0 In Cast of Creatives

Mental Health and Dance with Samantha Jennings

James Pearson
Hello, and welcome to Cast of Creatives, the series dedicated to exploring creative work and the impact it has on mental health and well being. So I’m delighted to be joined today by Samantha Jennings, who is a choreographer and Royal Academy of dance teacher. Samantha, how you doing?

Samantha Jennings
Hey James it’s just fantastic to be on your show. And I love the fact that you’re an advocate for mental health so I think there’ll be a good synergy there between us.

James Pearson
Very much. Yes. Two of the things that really, really excite me about talking to you today really are yes, the mental health aspect, but also I think our shared appreciation and love of a really good wedding first dance. So I want to crack into those subjects with you. But before we get started with those, can you just share with everybody a little bit of an overview about your career and how you got started in dance, and what brought you to become a mental health student?

Samantha Jennings
Okay so just the nuts and bolts, my mum went to the Royal Ballet School, which is a fantastic start. So, the first steps I was caught up with in the world of theatre and a dance school obviously. Now of course, I could have had two left feet, but that wasn’t going to happen. So I absolutely loved it. And I went from strength to strength to an award to go to the Bedford College School of dancing in London, and then interestingly it was as I was a teacher. And by the way I quite wanted to be a dancer, but I was a teacher at the time, I was spotted by an examiner who said, why don’t you go to Italy, and you can teach some children at school in Europe. So I said to my mom, I think I’m off. And she said, you’re going? Are you sure you want to go all the way to Italy and teach dancing? And I did so that really opened my mind to travel and creativity, and that was fantastic.

So I think there’s a long career obviously I’ve had, but I ran schools for many, many, many years for children through to their exams. I did school shows all this kind of thing. And then I came to wedding dance because a couple came to my dance school and said they’d like me to choreograph a first dance. That was when Strictly took off on our TV screens. It was terrific because I was lucky that I was there sort of at the beginning. So I set up birds and bells.

I left the children’s dance teaching and went fully into wedding dances which I adored, because actually I’m the choreographer / dramatist kind of person, less the teacher if you will. It suited me artistically, because really that’s the kind of girl I am. And that was just mentally rewarding, and I won awards, brides magazine wrapit awards for special touches in 2006. So that was really good. And then of course, we move on to today. I actually went off with my husband to Portugal for four years, and ran creative art holidays. So we’re talking about CBT here and mental health, so that we did, and that was probably the highlight of my life personally. Although I love my dancing and I’m absolutely passionate about it, that was also fantastic.

And then we came back in the last four years and there’s been so much talk about mental health. At the Royal Academy of Dance, it’s so much at the top of their agenda that I couldn’t help be pulled into that. So I went on a silver swans licensee course, about a year ago. I just started last January teaching the oldest adaptive ballet as it were, and the lockdown came in. So, the last year I’ve been desperately trying to reinvent myself and see how I can offer that service online. So that’s where we’ve got to really.

James Pearson
Amazing. So, what would you say has driven this move towards a greater consideration for mental health within dance?

Samantha Jennings
Well, I think that when you look at the media stories and you see all of those older people, so isolated, so anxious and on their own. I mean we have seen it haven’t we? In the care homes, the terrible difficulties that they’ve had, it made me think about a demographic that probably gets quite ignored, which are the people in care homes. People can’t go in and teach them. People can’t see their loved ones. It must have been terribly isolating. so I did a little series online on YouTube called ballet bite size, which kind of helped, because it was free, but overall I think going from 50 years up to 100 years, I think there’s a big proportion of society that probably could have better accessibility to dance learning online. So that’s that, apart from which I’m actually doing a fantastic course at Baptist University. It’s an MSc in mental health. And I’ve done a year of it – mental health and well being in education. So it kind of tied in really well with that and the RDS and other organisations, it’s not just them. We did look at the body scientifically, and the dance medicine. I think we’re now looking at the cognitive side of it all.

James Pearson
That’s really, really, really interesting to me personally because my grandfather, now coming up to his 104th birthday, is in a care home, and his experience during lockdown was nothing short of absolutely shocking really. He said that, basically, all the plans and activities just dried up, and they became more or less prisoners inside their “cells”, as he referred to them. A very, very sad situation, and if it weren’t for technology really, I mean things like FaceTime, I think it would have been even worse.

Samantha Jennings
Yes, absolutely. I’m sorry to hear that James and I do really think that, you know, we’re not really very well set up digitally. I think that’s another area we need to progress forward with, teaching a lot online. You’ve got a fantastic kind of video conferencing kind of set up here, but you know as soon as you’ve got music going and everybody dancing a bit out of time, I think there’s a long way to go!

