University of Gothenburg
Children dancing happily in a studio
Photo: Africa Studio/

Let’s dance – joy in movement without demands on performance

Elisabeth Fernell's latest blog entry

[Posted on 7 August, 2018 by Elisabeth Fernell]

We have mentioned in previous blog posts how important it is for children and adolescents with various disorders – intellectual and linguistic disorders, autism, ADHD, motor coordination difficulties and several other impairments – to experience success. Many have additional difficulties like sleeping problems, emotional symptoms like anxiety, a sense of worry, depressive mood or sensitivity to stress, and others have recurring pain issues for reasons left unknown even after medical examination.

2017/18 data presented by the Public Health Agency of Sweden show that self-reported psychosomatic problems like headaches, depressive mood and sleeping difficulties, have increased continuously over the last decades, especially among girls. An often highlighted aspect of this is that psychosomatic symptoms are more common among students who report that they feel stressed from their schoolwork.

From a neurodevelopmental/neuropsychiatric perspective, there are several studies that have indicated a correlation between recurring headaches and learning difficulties and between headaches and ADHD. Recurring abdominal pains have also been shown to be more common among children with ADHD. When adult women with fibromyalgia were screened for ADHD at a pain clinic, 45% of them screened positively for ADHD.
Keeping that in mind, I found one of the talking points at the paediatrician’s week (“Barnläkarveckan”) in Västerås this spring to be especially interesting. The physical therapist Anna Duberg presented a research project that she is conducting at the School of Health and Medical Sciences at Örebro University, titled: “Children and pain – Dance and yoga for young girls with abdominal pain”. The project is being done in collaboration with the centre for clinical research at Västerås Hospital.

This project was preceded by a randomised, controlled intervention study aimed at girls ages 13-18 showing different signs of poor mental health. That study has been reported in international journals. The authors describe how dance has turned out to be one of the most popular activities among young girls and that dance in a social context might possibly function as a protective factor in preventing poor mental health and reducing the degree of psychosomatic problems in this demographic. The girls participating in the project had been recruited through school health services in Örebro Municipality. Dance sessions were held twice a week after regular school hours, with each session lasting 75 minutes. Themes varied from African dance and show jazz to streetdance. The aim was to highlight the girls’ talents and strengths by encouraging enjoyment rather than performance. This emphasis was explicitly stated from the very beginning and turned out to be a real key to success.

These projects are well-documented online, along with the voices of representatives from a number of municipalities in Sweden that are now implementing this method. One such voice is a school nurse who has observed a significant reduction in visits to student health services from girls with mental health problems ever since the dance group was introduced.

The continued study, outlined at the paediatrician’s week, is aimed at younger girls, ages 9-13, who have been examined for abdominal pains but without any specific medical cause being identified. After the lecture, many argued that some of these girls likely have concurrent neurodevelopmental/neuropsychiatric problems, even though no such aspect had been investigated specifically. The results of this study are also promising and the group recording that was shown at the lecture only strengthens this impression!

Dance groups of this kind have been shown to have a positive effect on mental health. They could thus be a valuable supplement to other treatment of girls with different types of developmental disorders and for girls with symptoms of poor mental health without any other disorder.

Dance groups like these could perhaps be included as part of the school’s extracurricular program, or in collaboration with a physiotherapist and dance instructor. If not, they could be organised by the municipality itself, or tied to clinics focusing on child and adolescent medicine and psychiatry.

I hope this takes off in many different places!

[This is a blog. The purpose of the blog is to provide information and raise awareness concerning important issues. All views and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily shared by the GNC.]