The current study examined the effects of an acute session of online dance on mental health and social connection during the COVID-19 crisis. We found that online dance acutely decreased negative affect and depression and enhanced positive affect. Additionally, we found that the subjective experience of dance significantly predicted the change in mental health. Further, we found that online dance acutely enhanced social and community connectedness. Importantly, the change in mental health significantly predicted the change in social connection. This suggests that dance, even via an online platform, can be used to improve mental and social health, suggesting a body-mind-community connection. These findings have important implications for both healthy and clinical populations dealing with social isolation and resulting mental health issues during times of a pandemic or otherwise. We suggest that online platforms can be used effectively to disseminate dance to diverse populations.
Dance Acutely Enhances Mental Health
Regarding affective state, our data shows that a dance intervention increases positive affect and self-esteem while minimizing negative affect and depression. Further, decreases in negative affect and depression were significantly associated with both decreases in anxiety and increases in positive affect. While several researchers have examined the effects of dance on depression and anxiety in clinical populations, fewer studies have specifically analyzed positive and negative affect. Current research demonstrates that Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) focused on elements associated with happiness can significantly enhance feelings such as empowerment, pride, and determination, which are part of positive affective states . More closely related to our study, Koch et al.  investigated the impacts of a single dance movement session on depression and positive affect in 31 psychiatric patients diagnosed with depression. Comparing dance, listening to music, and riding a stationary ergometer, they found that the dance group profited most in terms of decreased depression and more vitality. Additionally, a recent, large randomized controlled trial (RCT) demonstrated that DMT reduced negative affect, depression, and loneliness in older adults with mild dementia whereas exercise alone did not . These findings are analogous to our study; a similar effect was seen after a single dance session, suggesting that a dance class is at least as effective, if not more effective, in improving affective states when compared to other forms of exercise. While our study was not designed as an RCT and did not explicitly compare dance to other forms of exercise, the repeated measures design shows promising affective improvements.
Dance Acutely Enhances Social Connectivity
Current evolutionary theories posit that dance has evolved as a form of imitation for the purposes of social communication, connection, and learning . The current study demonstrated that online dance significantly enhanced acute social connection and community connection with positive correlations between social and community connectedness. This finding coincides with the social alignment theory, where motor, cognitive, and emotional synchrony happens as humans build relationships and activate areas of the brain associated with the action observation network [5, 38, 39]. As individuals enter a dance practice, they use motor and cognitive areas of the brain to process and execute choreography, but they also exhibit emotional expression through their movements. These three elements then contribute to synchronization and harmony of movement with other dancers, increasing feelings of social connectivity . In our study, as participants danced, social alignment and connection took place without physically being in the same room as the other participants. Previous research has shown that implementing social inclusion strategies through an online-based forum is strongly suggested in the mitigation of negative effects from confinement . Our research is notable in the fact that it is the first to study the link between dance and social connection in healthy populations.
Subjective Exercise Experience Predicts the Acute Mental Health Response of Dance
The subjective exercise experience also influenced affective state in that it was a significant predictor of affective state changes. This finding is similar to other work showing that individuals who participated in movement with other dancers showed an increase in subjective enjoyment of the dance experience . In our study, we saw that positive well-being experienced from dance enhanced positive affect and decreased feelings of anxiety. This finding is supported by the research of Campion and Levita  who compared the effect of dance on affect and cognition to music or exercise in a young, non-clinical population. Their research demonstrated that both dancing and passively listening to music enhanced positive affect, decreased negative affect, and reduced feelings of fatigue. Our results also demonstrated that those who experienced psychological distress and fatigue in response to acute dance had amplified anxiety and depression levels. We hypothesize that this finding could be related to perceived class difficulty level and corresponding increases in anxiety.
Dance and the Body-Mind-Community Connection
Additionally, we found that the acute effects of dance on mental health significantly predicted the change in social connection. Specifically, those individuals who demonstrated the largest gains in self-esteem and decreases in negative affect showed the largest enhancements in social connectivity. This is the first time that this relationship has been investigated in the context of an acute dance protocol.
Other work has shown that mental health and social connectivity are inextricably linked. Individuals with low levels of social connectedness show impaired mental and physical health, including increased levels of depression and shorter life expectancies than those with strong social bonds [44, 45]. In fact, in the realms of public health and epidemiology, it is well accepted that social connection acts as a protective mechanism against mental illness [46, 47]. Conversely, mental health impacts one’s ability to engage in social interactions, and there is often a lack of social connection in individuals with depression, anxiety, or substance use disorders due to dysregulated interpersonal processes [48, 49].
In related work, one study found that a 4-week physical-activity based youth development program for low-income youth improved social and physical competence as well as physical and global self-worth . Further, they found that the changes in self-competence predicted the changes in mental health measures including self-worth and hope. Additionally, a 3-month Gerofit exercise program in older Veterans significantly improved posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and this improvement was significantly associated with the level of social connectedness .
Our work shows that dance, even in an online platform, can enhance both mental health and social connection and that these effects are integrally linked. We hypothesize that our video conference software, which allowed participants to see each other during all dance instruction, significantly contributed to this effect. Future research should investigate which aspects of the online platform (e.g., camera on versus off; gallery view versus speaker view) support enhancements in mental and social health. Additionally, online physical activity programs that have a social component, such as the one in the current study, have been shown to enhance engagement in physical activity. Importantly, the relationship between app use and physical activity level is mediated by the level of social support experienced . As physical activity, even in acute doses, is known to enhance mental health (e.g., increase positive affect, decrease negative affect) , having a social component may be of integral importance to sustain physical activity in service of improving mental health.
Limitations and future directions
We acknowledge several limitations of the current study. First, as we did not include a control group, future RCTs are warranted. Second, as females tend to self-select dance experiences, and our sample was made of primarily females (91.5%), more males will need to be intentionally incorporated in future research studies. Though there was an equal sampling between urban and rural communities, future iterations should include more racially and ethnically diverse populations. Additionally, only three dance styles were represented based on the expertise of the instructors (ballet, jazz and contemporary/modern); we see potential for future expansion of the project into hip hop, tap, non-Western forms, or social dances.
Based on the current findings, we suggest some potential directions for future research. First, though this study was sufficiently powered for its cross-sectional nature, future studies should increase the sample size, perhaps including comparisons between sexes or differences seen across dance styles. Second, future work will need to investigate measures beyond self-report, such as neurocognitive assessments as well as the neural mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of online dance on mental and social well-being. We also see potential in how this intervention could be applied to other forms of exercise or movement classes (e.g., yoga and other mindfulness practices), as well as its application in clinical populations, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorder, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.