The Health Benefits Of Dancing Go Beyond Exercise And Stress Reducer

May 3, 2016

What are the health implications of dancing? New social science research shows that dancing in synchrony with others increases people’s threshold for dealing with pain.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Now we have news of a surprising benefit of dancing. NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, I don’t know if you are a noted dancer or not. Shankar, are you?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: I am a noted dancer for being absolutely terrible on the dance floor, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, but in any case, you can do good research on dancing. What is this research?

VEDANTAM: Psychology researchers at the University of Oxford recently published a study in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. They brought volunteers into a lab and taught them different dance moves. They then placed the volunteers in groups of four on the dance floor and put headphones on them so they could hear music.

Some of them were taught the same dance moves, and others were taught different dance moves. Before and after the volunteers danced to music, the researchers measured their pain threshold by squeezing their arms…


VEDANTAM: …With a blood pressure cuff.

INSKEEP: So the question is how tolerant are you to pain, in other words.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. That’s exactly right. And what the researchers found is there were huge differences in pain perception before and after the volunteers danced together.

INSKEEP: I want to break this down because you saying there are people who are dancing in coordination with the people around them…


INSKEEP: …And others who are dancing completely by themselves, even though other people may be right there in the room.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So when the volunteers were taught the same dance moves and heard the same songs as the others, their movements synchronized on the dance floor. Now, afterwards, these volunteers were able to withstand significantly more pain. Their threshold for pain increased.

By contrast, the volunteers who heard different songs or were taught different dance moves to the same music didn’t synchronize their movements. These volunteers experienced either no change in their pain perception or an increase in their pain perception. They actually felt more pain than they did before.

INSKEEP: What is going on there?

VEDANTAM: Well, here’s what the researchers think is going on. When experiences feel good, that’s usually a signal that they have served some kind of evolutionary purpose. So the brain evolved to find certain kinds of food tasty because it eating those foods had survival value for our ancestors.

As a social species, being part of a group has survival value. Evolution also may have adapted the brain to experience a sense of reward when we did things with and for other people. Dancing together, especially in the synchrony, can signal that you are actually simpatico with lots of other people. The researchers think this is why so many cultures have synchronized dancing and why it might have health benefits.

INSKEEP: So it’s not just that I’m loosening my muscles by moving around ’cause if I do that alone, it doesn’t help me. But doing it with other people I feel good. It overrides any sensations happened I might have that are bad.

VEDANTAM: That’s right. So the volunteers had headphones. And so they were listening to songs without knowing what songs others were listening to. It’s only when they were listening to same song and dancing in the same way and they watched other people doing that that the health benefits kicked in.

INSKEEP: Shankar, it’s been fun dancing with you.

VEDANTAM: I feel less pain already, Steve.

INSKEEP: That’s great. NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, our social science correspondent and host of the new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior, Hidden Brain.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved.

Harvard Press, “Dragonfly Wellness Center: ‘It’s all about well-being’ “, by Lucinda Bowen

This weekend the Dragonfly Wellness Center, located in the newly renovated Red Cross building in Devens, will officially kick off its grand opening celebration with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house. This new business, which just started offering classes and workshops after Labor Day, looks to provide Harvard and surrounding communities with a dedicated place to learn, explore, and practice long-term wellness for the body, mind, and spirit.“This is a holistic health center, where we offer a variety of wellness modalities to strengthen and optimize health and well-being,” said owner Anne Ferguson, a nurse and critical-care educator with 30 years’ experience providing bedside care to patients. “And I hope we have a huge variety of people that feel this is a place they can come and find some peace.”

Finding peace is easy at Dragonfly, where the light-filled studio and small practitioners’ offices feel restful, full of vibrant color, and free from cluttered, ambient noise. From the soothing green walls to the hand-painted mandala hanging in the studio, the center offers intentional spaces to cultivate healing and self-reflection. Ferguson feels the Red Cross space was “meant to be.”

