonging, but it was more, like, you didn’t need to belong to it because it [the dance class] felt really open so anyone could belong, so it wasn’t necessarily that you had to fit in… I think it was just very welcoming of everyone and there wasn’t judgement... I felt comfortable to kind of dance, or move how ever.” Participant 5, focus group 3
The ‘social cure approach’ is a theoretical framework which suggests that belonging to a group is important for mental health as it enables individuals to feel closer to others . Group membership constructs shared social identities that enables meaningful experiences that support mental health and protect against loneliness through provision of important psychological resources . We’ve been carrying out new research at UCL in the WHO Collaborating Centre for Arts & Health exploring whether online dance classes can support the social and mental wellbeing of young people aged 16-24 through this mechanism of group belonging. However, interestingly, we have found that the young people in our classes did not like the words ‘belonging’ or ‘group membership’ because they were perceived as exclusory. The dance classes felt open and inclusive to participants, with this terminology perceived as ‘constrictive’ (participant 4, focus group 3). So, we are embarking upon theoretically developing the social cure in the context of online dance classes, integrating the language that our young people felt aligned with their experiences of how the classes supported them. Analysis for the study is still underway but, in this blog, we give you a sneak preview of our qualitative findings to date.
Anxiety is common amongst young people, with early adulthood often considered the highest peak in anxiety experiences . Further, due to COVID-19, young people with anxiety have been at higher risk of loneliness, social withdrawal, and worsening mental health symptoms over the last 2 years. The ‘LockdownLowdown’ report highlighted that over two thirds of young people aged 11-25 were concerned for their mental wellbeing during the pandemic, with 63% of those over 18 moderately or extremely concerned . There has been, and continues to be, a clear need to identify accessible activities to protect vulnerable young people at this time, especially those experiencing mental health problems.
As argued by Jetten, Haslam, & Haslam , understanding what contributes to loneliness and social isolation is important to counter their harmful effects. It is understood that lack of social support, absence of meaningful relationships, and poor social wellbeing lead to increased loneliness and social isolation which negatively impact upon mental health. Therefore, identifying ways to improve social wellbeing is crucial for reducing loneliness and social isolation. Within this rationale, one effective way to combat loneliness and to improve mental health is through group belonging: the basis of the ‘social cure approach’ which draws upon theories of social identity and self-categorization [1,4].
Research has shown that the social cure approach can support those affected by chronic mental health conditions , and this has been applied in the context of the arts . However, whilst there is a burgeoning literature on the benefits of dance interventions to support mental health, including for young people, very little research has applied the social cure approach within the context of dance. This is surprising, given that group dance interventions are particularly promising for fostering social cohesion at a group-level (i.e. fostering rhythmic entrainment and evoking collective emotions that cement social bonds) . Another key gap in the literature is whether online group interventions can foster a sense of group belonging at all, as the majority of research has focused on offline interventions.
Aim and methods
We set out to explore if and how 8-weeks of online dance classes can support young people (aged 16-24) who are living with anxiety by providing them with an opportunity to feel a sense of belonging and identification to an online group. We carried out focus groups and one-on-one interviews which included creative methods, as well as collected reflective creative journals to explore subjective and cocreated experiences of the classes. We also collected self-report surveys using validated measures of loneliness, anxiety, wellbeing, and group identity to track changes in the participants’ experiences and identify mechanisms linking group dance to potential changes in loneliness and anxiety. In this blog, we focus on our qualitative findings to theoretically engage in what we are finding that speaks to the social cure approach. The study was approved by the UCL ethics committee and data has been anonymised for this blog. The classes were delivered by Dance Base, Scotland’s National Centre for Dance.
How our findings are developing the social cure approach
As noted, we are finding that dance class participants did not like to use the language of ‘belonging to a group’, but preferred the idea that they were constructing a shared inclusive online environment.
“…yeah, belonging, definitely I feel like that was wrong, because the idea of belonging is very much for me, like, a subordinance to a group in a sense of also ‘fitting in’, like, it’s constrictive” (participant 4, focus group 3)
“…it’s just the way the word ‘belonging’ is used usually, in the context of ‘you don’t belong’; it kind of suggests that you need like the communities approval or something to be considered a ‘member’, like, someone who’s truly ‘belonging’. And in that sense it’s very exclusive and I, that’s not what this was, in like a good way.” (participant 3, focus group 3)
This negative conception of belonging aligns with social identity theory in relation to how ‘out groups’ are created . Through definition of the personal self in terms of belonging to a group via social categorization (a sense of ‘we’), comparisons to others are created and perceived as ‘out-groups’ (‘they’) . Our dance class participants were very aware of this categorization process and, collectively, worked to construct their shared experience through “terming it as a space or a safe space” (participant 2, focus group 2) rather than a ‘group’, also using the language of a “nurturing environment” (participant 1, focus group 2). To our participants, this environment had less boundaries than a ‘group’, keeping the class open for all members to come together in diversity, rather than sameness.