James Pearson
Yes, there are challenges. That’s so interesting that you’re beginning to explore that territory, I think that’s fascinating.

Samantha Jennings
It is, it’s almost like sort of wanting to be in the next century or something, and having 5G or 6G working so that we can all kind of dance together in time to the music, because really, seriously, we’re not. And you know on Zoom, there’s a lot of distortion, which I think hinders the mental health and well being of people learning, because really it should be such a great unique experience to dance to music. I think dance has to be looked at as something set apart from exercise, it’s a different ballgame.

James Pearson
It’s more of a discipline, would you say?

Samantha Jennings
It certainly is. But I also think that the choice of music that you play to either flow with those movements, fast or slow, the music that you use is a very integral part. I think that when it’s done properly and the teacher knows how to differentiate and use really great music, that’s when it all really comes together and you have a great time. You look at the choreography on “Strictly” for example, just using that as an example, you can see how well the steps flow together with the gorgeous music. It’s quite an emotional feeling for everybody.

James Pearson
Amazing. I know that within the counselling space specifically, there’s been a massive learning curve to take counselling services online, and I think it rocked all of the governing bodies as they scramble to catch up with what this all meant. And the ethics of providing things like the Mental Health Services digitally, instead of in person, it turned the whole thing on its head. How good is the education at the moment, in the dance space, for this kind of movement? Is the RAD quite supportive of it?

Samantha Jennings
Well it’s fascinating. You asked me and I can give you a really good answer here. Terry Hyde has created an app online for dancers for the RAD. I happen to have talked to him once about mental health because I’m into psychology, and he’s into psychotherapy, so we had to sort that bit out. I think he told me probably that I’m doing the wrong thing. Whether I am or not, anyway, but the point is, let me just express the fact that he’s got an app going on the RAD site, that everybody knows about. Dancers can access the app for their mental health and well being. So it’s really worth having a look around. Of course I know about “Headspace”, for example, I think most of us are aware of that. My husband uses that in his work in telecoms, sometimes, but we both actually feel that going for a good walk, and being mindful in that way, is probably quite good for you physically, mentally and everything. So, I mean, the jury’s a bit out for me on whether those kinds of apps work, but they’re incredibly popular on my course, there’s a lot of mindfulness modules.

James Pearson
I mean, I imagine, such as when you’re explaining that one of the biggest challenges of being online, and trying to do dance, is this synchronisation of the whole thing, there probably are ways of having better speaker setups, and integrating a delay to cope with that kind of situation, but we’re not quite there yet, are we? In terms of that level of sophistication, but we will get there, and then it will be an option. So you’re at the very forefront of it really?

Samantha Jennings
I’d like to be almost trying to think of setting up some kind of funding to try and find the right person to set this up in the UK. I’m currently with a company called MuvYu. It’s fantastic because when I’m teaching online, I don’t know how it works, honestly James, but I’m in sync with my dancers, and there’s no distortion of music, and it goes right into their computer. And boy, you can hear it really well.

My husband’s told me that 5G will make a lot of difference, because he’s a capacity engineer for a big well known telecoms company in this country. So at the end of the day I guess that if we get 5G, that actually may solve some problems first James, maybe, I don’t know. What do you think?

James Pearson
Yes, I think we’re ever moving towards more stable environment, and with 5G, I walk into town, and the internet speed on my phone is faster than my home broadband. So yeah, we’re definitely moving in the right kind of direction for all of that stuff. And it’s going to be a game changer for sure, it just enables people to have access to things that previously weren’t possible, and I’m all for that.

Samantha Jennings
Absolutely, and I think that certainly with dance, which is very kinesthetic, it’s actually been a real challenge for all those dance teachers out there. I can say this because I sit and chat to them online in the silver Swan sanctuary, a kind of safe place that we all go and talk and support each other, which goes back to the mental health again. And we all kind of go, oh, you know, when are we going to go back to face to face, because this is just too hard, you know. I think the teachers I really feel sorry for, are all the wonderful dance teachers out there who are teaching the kids in this country, because quite honestly, teaching a group of three year olds to dance… Is really not easy.

James Pearson
Wow, basically!

Samantha Jennings
My heart goes out to them.

James Pearson
Amazing. So yeah, moving just briefly into the wedding space then, because obviously you have a lot of amazing experience teaching first dance choreography. The question arose for Rachel and I at our wedding… Should we have a first dance? And the answer was, obviously, yes. And should we have it choreographed? And the answer was, obviously yes having come from a background of filming weddings for over 10 years. We saw that the couples that put the effort in to learn a dance, were just in a totally different headspace to the people that didn’t, and couples would come in, and I’d say, are you having a first dance? And sometimes they would say, “Well, we’re not very good dancers, so we’ll probably just get up and do something”. And the impact of that on the day was the pressure. It’s ironic because learning a fully choreographed routine is a lot of pressure, right?