Dragonfly Wellness is in the former Red Cross building at the corner of Jackson and Barnum roads in Devens. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)

“When I first saw the building, I knew how it would flow,” said Ferguson. “I saw a café on one side, practitioners on the other side, with a natural, big studio in the middle. It’s perfect.”

It may have been perfect, but it was not available. Another buyer had made an offer on the building, and though Ferguson tried to secure a lease, the financial piece did not work out. Instead, she purchased a church in downtown Ayer and started renovations. But she kept an eye on the Red Cross building, and when no improvement work had started after months of waiting, she approached MassDevelopment again. The previous offer had fallen through, and Ferguson jumped at the chance to purchase and renovate the historic space for her business.

“Inside it was in such disrepair, there wasn’t much to keep,” said Ferguson, whose renovations took six months. “We tried to restore the building to its historic structure. We raised the ceiling, tore up floors, but kept the flow and the outside the same.” The process was expensive because of the historic registry requirements. But, she said, “My investment wasn’t to make money or to flip the building. It’s an investment in my business, in bringing wellness to the community.”

Wellness partnerships

Ferguson’s passion for community wellness has led to partnerships with a variety of holistic health practitioners who now operate their practices out of the center. Their specialties include massage therapy, shamanic healing, sound therapy, myofascial release therapy, craniosacral therapy, reiki, and meditation. “All the practitioners have a sense of peace about them,” said Ferguson. “They are very kind spirits and good teachers, very altruistic. We all collaborate on different programs.” The center also offers a variety of classes and workshops, including a 5K training group, wellness coaching, nutrition workshops, and movement classes such as yoga, tai chi, and dance.

One of several practitioner rooms at Dragonfly Wellness.

While these services are considered nonmainstream, they are intended to be complementary, or offered in conjunction with conventional medicine, rather than replacing it. “I don’t believe in no medication at all,” said Ferguson. “I believe there’s a balance to eastern and western treatments. [These practices] that have been around for thousands and thousands of years and have been shown to help, I feel like we should use those.”

Ferguson herself has benefited from the sometimes transformative effect of holistic health practices. For example, she said, “I did an eight-week meditation course. I went into it wanting to learn more about mindfulness. What I got out of it was so personal and such a change of perspective, I feel like what I expected to find and what I found were very different. It’s open to your experience.” But whether the experience is in meditation, nutrition, or reiki, the thing Ferguson appreciates about complementary health practices is the sense of well-being they foster. “You feel like everything is OK physically and mentally,” she said.

Having worked at the “bedside end” of health care, Ferguson has spent the past 10 years dreaming of partnering with clients in preventive care, instead of illness. “I always thought about holistic treatments, had the belief the body is meant to heal and protect itself. I feel like a holistic approach strengthens people’s bodies and minds,” she said.

Inspired by loss

But it was not just her own conviction about the benefit of holistic health practices that made Ferguson ready to step away from nursing to own her own business. In 2009, she lost her brother Jim after just eight weeks of illness. As she mourned the suddenness of his passing, Ferguson realized she needed a break from bedside care. “I was given the opportunity to leave with a severance package, which was like a gift to go do what I wanted to do,” she explained. And she was inspired to take the chance because of Jim: “The way he lived, he helped me. He did so many high-risk things to benefit others. This path opened up because of his support.”

Though her business is just opening, Ferguson is still dreaming big. She hopes to one day offer acupuncture, drumming workshops, art therapy, and more: “We want to have something for everyone here. And we want it to be affordable so people can have the opportunity to optimize their own physical and emotional strength.” Currently, Dragonfly offers discounts to seniors, students, and veterans and may be able to offer a sliding scale to clients who need but cannot afford the center’s services. Ferguson is also looking into the role that grants and insurance reimbursements might play in making holistic health services more affordable.

