First Fortnight preview: Cathy Coughlan, a multidisciplinary artist based in Dublin, outlines why dance could help men manage their mental health ahead of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, her co-curated symposium on men, movement and mental health.

The effect exercise has on our mental health has been widely discussed by the medical profession in recent years. As doctors start to seek out alternative treatments and early interventions for people suffering from mental illness, they’ve looked towards getting us up and moving. So could dancing be part of that solution?

That’s something I’ve been exploring with Ailish Claffey, my fellow dance facilitator and co-curator of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, our upcoming symposium on men, movement and mental health as part of First Fortnight Europe.

After all, dance is exercise without the hard slog. It is social interaction without the anxiety attached. It is the physical exchange of non-verbal communication, creative expression and intellectual stimulation, all rolled into one activity.

Ailish and I have been working in various community/health contexts for over a decade. We’ve worked with older people, people with cognitive and or physical disabilities and people recovering from substance abuse. We’ve also worked with young people at risk and directly within a medical setting.

The most interesting thing we hear as dance facilitators in these contexts is "This doesn’t feel like work". As artists, we believe it is important that the motivation for self-care comes from an authentic place. So for us, the creativity and the artistry are as important as the mental health benefits. In some cases, the health benefits are a by-product of dance practice. But they are always present and reported by participants.

In other cases, physical health is the motivating factor for engaging with dance. But the mental health benefits become a huge reason participants continue to come back.

Dance is exercise without the hard slog. It is social interaction without the anxiety attached. It is the physical exchange of non-verbal communication, creative expression and intellectual stimulation, all rolled into one activity.

We felt that dance could have a huge impact on a crisis that particularly affects young men. This came from observing men engaging with movement practices, often for the first time in their lives. We felt that dance could help with their mental health. And so we decided to bring our experiences together with experiences of other arts practitioners, medical professionals and those affected by mental health conditions.

Our event – Last Night A DJ Saved My Life – will consist of live performances, films, talks, panel discussions, installation and interactive presentations from national and international artists who have made work with, for or about communities of men.

Invited artists will explore themes around embodied trauma, masculinity and gender association with dance. They’ll also look at themes around incarceration, disability and youth engagement, with an emphasis on observing the barriers for men in accessing dance, as a bio-psycho-social model of intervention.

Dancer and psychotherapist Cai Tomos 

From the UK we have invited Cai Tomos, a dancer who is now also a practicing psychotherapist and dance theatre company Restoke, to talk about their groundbreaking work Man Up. They will be joined by national artists, coming from a broad range of approaches.

We will also look at cultural shifts taking place within Ireland, the positive effects of ethnic diversity and the rise in the number of events engaging young men in dance activities across the country.

Street dance events such as Dance2Connect at Civic Theatre and Top 8 at Dublin Dance Festival are beginning to pop up within a contemporary arts context, allowing more young men to experience dance in a safe and social environment.

Dancer Tobi Omoseto, Director of Top 8, coming to Last Night A DJ Saved My Life

Dance has been a part of our human existence for a long time. It is woven into our cultural traditions and our social occasions but it is more intrinsic than that. Trauma does not only sit in the mind, it sits in the body.

The body needs its own language and its own perspective. There is a tradition of dance in this country, but somehow, along with most other western countries, we have lost our men. And we feel it’s time to bring them back into the fold.

Last Night A DJ Saved My Life will take part at Rua Red South Dublin Arts Centre on Thursday 17th January, as part of this year's First Fortnight European Mental Health Arts and Culture Festival - more details here.