In the bright dance studio, loneliness seems a really distant concept. The sound of live percussion mingles with a choir of laughs, while dancers are improvising together. “This morning I wasn’t feeling very well. But I’m always so glad when I come here, because it’s so good for my body and mind and I love it. This is a great place”, confesses Phillipa, the oldest member of the group, by the end of the class. After a relaxed cool down, no one feels like leaving the studio yet. Instead, the air fills with a mixture of conversations, most of them about their common passion for dance. For Miriam, there is a real family feeling within the class that makes her feel comfortable – starting from a mutual interest, the participants have found a way to build a warm friendly connection.
Outside these walls, reality can feel much colder. Loneliness counts as one of the biggest issues for Britain’s mental health, affecting people from all ages and backgrounds. Several surveys have been published by the Office for National Statistics and Age UK revealing that 2.4 million adults in the UK suffer from loneliness. Due to its indiscriminate nature, it is not easy to identify symptoms or find the courage to talk about it. Even though loneliness isn’t a disease, studies alert that feeling lonely can be as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and may increase the risk of dementia, heart disease and depression, especially in an older age.
The numbers are scary, but not irreversible. In 2018, the British Government decided to get involved: a Loneliness Minister was appointed to raise awareness and support projects that fight the problem. Loneliness Awareness Week is one of those initiatives created three years ago by the Marmalade Trust, an organization from Bristol, that quickly spread to every corner of the United Kingdom.
But loneliness can’t be overcome simply with information, we also need to create new solutions to get people together - and physical and artistic activity seems to be the frontrunner on this path. GP’s are starting to adopt ‘social prescribing’, recommending patients to take dance classes to replace some medication. Indeed, the physical, mental and social benefits of dance grabbed the attention of health investigators who praise its capacity to improve cognitive function and emotional well-being.
But dance also opens the door for social interaction. For Mary, a former dancer and teacher, the opportunity to meet new people and be part of a group is one of the reasons why she loves her dance class at The Place: “The environment is fabulous within this group. Most of them already knew each other, but they’ve been extremely welcoming to me and it has been wonderful to really connect to this entire group of people”.
The energetic sound of the group’s voices is starting to disappear between the corridors as they leave the studio. Their dance class might be done for today, but definitely not the talking. Vicki only leaves the room after sharing some of the positive impacts of this class on participant’s lives: “It’s about recognizing that older people have the technique in their bodies, that they want to develop how they feel, how they look, how they dance, and dance is a wonderful thing. It just makes you feel great. The group is fabulous. It’s connected, and all people are prepared to work with each other. We have the opportunity to dance as a group. We like each other a lot”.
The studio door is closed now, but this group proves that dance always leaves the door wide open: it makes us feel welcome in a shared home where we can find multiple ways to express ourselves and to connect with others, reclaiming our social nature. On Loneliness Awareness Week, it is even more important to remember that loneliness lurks behind many closed doors. Here at The Place, we prefer to celebrate the week opening our doors wide and offering the solution of movement - because loneliness doesn’t know how to dance.