For now, though, Ferguson’s focus is on the grand opening celebration Friday, Oct. 2. There will be a short ribbon-cutting ceremony at 3 p.m., followed by an open house with raffle prizes, refreshments, and free gifts. The open house runs from 3 to 7 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. The Natural Café will offer smoothie samples and sandwiches, and Dragonfly’s health practitioners will have tables set up to highlight the classes, treatments, and workshops the center offers. “It is about having people come in and take a tour and see what we’re about,” said Ferguson. “Workshops and classes are just starting. They are definitely picking up, but we can fit a lot of people in there. We have lots of room.”

New York Times, “Sound Baths Move From Metaphysical to Mainstream”, by Sophia Kercher

DEVENS — “This is a happy day,” declared Anne Ferguson at the opening of the Dragonfly Wellness Center earlier this month. “Today marks the culmination of almost two years of effort to unlock our doors here at 176 Jackson Road.”

Marty Jones, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, headed the team that facilitated Ferguson’s ownership of the former Red Cross building, built by the U.S. Army in 1941. The elegant, white T-shaped structure formerly housed members of an essential support staff for troops posted at Devens.

Ferguson, who spent 30 years as a registered nurse in critical care, opened the Dragonfly Wellness Center with two loans totaling $330,000; $135,000 was used to purchase the building and $195,000 was spent to renovate the two-acre property.
The former Red Cross building is now Dragonfly Wellness Center.

Ferguson said that with a holistic approach to life, many illnesses can be prevented and treated by strengthening our bodies, minds and spirits.

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“Development of Wellness Center is Focused on Healing”, by Amanda Roberge, correspondent.

“DEVENS – Since Devens was decommissioned as an Army base in 1996, it has slowly gained momentum as a viable residential and business community. The most recent addition to the growing business community is Dragonfly Wellness Center, which brings together different modalities for healing under one roof.

Anne Ferguson said she has dreamed of opening such a center for more than 10 years and wound up taking the substantial risk – leaving her full-time career as a registered nurse for Tufts Medical Center and taking a loan of $330,000 from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, better known as MassDevelopment – due in no small part to the death of her brother, Dan, six years ago.

“I have felt him all along, through every step, even when it seemed like a crazy thing to do – like such a huge gamble,” she said. “Because that’s how he lived his life. He wasn’t afraid to try something, to dream.”

Finding the building at 176 Jackson Road was kismet for Ms. Ferguson, who felt a strong connection based on its rich history as the headquarters for the American Red Cross during the 1940s, when the town was better known as Fort Devens and served as a training center for American troops.”

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“With MassDevelopment Assistance, Historic American Red Cross Building in Devens is Revived, Transformed into Health and Wellness Center”

MassDevelopment has provided two loans totaling $330,000 to DFWC Realty, which used the proceeds to acquire and renovate the former American Red Cross building at 176 Jackson Road in Devens. Anne Ferguson, DFWC Realty’s principal, transformed the building into a health and wellness institute called Dragonfly Wellness Center. Ferguson used the first loan, worth $135,000, to finance the purchase of the building. The second loan of $195,000 funded renovations to the interior and exterior of the building.“The former American Red Cross building housed essential support staff to our troops at Fort Devens, but has recently been inactive,” said Marty Jones, MassDevelopment President and CEO. “MassDevelopment is pleased to support Anne Ferguson as she revitalizes the property and, in continuance of the building’s theme, creates a center to support the well-being of the residents of Devens and the Nashoba Valley.”

The site of the Dragonfly Wellness Center has a notable history. Constructed by the U.S. Army in 1941, the one-story Colonial revival building was one of the first administrative Red Cross buildings located on a military base. The building contained offices, living quarters, and lecture and reception rooms, and was primarily occupied by Red Cross administrative personnel until the U.S. Army closed Fort Devens in 1996. After the base closing, the Town of Harvard briefly used the building as a youth center. However, the site has primarily sat vacant since the base closure. The building, located on two acres of land near downtown Devens, is registered on the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s list of historic buildings. Following Fort Devens’ closure, MassDevelopment acquired the 4,400-acre property and is redeveloping Devens into a sustainable and diverse mixed-use community.
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