Samantha Jennings
It is indeed.

James Pearson
But the pressure of not learning something is even greater. So, I would say that in terms of actual on the day wedding mental health for couples, a choreographed dance is the way to go because it takes the pressure off. Do you have a similar experience from your couples? Is that how it played out?

Samantha Jennings
One of the questions as you were just expressing all of that was how many lessons did you have to crack it?

James Pearson
Right, we got very lucky. A brand new dance studio opened up in the village, and we sort of befriended the dance teacher at the time, who’d never done a first dance. We were her guinea pigs if you like, but she’s very, very good. And she took us, who… well Rachel’s probably a better dancer than I am. I’m probably one of the worst, most wooden dancers in the land, and she had to take me from zero to hero, and I think she did it. We really enjoyed our first dance, I don’t think it was amazing, visually, but the fact that we did it, and the fact that we put our hearts into it made such a difference to the guests, and their joy and their pleasure, and that’s where it all was, and that’s what it was about. So we probably had 20 odd lessons. Quite a lot really.

Samantha Jennings
I was going to say, did you find that you were able to lead James? Because that’s the key, really.

James Pearson
Kathryn was very good about it in the sense that she could… she determined the different points at which we could both lead, and so it was a joint effort. There are a couple of times I tried to catch Rachel, it was very scary. But we had practised it down to a tee. So, yeah. The most interesting thing that came out the whole experience really was, we’d learnt it in one particular environment, and Kathryn did keep saying, as soon as you get your dress on, and as soon as you’re there on the day, there are so many factors that can influence even the minutest of details. And what happened is during the practice that we had just before, thankfully, there was no one in the room, Rachel got onto the dance floor, did the first move, and went flying across the dance floor, because she just totally lost it. It was too slippy, so we had to scale it back, we had to scale it all back just to be safe and not fall over. Well, we tried.

Samantha Jennings
Yeah, I’m impressed with what you said, and I think the fact that you had a lift, or some kind of lean and support, or some kind of lift in it, I’m really, really impressed with that. I think they always look good, especially as a flourish at the end. I had a wedding couple who only realised at the last minute when I just quietly said, what will you be wearing, to the bride? And it turns out it’s going to be a fishtail dress. So basically, you might as well be a traditional Japanese lady walking. So there have been a few laughs along the way and just for drama really, I did have a client once who I don’t think I’ve ever, ever known it in all the 1000s of years I’ve been teaching, because I don’t want to make myself sound too old, but he has no rhythm whatsoever. So the beats that he heard coming through the music, he wasn’t able to put his feet in time to that. And that was a kind of, it was almost like a kind of disorder that I hadn’t quite seen ever before. So that was a big lesson, but generally I would say top tips to prepare are: Make sure that you wear good shoes, when you’re training. Choose a lovely song. Don’t make it longer than two minutes because most music tracks are about four or five minutes, frankly, that’s far too long. It’s a lot to learn! About two minutes I used to recommend. We used to get a two minute dance choreographed in three one and a half hour lessons. So, you know, that wasn’t bad, and all the practice that they did in between, but I can appreciate that it could probably take longer if the teacher’s perhaps a bit less experienced, or you want it to be really, really good. The kind of dance where you’re going to just kind of wow everybody. I think you did a fabulous job, the fact that you went for it, and you were able to have a lift. It must have blown everybody’s socks off at the wedding, and it’s always quite a tearful moment I think for those watching.

James Pearson
I guess we were very into it, we were very, very glad that we did it. I think if we hadn’t done it, we would have regretted it.

Samantha Jennings
I think so. And I mean at the end of the day, they weren’t crying because you got it wrong…

James Pearson
They didn’t see that bit! That was in the deleted scenes. So, in a broader perspective then, how would you say in your experience, which is very varied and very vast, how does dance help with mental health?

Samantha Jennings
How does dance help with mental health? Well you know I could tell you about all the globins and pheromones and endorphins. I’m actually on holiday at the moment, so I’ve lost my academic brain for about six weeks. Let’s just start with the hormones that come flooding when we start dancing. They’re basically happy hormones. So as soon as we start dancing, they’re flooding into our brain, so we’re going to feel good after we’ve done it. Basically, even if we went for a walk, or a cycle, it would have the same effect. So obviously good mentally, it’s great for you physically too. You’re going to be a fitter person, you’re doing your exercise and it’s very engaging. I think one of the things that’s come out for older learners is the social aspect of dancing together in a community. This staves off the isolation and depression and anxiety of living on your own, when perhaps you’ve lost a partner. And therefore, that social connection that derives that comes in through dance and is really key for mental health I feel.

