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Dance in the time of Covid-19

Pratiti Ghosh | Updated on February 21, 2021 Published on February 21, 2021

In and Out: Dancers are taught breathing exercises in the early years of training

Studies have shown that dance exercises may help people cope with chronic lung problems

*Breaths are painfully controlled within the mathematics of aesthetics

*In 2018, a group of doctors at the Saveetha Medical College, Chennai, worked with Bharatanatyam trainees. The study showed that three years of Bharatanatyam practice significantly enhanced lung functions in girls aged 13-18 years

*Dance is not going to prevent coronavirus infections; your masks will. But it seems to have the potential to help us cope better with the infection

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Dance is an essential part of my being. In these unprecedented times, when it is difficult to have even regular practice sessions, we can forget about dance performances. But something which is so entwined in one’s life finds its own contexts.

We all know of people who have been infected by the novel coronavirus, or even succumbed to it. One of my cousins had such a severe case of Covid-19 that we were all in a state of utmost fear. Doctors found that her body craved oxygen, though she never complained of it. They informed us that this was called ‘happy hypoxia’ — a condition when a patient had low oxygen levels but no signs of respiratory distress. After 27 days, she returned home. She had recovered fully, she was told, but a worrisome chest pain still troubled her.

I visited her and asked her to blow into a toy she had been gifted with when she was discharged from the hospital. The toy had three plastic balls and one had to blow into it to lift them. Doctors call it an incentive spirometer. She did so, but with considerable effort. I blew into it — and found it easy. Yes, she was still suffering from the aftermath of Covid-19 — or long Covid-19, as doctors were now calling it. Among the challenges it poses is difficulty in breathing or the function of the lungs. I thought this was something that had to be tackled — and with the help of dance.

Dancers are usually trained in doing different kinds of breathing exercises in the early years of learning. When a child is being trained, the exercises are mostly very simple. I chose some of these easy exercises and asked my cousin to practise them. After a while, the results were apparent. She felt much better. The doctor examined her in great detail, did a battery of tests and then declared her to be fully cured.

The dance-related breathing exercises may not have played the most important role in her recuperation. But this experience made me ponder over the role of dance. One of the most important skills of a dancer is her ability to regulate her breathing. Among the performing arts, dance is physically the most demanding. The creative rhythm of the entire body is critically connected to this breathing rhythm.

Breaths are painfully controlled within the mathematics of aesthetics. One must remember that while the rhythm of dancing movements has its own mathematics, so does the physiology of breathing. These two have to work in unison for a memorable dance performance.

This commonplace knowledge for a dancer has been found to be very useful in dealing with lung infections. As a physical exercise, dance routines can help in curbing one’s body weight, which helps in countering many illnesses.

While helping out my cousin, I also realised that the dance exercises appealed to her also because they were outside the realm of the therapy protocol and medical advice. When I first asked her to do some exercises to help her breathing, she did so, but without much interest. But when I told her that these were moves related to dance, she was excited. She is a home-maker and was happy to find that she could practise something from the world of dance amidst her daily chores — even if it was to recoverfrom her illness. So dance not only brought the mathematics and the science of well-being into her life, it also brought that sudden joy of the unexpected.

These developments prompted me to do some research on the subject, and I found that scientists have been studying this correlation. For example, in the UK, Akademi, an organisation which works toward promoting South Asian dance forms, has been running a programme called Dance Well, which it says is extremely beneficial to individuals with chronic diseases, especially those related to the lungs. Dr Keir Philip, in the National Heart & Lung Institute, Imperial College London, has long been exploring the potential use of dance as a more engaging and enjoyable way of rehabilitation for patients suffering from chronic lung diseases. It began in 2015 with a programme called Dance Strong that he started in a South African hospital for tuberculosis patients and was then replicated in a number of other international programmes.

One such programme, DanceAble, is working in collaboration with the University of Plymouth, UK, for lung rehabilitation programmes in countries such as Uganda, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Greece. These programmes report significant improvements in not only lung physiology but also in the mental abilities of the patients and help them cope better with their problems. Dr Philip recently studied a dance group in the UK with individuals suffering from chronic lung diseases and in an interview-based trial assessed their experiences after two years of attending a weekly 75-minute dance session. The study pointed to a holistic improvement in the well-being in these individuals.

In 2018, a group of doctors at the Saveetha Medical College, Chennai, worked with Bharatanatyam trainees. The study showed that three years of Bharatanatyam practice significantly enhanced lung functions in girls aged 13-18 years.

Thus dance cannot be and should not be restricted to the performing stage. It has got a lot more to offer. We need to reinvent its importance in human life. Dance is not going to prevent coronavirus infections; your masks will. But it seems to have the potential to help us cope better with the infection. There is widespread fear of long-Covid-19, and the potential physical as well as mental distress that may linger after one has recovered from the infection, especially in cases involving the lungs.

Can dance be a potential rehabilitation measure in such cases? Time will tell.

Pratiti Ghosh is a Odissi dancer, film-maker and amateur writer

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Published on February 21, 2021
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