Another interesting aspect of this construction of a shared environment was that it happened online. In an online environment, there is no shared physical space, but there is a shared online space that is accessed via different physical environments. A supportive ‘environment’ was cocreated through the meeting of physical and virtual spaces. Nonetheless, having cameras off was perceived, by some, as a ‘boundary’:
“I wasn't able to like overcome the boundary of turning my camera on, but that's like a personal thing to me, but I still enjoyed the whole experience.” (participant 1, focus group 2)
In addition, this absence of bodily co-presence and acknowledgement of others sharing the experience of the dance classes enabled some participants to feel liberated and more relaxed which supported mental wellbeing:
“I also found some liberty in having, joining the sessions from my room… the few times when my camera has been off is usually just because I’ve actually turned my lights off, and had really low key light. I actually followed all the moves and things in darkness… it helps me get into a more relaxed mindset and, I dunno, a more fluid state.” (participant 3, focus group 2)
Thus, a key mechanism of the positive experiences that the participants felt was the opportunity to make the classes personalised; participants could choose how to engage in the shared online environment, rather than feel pressured to engage all ‘in the same way’. However, despite saying that the classes did not create a sense of ‘group’ or ‘belonging’, some participants did use the word ‘team’:
“It was like it wasn’t as I wouldn’t quite like call it a sense of belonging. I think maybe just like a team” (participant 6, focus group 1)
Connotations of a ‘team’ may suggest some sense of belonging or boundary creation but, in this case, it was the sense of shared experience that participants focused on, rather than the competitive nature of a team. They described this team as being underpinned by the shared experiences of having anxiety and engaging in an inclusive dance class together, with the relationship to the dance practitioner also highlighted as important to these feelings of inclusivity in the team. For example, the dance practitioner was described as ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘encouraging’ (participant 6, focus group 1).
Through this sense of team and shared environment, participants described a range of personal benefits including improved mood, wellbeing, reduced depression, and feeling ‘mentally relaxed and calm after class’ (participant 8, journal entry). Moreover, engagement with the body was a key mechanism to these benefits. It was described that the classes supported with a mind-body connection, and that dance movements facilitated body awareness. This awareness was viewed as a positive thing that supported wellbeing and, for some, improved confidence and body image too.
Nonetheless, whilst a number of our participants reported these ‘positive’ feelings of engaging in the online space, one of our participants described feeling excluded because of their ethnicity:
“I think that’s just what you’re going to get in a demographic like that, because both the people who are teaching were white, and everyone else in the class was white. So, if you only have one person of colour and they already feel uncomfortable, so they’re not willing to speak up about it, then you’re just not going to get the right experience because there’s just not enough diversity within the group as a whole.” (participant 7, one on one interview)
This participant’s experiences align with social identity theory because they suggest that boundaries created as a result of different ethnic groups may activate the in-group-out-group mechanism through creating different solidarities . Thus, whilst many of our participants felt that their experiences transcended the idea of ‘group’ creation or ‘belonging’, it suggests that boundaries may have been present subconsciously, with this participant feeling excluded. It also suggests that feelings of membership to social groups that exist beyond the online dance class (i.e., ethnic groups) played a role in who felt able to have access to the inclusive environment that many described. There is a clear need to explore the complexities of this exclusion further, reflecting on what could make online dance classes more accessible and diverse in the future.
Summary and next stages
In summary, many of our participants felt that their ‘social cure’ was the co-construction of an inclusive online space and a sense of ‘team’ through sharing dance classes together that were facilitated by an enthusiastic dance practitioner. Many derived personal benefits from this ‘nurturing environment’ such as improved mood and wellbeing, as well as a positive body-mind connection. Nonetheless, one of our participants felt excluded from the classes due to their ethnicity, suggesting that the in-group-out-group mechanism was at play in this context, despite many participants not being aware of this. We will be reflecting further on the complexities of this as we continue analyses, seeking to understand what could make these classes more accessible, diverse, and inclusive in the future.
The Dance/Connect study is funded by the UKRI Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network. The research team are grateful for their support. To keep up to date with findings from the study, follow @Dance_Connect_ on Twitter.
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