James Pearson
Yes! There’s three big ones. It’s very interesting about the science and the endorphins and we’re both students of mental health. I was reading an article and I got really, really into it actually. It was super science, and it was all about the different kinds of waves that music emit. So there are beta waves, and theta waves, and how these hit your brain, and the different areas of the brain that they activate. Snd it was fascinating to learn how different oscillations, which are essentially beats… oscillations become beats, beats become oscillations. So they’re the same thing. When music oscillates at different frequencies, it triggers different parts of your brain. And I was fascinated at how the body adapts to desperately want to move with those oscillations, it’s like a sync, it’s like a physical DNA sync. And I was amazed. That’s why people tap their feet and nod their head, they just can’t help it because it’s triggering something in their brain. And like you say, it’s all the feel good emotions and stuff. Dance is a powerful tool.

Samantha Jennings
Oh, it is indeed James, I love what you’ve just said and I’m actually very interested in what you say about music, I’ll probably carry that forward to next year, thanks for some research tips. I believe there is something powerful in music. I was talking to a colleague the other day, I mean it’s so powerful. when I’ve done feedback to my students as to what you really like about the lesson they go, well Samantha, your dance choreography is not just exercise. And they say, and the music… So, you know, so many have come back with that, so I think you really are on to something there with the music. But I think they talk about the rhythm of moving, rather like rocking a baby to sleep. One researcher I was reading last year, which is very soothing. I mean we’re just talking about the slow movement here, but it goes right back to the cradle when we’re being lifted up and perhaps rocked in the arms. I thought that was gorgeous and lovely when I read this. I’d like to think that more people thought dance and ballet was fantastic because I think it is. And now, ballet can be adapted so anybody can do it, particularly men, for who we find another research area. They’re not so keen to dance, not as much as some women, so it would be great in the industry to start seeing men coming to dance more. And, you know, maybe there’s something about dance that they’re not sure about, I’m not sure if it’s that they don’t want to look bad when they’re dancing. I don’t know, what do you think James?

James Pearson
Yes it’s it’s hard, it’s hard to clarify really. I think it’s sort of horses for courses. As I say, I mean, I’ve never been a big dancer, but I appreciate aspects of it, the energy of a disco floor at a wedding. You know, that shared spirit of community, and I can be there and present in that moment. I don’t very much like being the centre of dance attention, so there’s a difference, there’s a difference there.

Samantha Jennings
You don’t want to be John Travolta staying alive then in the middle floor?

James Pearson
I’ll leave that to my dad who’s very, very good at it. That’s open to interpretation that one.

Samantha Jennings
Oh, okay, well, going back to your Dad, I’d love to help out there definitely. Because I’m trying to trial this with older learners, dancers. Well good luck with his dancing, you should encourage him if he likes it.

James Pearson
I just want to linger a little bit more because you said something really interesting about the idea of being cradled as a child, and that sort of evoking memories in somebody. I think I’m a very, very big believer in the fact that we are still programmed as tribal creatures, and I think the experiences that we had 1000s of years ago, are still echoing today. And I love that. I love that analogy of being cradled as a baby and gently rocked in this way. I think music through the ages in certain tribes, dance and music, and the ability to dance, would have been very, very closely linked to your ability to score a mate. And, you know, to further the tribe. And so if you’re a good dancer, you were in. So there’s so many sort of countless examples of where dance is integrated into our very beings, and I think that is potentially why it resonates so well with with mental health.

Samantha Jennings
Absolutely, I mean, it’s always been a courting activity, and at the end of the day, you’ve got the African dancers who are very spiritual, you could almost talk about kind of a holy spirit that comes from them where they’re dancing, another spiritual kind of dimension. It’s just so fantastic. You’ve got ballet, which is a very disciplined dance, right through to others that are more relaxed. You’ve got the street kind of dance where guys up the street are all in a community working together and having a competition to see who’s the best dancer. But I’m not too sure about the connection to virility. Because at the end of the day, I know very virile people who aren’t good at dancing. That would be a bit fruity, so I’m just going to say that obviously the best dancers aren’t always, you know, and vice versa. So basically what I’m trying to say is that you can still be very virile as a guy, you may not be a very good dancer. Or the other way around.

