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How I 'Level Up' My Mental Health When I 'Boogie Down'

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The one thing I believe can solve most of our problems is dancing.

So says “I Feel Good” singer and the one and only godfather of soul, James Brown. And he’s right. When you’re dancing, and your soul jibes with the music, I believe you’re at your most carefree, your most peaceful, grooving to the music without a distraction in the world. It is the ultimate high — you on the dance floor, footloose and fancy free.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I have bipolar disorder — an affliction that causes people to drift between extreme happiness (mania) and crushing sadness (depression). When I’m manic, which is pretty rare these days, I often find myself dancing with myself, blasting music in my apartment. Whether I’m dancing to Madonna’s “Into the Groove” (a song about the power of dancing), LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” or “D.A.N.C.E.” by French electro duo Justice, I feel at one with the universe and that everything’s going to be OK.

Dancing played a principal part in my major manic episode of 2007. As you can read in my memoir, “The Bipolar Addict,” I was hallucinating and I believed my life was being broadcast on TV. I found myself all fired up, with my iPod blasting. I unleashed my inner dancing queen, marching around my apartment pumping my fist to the sky with a towel on my head while reorganizing furniture, books and DVDs. Typical manic behavior. Which is to say atypical.

That’s right: Even in ordinary times, I’ve been known to pump up the volume and dance around my apartment with glee. I throw on a mixtape, sing along flamboyantly and cut a rug in my living room. Sometimes I park myself in front of my stereo and dance in place, and other times I careen about, twirling and gyrating throughout my condo in a flutter of fury. I used to do this in the wee hours while intoxicated. Now that I’m sober, I can actually feel the music cascading down my spine as I trip the light fantastic.

Historical figures such as the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were known to dance alone. Billy Idol wrote a song about cutting a rug solo: “Dancing With Myself.” But Nietzsche and Socrates were the OG original practitioners of the art of dancing alone.

Although more often associated with nihilism than optimism, Nietzsche stated he “would only believe in a god who could dance.” He also declared, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” And Socrates said, “Music and dance are two arts that complement each other and form the beauty and power that are the basis of happiness.”

I took ballroom dancing as a kid. I learned to waltz, cha-cha, tango and swing dance, among others. I still remember all the steps and the twirls, and whenever I’m at a wedding and the appropriate music comes on, I get right back into the swing of ballroom, or even one of the cool dances of my youth, such as  the running man, the roger rabbit and the kid ‘n’ play.

I also took salsa and merengue classes while I was studying abroad in Spain my sophomore year of college. Dancing, coupled with my love of music, lifts my spirits like few other activities can. Every now and then I go to a party called Planet Earth in Chicago, an ’80s new-wave dance night at a club called Late Bar that, to me, is pure happiness. The amazing shapeshifting David Bowie is on heavy rotation there, as is Duran Duran and Depeche Mode.

Dancing, like any physical activity, produces serotonin, the chemical in the body that regulates mood and is often responsible for happiness. Dancing also produces endorphins, which are the body’s natural way of filling opioid receptors and causing euphoria. Personally, I don’t need proof to know dancing = happiness.

But for those who do, a 2016 study at the University of Örebro in Sweden looked at teenage girls who struggled with depression, anxiety and stress, in addition to headache and stomachaches. Half of the group was asked to attend two dance classes per week, and the control group did not go dancing. The girls who stuck with the dance classes showed improvement in their mental health and also reported feeling happier.

Another study by the University of Derby in England involved people who had depression. The subjects were given salsa lessons for a period of nine weeks, and each participant saw improvement in mood after only four weeks. After finishing the lessons, subjects said they had fewer anxieties and a greater feeling of peace and serenity.

In this time of shelter-in-place, I’m inviting you, yes you, to throw a dance party in your living room. I promise, this just might be the fun and the perfect antidote to cabin fever. Behold my latest Spotify mix: Disco Punk Dance Party — Coronavirus Kryptonite vol. 1. You can only binge-watch so much. And there’s nothing like the feeling of moving your body to fight the global pandemic blues. If I can’t be on a dance floor at a club, my living room will do just fine.

So, if you want another way to level up your happiness, boogie down. Bust a move. Do the twist. Shake it like a polaroid picture. Vogue. Dance in the dark. Dance in the streets. Shake ya ass. And don’t stop ‘til you get enough. Because we are all one nation under a groove. And nothing can stop us now.

Unsplash image by Andre Hunter

Originally published: May 13, 2020
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