Skip to main content

Mental Health

Dance Therapy

Health through music and movement

Arjun Panesar

From the "Youth Facing Health Inequities" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 15 (3), pp. 23-25

photo of author Arjun

I was born and raised in Surrey, British Columbia. I am a student, a dancer, a dance teacher and an activist for mental health. Like many others, I struggle with a constant fear of not living up to expectations—my own expectations and the expectations of my family and others in my life. I experience a continuous internal battle between my anxieties and my everyday actions. And though the nature of my anxiety changes, I am always shrouded in dread. I know that others face similar struggles.

Over the years, I've been grateful to have had the opportunity to work with MISCELLANEOUS Productions, a non-profit dance and theatre company that reaches out to marginalized youth. MISCELLANEOUS encourages young, anxious artists who face cultural or social barriers to use their abilities to make heart-inspiring art. The values held by MISCELLANEOUS are taught throughout the company, and the organization is a model for my own teaching and dancing practice.

For me, growing up in a traditional South Asian family, it was difficult to deal with my mental health issues. Some of my earliest memories are of hiding from my parents because I was afraid that I had done something to upset them. My parents weren't abusive, but my anxiety would lead me to fear the consequences of something I had done—or, often, something I hadn't done.

In the South Asian community, discussions and perceptions about mental health and well-being are hampered by stigma. In my community, terms like "crazy," "idiot" and "dumb" get thrown around in conversations frequently. I found myself having to deal with the view that I was a nilaak (the Punjabi word for "idiot") for many years—a description I heard from family, friends, even teachers at school. The idea that I was an idiot was embedded in me from a very young age.

When I was eight years old, my mother—in an attempt to get me to exercise more—introduced me to bhangra (southeast Indian folk dance). I'll be honest: the introduction did not go well. I was placed in a group of disruptive teens who bullied me. I left the class and went to another bhangra academy, and I also tried everything from martial arts to other forms of dance. But I didn't have a real passion for anything. My eventual love of bhangra developed slowly over time.

In my new bhangra academy, which was much larger than the first one, I began making friends. This motivated me to become a better dancer so I could continue to be with them. For the next five years, I climbed the ranks, until I was on the brink of becoming a member of the competitive teams. One by one, all of my friends earned spots on those teams. I began to question if my turn would ever come. My fire to dance was strong at that point, although my relationships with friends was still what really drove me.

Finally, I got my chance. In 2013, I competed in my first bhangra competition in Seattle, Washington, in the Junior category. Although I loved being able to compete, I found that the team dynamics took away from my positive experience. The teams were clique-y and would spend a lot of time talking down about the other teams. I searched for common ground but ultimately found myself in the middle, not really making deep connections with anyone. That didn't stop my love of dance, however, and I strived to hone my craft.

After high-school graduation, I was eager to work in a field that felt rewarding. I decided to apply to theatre and film school with the eventual goal of working full-time as an actor. My first step was auditioning; by sheer luck, I stumbled upon the call for auditions for MISCELLANEOUS Productions' Haunted House.

The entire audition turned out to be a group showing of our skill set and a mix of different dance forms. Quickly, I felt very comfortable and was pleased when I was cast in the production, a site-specific live performance at the Barclay Manor in West Vancouver.

It was a transformative experience—much more than simply learning choreography. It was my first introduction to hip hop and contemporary dance styles, a complete shift from my South Asian dance experience. I learned how to put my emotions, my troubles and whatever else I had bottled up inside of myself into my dance. This is still something I do today.

During the first weeks of rehearsals, I would arrive early. I spent time making impromptu choreography, going off in whatever direction my spirit took me at that moment. Music became a gateway through which I could channel my soul into my craft; it was no longer just the background tomy everyday life. I thank the production team and staff at MISCELLANEOUS for these sorts of impromptu choreography sessions, which are still one of my favourite forms of therapy.

As I grew older, I thought about how my experiences could help serve future generations. I thought about the issues I faced as a child and teen and asked myself how I could help to ensure that no one else goes through the bullying and isolation that I went through. My love of dance and my desire to help young people eventually led me to become a dance teacher. I have taught at Vancity Dance, a studio owned by my brother and two of his friends, for the past year. Being surrounded by dance and encouraging young people to find their passion and nurture their own love of dance has taught me that there is much more to dance than performance and competition.

In my many classes for adults, teens and children, I find constant reminders of how stigmatized mental health and mental illness are in the South Asian community—and in the dance community. In the South Asian community, I see the same sort of parenting methods, isolation and harmful behaviours that I experienced growing up. In the dance community, I see students experiencing separation and isolation in almost every class, workshop or production.

I feel strongly that dance offers us an opportunity to change how we deal with mental health issues. I see so many of my brothers and sisters in the dance community dealing with the crippling emotional pain of their deteriorating mental well-being. Members of the dance community have all dealt with the pain of rejection, demotivation and dissatisfaction with their achievement. We have the opportunity to hold each other up, keep our morale strong and be welcoming and encouraging to all who hope to enter the dance community.

When I was growing up, I had dance instructors who were tyrannical and left no room for student creativity. Today, I make sure that my dance classes are never a source of fear. My classes are a space for growth, learning and playfulness, with enough leadership to allow for learning the curriculum I've set out. In my classes, I do my best to promote and ensure positive behaviour. I show empathy, compassion and a passion for my craft. I find my students are drawn to that; they see that I get happiness from my dancing and teaching, and that inspires them to enjoy what they are doing.

I'm the youngest in my family but I always try to be an older-brother mentor for my students, one who understands the struggles they face. It's always humorous when I get the "You're a lot younger than I thought" comment from my students.

During competition season, I still have to maintain a healthy mental state to teach. I continue to use dance as my therapy. I take steps to reconnect with music and my body, to re-align and re-balance my mental well-being, and give myself plenty of forgiveness. For myself and for my students, I focus on the importance of dancing with passion rather than comparing my dancing or my students' dancing with the dancing of others. I've noticed that, as the competitive teams get younger, caring for the mental health of teammates is ever more important. When students of mine look at each other as competitors rather than teammates, that hurts me. I remind them of the old saying "There's no 'I' in team." I point out that the real value of competition is that it encourages us as individuals to do better than we did last time, not to show us who is "better" or "worse" than someone else.

In early 2019, I went back to MISCELLANEOUS Productions, this time with a particular goal in mind. My father's mental health is failing. He has yet to receive a diagnosis, but it seems that he is battling the early stages of dementia. I wanted to undertake a project that explored the pain we all experience when we stay silent about mental health. The company welcomed me back in this new role, and I became involved in the remarkable production and process techniques that the company is known for, working with other dancers and production team members to help imagine, develop and create pieces to relay our message. The show explores the meaning of home and belonging, and addresses issues of racism, mental health, isolation and bullying. In September 2019, Away With Home ran for a weekend and received rave reviews. I am grateful to director Elaine Carol and to all of our remarkable cast and crew.

I hope I can continue to instil in my students the values and beliefs that I have developed for many years to come. I find my personal battles with anxiety never cease, but when I am open about my challenges, I can live and breathe more easily. If everyone danced, there would truly be one universal language.

About the author

Arjun is 22 years old and has been dancing for 12 years. He works part-time at Vancity Dance and studies psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He is also an actor in theatre and commercials, supported by his agent at Prestige Talent

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.