Rhythm is a Dancer: Psychology and Physiology of Dance

As we prepare to celebrate the New Year, we might wonder about the different uses of dance in modern and historical healthcare. In November, our Friends Secretary participated in an event at the Wellcome Collection, which explored the relation of dance to mental health and illness. The evening was part of the Rhythm is a Dancer event series, in which dance performances and discussions take place side by side, offering new perspectives on the physiology and psychology of dance. Two events are yet to take place, in January 2013 – keep an eye on the website for tickets, as they book out rapidly!

November’s event explored the way in which dance has been characterised as both illness and cure in the realm of mental health. From a historical perspective, both ideas often emerged side by side: asylum balls, thought to improve the quality of life and the self-control of the individual, existed alongside widespread concern over the wild movements and fits exhibited in diagnoses like hysteria. Art historian Nancy Ireson, for example, told the audience all about the life of Jane Avril, the French Can Can dancer made famous in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. Jane was admitted to the famous Salpêtrière Hospital as a teenager, under the care of the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Suffering from a movement disorder, she claimed that the hospital dances contributed to her cure: an idea picked up in contemporary healthcare by Sara Houston, a dance lecturer (and former dancer), researching the use of dance in Parkinson’s Disease.

Dance was certainly an important part of Victorian asylum life, as described in Charles Dickens’ article on the Christmas Ball at St Luke’s Hospital: A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree. Yet conditions such as hysteria might also incorporate an element of performance within the symptoms exhibited by patients. Charcot claimed the disease had four distinct stages, which his star patients could produce on cue in weekly lectures. Thus, within nineteenth-century mental healthcare, dance could be represented as both curative (restoring the self-control thought to have been lost during madness) and pathological (representative of a neurological condition resulting in a failure to control impulses). Thus, throughout the event, it was made apparent that dance can function both as a form of freedom and a means of control: sometimes, perhaps, both at the same time.

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Image copyright: Mike Massaro

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2 Responses to “Rhythm is a Dancer: Psychology and Physiology of Dance”


  1. 1 Madison September 3, 2013 at 1:54 am

    I read that in the 1850s Bethlem held at least one dance a year where the doctors, the patients and the nurses were all together and I was wondering what year they stopped doing that and how many times a year they held those kinds of dances. If I’m allowed to ask those questions, that is.

    • 2 bethlemheritage September 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm

      Dances were quite a regular occurrence in late 19th century asylums during the winter months: many institutions aimed to have one entertainment per week, which included dances, concerts, plays and lectures. Most dances were aimed at patients (though not everyone was well enough to attend, and some also chose not to), and sometimes external visitors would also be invited (perhaps former staff and their families or governors). Staff would, of course, be in attendance (they were also encouraged to play in the hospital band and perform in pantomimes etc). The Christmas event was usually the largest, and there was also a staff Christmas Ball (in January), often fancy dress. These certainly went on well into the twentieth century, at least until the time the hospital moved, in 1930, and perhaps beyond that (there was an entertainment hall on the original plans for the Monks Orchard site, but we don’t have much information about it). I hope this is useful!


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