What I learned while researching Dance for Health at Trinity Laban

By MFA Dance Science Graduate Ellis Martin-Wylie

Dance for Health (DfH) is a term used to describe dance classes that aim to promote health and well-being. DfH classes are often targeted to specific groups of people, such as adults over the age of 65. With a background in contemporary dance and exercise science, I have long had an interest in the inherent ability of dancing to treat health conditions or to support health maintenance. In September 2018, I began my MFA Dance Science thesis project at Trinity Laban. In this blog post I will share what I learned and how I learned it!

DfH research can take many different forms, all depending on the past work of researchers and their present curiosities. While preparing my thesis project, I noticed the majority of academic research is focused on the objective effects of dancing. For example, it’s been widely proven that dancing improves physical strength, flexibility, and balance ability (Keogh et al., 2009); reduces psychological measurements of anxiety and depression (Crumbie, Olmos, Watts, Avery, & Nelson, 2015; Gouvêa et al., 2017); and increases the number of people in an individual’s social network (McFadden & Basting, 2010). But, only a small body of research has attempted to understand the dancer’s experience of these improved health outcomes. For instance, I wondered how these objective improvements actually manifested in a dancer’s life. How are daily tasks and activities changed when a dancer has better balance, feels less anxious, and has more interpersonal connections?  How does a dancer value the creative engagement and social inclusion offered by dance? With my project, I aimed to deepen our understanding of the ways in which regular engagement in creative dancing impacts the subjective well-being of older adults.

My challenge was to avoid selecting research variables and measurement tools that would severely limit the type of data I collected and strongly predict the outcomes. Instead, I elected to shine a spotlight on the experiences of each research participant so that their perspectives could guide the project to a conclusion. After encouragement from my thesis supervisors to read about “alternative” methods of data collection, I stumbled upon a community-based, participatory methodology called Photovoice, used most often in anthropology, sociology, and health policy research (Wang & Burris, 1997). That one discovery led me to several other approaches and techniques, such as arts-informed research (Cole & Knowles, 2008) and photo-elicitation interviewing (Harper, 2002).

I pieced together methods described by sociologists and ethnographers to create a project design that served my goals – photo-elicitation interviews within an arts-informed methodology. Arts-informed research is based in the belief that first-hand experience is necessary in order to gain knowledge because reality is constructed by perceptions (Cole & Knowles, 2008). In this methodology, a creative process is used to inform data collection. Then, outputs of the creative process are used to communicate the results to audiences. In photo-elicitation interviewing a photograph is inserted into an interview and is discussed. Using both audio and visual cues in an interview encourages novel insights because the brain processes visual information in an area separate from audio information (Harper, 2002). Additionally, dancers have a kinaesthetic, tacit knowledge that is acquired by doing and cannot be communicated or represented verbally (Pain, 2012). For example, a choreographer has skills that can’t be taught through a lecture or a textbook chapter. I attempted to facilitate communication of that tacit knowledge by using a visual aid in my interviews. Photo-elicitation interviewing becomes arts-informed when the participant creates the images that are used during the interview. This engages the participants as co-researchers and brings up issues that are important and meaningful to them.

For this study, I asked ten female dancers, aged 66-77, who take the same weekly, creative dance class, each to take up to 16 pictures on disposable cameras that represent how dancing impacts their subjective physical, psychological, and social well-being. Each dancer and I discussed their own photographs in one-to-one interviews. Then, I analysed the interview transcripts for common themes across dancers’ experiences. Below are examples of how participants experience two common themes: creativity and group flow. Notice the rich metaphors described both visually and verbally.



“This is the sun through the trees, and the sun is seemingly ageless, and that’s how I feel when I’m dancing. I’m unaware of limitations… When I’m participating in a class, for that time, I’m ageless. And I think that’s to do with creativity. I think creativity is ageless. You can be creative from birth to death and it’s an ageless process.”


Group Flow

“When you click with a person you’re with, and you just go off on your own, and it’s just amazing to take part of, and you know that the other person is feeling exactly that. That there’s a symbiosis about the way that you’re reflecting them, or mirroring them, or moving with them, and something quite unique is created.”

Image: Matisse, 1910

If I take anything away from my master’s degree, it isn’t the detailed steps of performing a rigorous qualitative analysis, or the ability to construct a logical argument in a literature review. Sure, those technical skills are important, but anyone can revise textbooks and re-learn those skills fairly quickly. What I learned is an insight that can only be gained from doing. It is applicable not only to DfH research, but to any project you will tackle in your professional career. Venturing outside of your field’s traditional approaches and ways of thinking will open up the possibility of novel methods that may just be what you need to answer a pressing question or solve a difficult problem. Most of the time, it’s as simple as paying close attention to what is around you when you’re outside the environment that informs your dominant way of thinking. For example, I was consumed by objective, medical research approaches because of my degree program’s foundation in health sciences. But, during the twelve months of my thesis project, my roommate was a visual anthropologist and documentary filmmaker. I did not consciously choose a methodology with many similarities to visual anthropology because of my conversations with her; but upon reflection, I must have been inspired while we sat together at our (very small) shared kitchen table and pseudo co-working space during the autumn months of 2018. Ultimately, this arts-informed, photo-elicitation approach produced two outcomes: it challenged the traditional boundaries of how dance scientists might collect and disseminate data, and it served to answer my DfH research question more accurately than if I had stuck to tradition.

If something in this article piqued your interest, I invite you to research it further or to email me at ellis.m17@edu.trinitylaban.ac.uk. I’m very happy to answer questions and chat about DfH research!

Special thanks to the wonderful people from Trinity Laban Dance Science and Learning and Participation for their support during this project.


Crumbie, V., Olmos, F., Watts, C., Avery, J., & Nelson, R. (2015). The impact of dance interventions on mood and depression in older adults. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 49(2), 187–190.

Gouvêa, J. A. G., Antunes, M. D., Bortolozzi, F., Marques, A. G., & Bertolini, S. M. M. G. (2017). Impact of Senior Dance on emotional and motor parameters and quality of life of the elderly. Revista Da Rede de Enfermagem Do Nordeste, 18(1), 51–58.

Keogh, J. W. L., Kilding, A., Pidgeon, P., Ashley, L., & Gillis, D. (2009). Physical benefits of dancing for healthy older adults: A review. Journal of Aging & Physical Activity, 17(4), 479–500.

Cole, A. & Knowles, J. (2008). Arts-informed research. In J. Knowles & A. Cole (Eds.), Handbook of the arts in qualitative research: Perspectives, methodologies, examples, and issues (pp. 55-70). https://doi.org/10.4135/9781452226545

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: A case for photo elicitation. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/14725860220137345

McFadden, S. H., & Basting, A. D. (2010). Healthy aging persons and their brains: Promoting resilience through creative engagement. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, 26(1), 149–161. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cger.2009.11.004

Pain, H. (2012). A literature review to evaluate the choice and use of visual methods. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 11(4), 303–319. https://doi.org/10.1177/160940691201100401

Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior: The Official Publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 24(3), 369–387. https://doi.org/10.1177/109019819702400309

Did you like this article? Find out more about studying a Masters in Dance Science at Trinity Laban: 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s