James Pearson
I am living proof. So, yeah, that’s amazing. I mean we’re fast approaching the top of our little half an hour, and just before we run out of time Samantha, I just really wanted to check in and see if there’s anything that you’ve learnt recently from studying mental health that you can share with everybody that’s particularly interesting or tickled you a little bit.

Samantha Jennings
Okay, well thank you for a fabulous interview because actually instead of stumbling over my words and not knowing what to say, I’m absolutely delighted I’ve been able to answer everything without doing a lot of “ums” in this interview. Absolutely. I have kind of fallen in love with Martin Seligman Positive Psychology. His book is, of course, “Flourish”. Not all of it, because how can I put this, I’m quite a spiritual person and I find that a lot of that doesn’t necessarily come into positive psychology thinking, but a lot of good stuff does come out of it, and there’s a framework that Martin Seligman talked about called PERMA. That’s P for positive emotion, E for engagement, R for relationship, M for meaning and A for accomplishment. And frankly he tried this framework on a grammar school in Australia, and it changed the whole ethos of the schoo,l and the way the curriculum is run for the kids all the way up through to the teachers. And to be honest I’m trying it with my Silver Swans, where we engage in positive emotion which means we’re always positive, that the engagement is with each other, you know, the engagement stories within the dance, which is something that we all enjoy, the relationship is the community of being all together. The meaning is what dance means to us and what we’re trying to achieve and the accomplishment. And I think, quite frankly that framework is perhaps even in schools today, across the range, primary, secondary, dance schools everywhere in the industry, as leaders that we are, we can make a big difference as self employed creative practitioners, leading people forward with that kind of PERMA framework, so that’s what I believe in.

James Pearson
That is fascinating. Yes each one of those headings you could really really dig in there and go deep.

Samantha Jennings
Yeah I think so and I think I was probably told that on my last essay. That was like, yes, Samantha, perfect. We love this but you’re going to have to dig a bit deeper on this one because it’s huge, and it’s such a beautiful subject, and I think you could probably spend the whole dissertation just on PERMA. Actually when I did the research on that paper and I looked to see who was doing the PERMA framework of Martin Seligman, the god of positive psychology, obviously American, not obviously, but he is. I thought, there’s nothing in dance about positive psychology or how we should lead as leaders, absolutely nothing at all. And there was one champion in, I think it was, Taiwan, I can’t quite remember, that I found this research and it was in Taiwanese, and I had a terrible experience. And I was desperate to read it, he was running a dance school using PERMA, so I did put that in my into my essay, but I had to actually translate it. There’s nothing like it here.

James Pearson
Well, that’s fantastic! PERMA I shall be looking this up and researching in great detail.

Samantha Jennings
Yeah, Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, that’s what they’re teaching in the mental health, is the big positive psychology and contemporary based interventions for that kind of thing. But it’s great, and merging this all with the dance that I do is fascinating and opening up a whole new world, but basically James, what it’s taught me is, is I’ve got to change. Before I can hope that other people will change, I’ve got to change myself, you know, and throw out the judgement and the, you know some of the things that come in. Mental health start it right at the top.

James Pearson
Yes, I just finished listening to an audio book actually called “Nonviolent Communication”. And it was very much about checking your internal dialogue when dealing with other people, and making sure that you are continually, you know, reframing your relationship with that other person by asking the right questions, and not saying the wrong things, and not judging them, and not pre determining who they are and what they mean. It’s always a fascinating subject. But I’m very excited to look into PERMA, so thank you very much for that, that’s a bit of a gift, I’ll enjoy that.

So Samantha it’s been wonderful chatting to you, I know that we could chat for ages. I think there are 1000 subjects that we could dig into but sadly, we don’t have time today, but perhaps on a future episode we might get back in touch and have another go, because I think there’s lots of ground here that we haven’t covered, I’d be very excited to get into it all.

Samantha Jennings
I’d love to James it’s been fascinating talking to you, we could probably talk all day if we were left alone somewhere and just chat on about mental health.

James Pearson
Probably! Definitely!

Samantha Jennings
So, very best wishes with with what you’re doing, and by the way, I think it’s fantastic that you’re advocating this in this industry. I’m very pleased that you’re being an activist about it, and an advocate, that’s just so that’s brilliant.

James Pearson
Thank you very much, and likewise I think we share so much synergy and we’re in such a similar position. I can’t wait to continue our journey, together actually, and see where we go. I’m very excited about it.

Samantha Jennings
Oh, and I’d be very happy to.

James Pearson
Excellent. Well Samantha thanks again it’s been wonderful, thank you so much.

Samantha Jennings
Okay, thank you. Bye for now.

James Pearson
Bye.

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