The current study examined the effects of an acute session of online dance on affective state and social connection during the COVID-19 crisis. We found that online dance was associated with acute decreases in negative affect and depressive symptoms and enhancements in positive affect and self-esteem. Additionally, we found that the subjective experience of dance was significantly associated with the change in affective state. Further, we found that one session of online dance was associated with acute enhancements in social and community connectedness. Importantly, the change in affective state 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. A body-mind-community connection is a linkage between physical, mental, and social health. These findings have important implications for adult populations dealing with social isolation and resulting mental health issues during times of a pandemic or otherwise. It is important to note that our sample consisted of healthy adult dancers without mental health issues. Our findings imply that online dance may have acute mental health benefits for this population; however, we have yet to extrapolate these findings to a clinical population. We do, however, suggest that online platforms can be used effectively to disseminate dance to diverse populations. Online instruction makes dance more accessible, and its digital format can help to reach marginalized populations that would not be able to attend dance lessons otherwise. Moreover, this wide reach can be economically advantageous by lessening the cost of travel. Health care personnel and frontline workers, in particular, could benefit from this intervention as these individuals need to work long hours in the hospital; online access to dance may be critical when they are unable to go home or attend in-person classes.
Dance is associated with acute enhancements in affective state
Regarding affective state, our data shows that a dance intervention is associated with increased positive affect and self-esteem while minimizing negative affect and depressive symptoms. Further, decreases in negative affect and depressive symptoms 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 DMT focused on elements associated with happiness can significantly enhance feelings such as empowerment, pride, and determination, which are part of positive affective states . Although our current study did not examine the effect of DMT, specifically, our observations on the effects of dance, in general, match those from DMT. 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. Our study was not designed as an RCT and did not explicitly compare dance to other forms of exercise but adds to the knowledge of the effects of a single session of dance for healthy adults.
Dance is associated with acute enhancements in 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 was associated with significant enhancements in social connection and community connection with positive correlations seen 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 (e.g., premotor cortex, superior temporal sulcus, superior parietal lobe) [12, 41, 42]. 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 is associated with the acute affective state 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 the 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 depressive symptoms. It is possible that this finding could be related to perceived class difficulty level and corresponding increases in anxiety.
Dance and the body-mind-community connection
Importantly, we found that the acute effects of dance on affective state 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 [47, 48]. 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 [49, 50]. 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 [51, 52].
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, is associated with enhancements in both affective state 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. Interestingly, research has revealed that 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, the nature of conducting this intervention online through Zoom excludes those who are unfamiliar with the platform and broadly, individuals who are not computer savvy. We also did not include a control group; future RCTs are warranted to show causal evidence that participating in an online dance lesson improves affective state and social connectedness. Second, our sample was made of primarily females (91.5%), perhaps because our methods of recruitment targeted more middle-high income, non-hispanic, normal weight female dancers. Additional recruitment methods will need to be intentionally incorporated in future research studies (e.g., recruiting from dance crews through flyers or other targeted advertisements). There was also a risk for selection bias in our recruitment because individuals with more positive experiences with dance may have been more willing to participate than those with more negative experiences. Though there was an equal sampling between urban and rural communities, future iterations should include more racially and ethnically diverse populations. As noted earlier, our target group consisted of healthy adult dancers without mental health issues; however, it is possible that online dance could be beneficial for clinical populations, such as those diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and it will be valuable to target these populations for future studies. 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, which could also diversify our group of participants.
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. Moreover, this pre-post study design with self-report answers gave insight on how participants felt immediately after a dance class. However, we anticipate that a long-term randomized control intervention of 4 weeks or longer with an appropriate control group (e.g., online discussion group, group movie watching, yoga, or other exercise) would help to demonstrate a significant effect of dance on psychological state and corroborate the findings of the present study.
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 through neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging. We also see potential in how this intervention could be applied to other forms of exercise or movement classes (e.g., yoga or other mindfulness practices), as well as its application in clinical populations, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorder, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.