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Dance for Health

Using co-design to engage teenagers in dancing to improve mental wellbeing

Dancing has positive physical, mental and social effects

The Helix Centre is working with two secondary schools in London to understand how to engage teenagers in dancing, by supporting them to design dance sessions and shape the project. The aim is to explore dancing as a mechanism to improve the mental wellbeing of young people and this will be measured through a pilot study.


Dr Peter Lovatts (2020) research talks about evidence that dancing has positive physical, mental and social effects. This includes raising heart rate, releasing dopamine through exercise and increased sense of connection through the social aspect of dance, interaction with other people. Styles of dancing that involve dancing in partners, like the Tango or Salsa, have the added potential benefit of facilitating connection through physical contact , which through research and anecdotal observation during the pandemic, we have learned  benefits wellbeing. For example, Tajeda et al (2020) found that physical contact with others can help reduce loneliness.


This project, which we hope to be  the start of further work relating to ‘the arts and health’ focuses on teenagers because there is an ongoing teenage mental health crisis that is being widely documented. The charity ‘Young Minds’ reported in 2021 that just over one in three children and young people with a diagnosable mental health condition get access to NHS care and treatment (Young Minds, 2021). This is likely to mean that only the most extreme cases of mental or social health challenges get adequate access to support.It has also been found that participation in exercise declines with age, particularly for girls (WHO, 2022) and it can be difficult to engage teenagers in dancing, especially with a partner.


In the first phase of the project we ran two co-design workshops in a secondary school in London, developing a partnership with the young people and creating a trusted space to facilitate creative thought. Co-design is an approach, used increasingly by the NHS, whereby people with lived experience are facilitated to make decisions about what future products and services should be like (McKercher, K. A. 2020). Through the Helix Centre’s tried and tested co-design methods we supported the young people to think about and communicate what a course of engaging dance classes could be like. This involved presenting videos of different dancing styles, activities, venues and teachers to encourage curiosity and inspiration. The young people shared that the class should teach them urban styles that they are familiar with through Tik Tok and they asked for the teacher to also be a young person. Another outcome that the young people highlighted was to have an open  agenda, to give them freedom to create their own choreography, working with groups of peers that they can self select. We also learnt some new colloquial phrases within Pop Culture  - that partner dancing is considered ‘neeky’ (both nerdy and geeky) but that dance classes should be ‘vibey’, replicating street dancing culture in the Caribbean. These findings shaped the agenda for the pilot and upheld the importance that the project was young people led.

The next stages of the project will involve running a pilot of 4 classes, with 20 participants, designed by the young people’s work to date and supported by the Helix team . The young people’s enthusiasm for dancing and mental wellbeing will be measured in a survey before and after the pilot classes. This is known as pre and post intervention data collection. We hope to use the findings as evidence for schools and the community about how to deliver dance classes for young people to benefit their health and wellbeing, with the possibility of scaling our work to reach more young people throughout London and beyond.

The community engagement in this project is funded by Imperial College Societal Engagement Seed Fund.


Lovatt, Peter. The Dance Cure: The Surprising Secret to Being Smarter, Stronger, Happier. Short Books Limited, 2020. Accessed 26 February 2024.


“Mental Health Statistics UK | Young People.” YoungMinds, 2021, Accessed 26 February 2024.


“85% of adolescent girls don’t do enough physical activity: new WHO study calls for action.” 85% of adolescent girls don't do enough physical activity: new WHO study calls for action, 4 March 2022, Accessed 26 February 2024.


McKercher, K. A. (2020). Beyond sticky notes. Doing co-design for Real: Mindsets, Methods, and Movements, 1st Edn.


Tejada, A., Dunbar, R. I. M., & Montero, M. (2020). Physical contact and loneliness: being touched reduces perceptions of loneliness. Adaptive human behaviour and physiology, 6, 292-306

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