“Why do I dance?” A review of the literature regarding the motivation to dance

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Beatriz Lima da Costa Gomes
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This article consists of a literature review regarding motivation to dance. What factors are involved in a decision to start and devote to dance (in terms of sport)? This article offers insight mainly into three sub-themes: measures of motivation, genre issues and differences between recreational and competitive dancers. Author is a dancer herself.


I’ve been a dancer since I was 5 years old. I still remember asking my mum “Can I go to the ballet like the other girls?”. Probably, at that time, I just saw it as an opportunity to be a princess, being able to wear those pretty dresses and get my messy hair tightened up. But now, 16 years later, I’m still a ballerina. I think that’s a lot of time, right? And I never knew what to respond when my friends and family asked “Why do you keep doing that?”, “Why not go to a gym?”, “Why arrive late to every single dinner because the classes always end up late?”. Well, I know why, and I will answer this question ahead. This article will approach motivation to dance in several ways: the creation of a proper instrument to measure motivation to dance; dance in a physical education context; motivations to dance among recreational and competitive dancers.

Dance Motivation: How to Measure?

It’s possible to find some commonalities among the studies from the field of Sports Psychology : first, they all recognize the benefits of dancing, such as improvement in psychological well-being, increased self-esteem and anxiety reduction (Maraz, Király, Urbán, et al., 2015), enhancement of the corporal perception, relaxation of the musculature, and physical, motor, neurological and intellectual development (Calil et. al., 2007).

Trying to approach the lack of available scales, Maraz, Király, Urbán, Griffiths and Demetrovics (2015), developed a study that aimed to create a new psychometric instrument to assess dance motivation. In order to do that they evaluated recreational dancers, instead of professional dancers, because, according to them, the motivations between the two groups can be very different. For example, professional dancers are normally less motivated by intrinsic factors and mood enhancement. This can be explained by the Cognitive Evaluation Theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1991) where is proposed that, in competitive structures, typical in professional dancers’ lives, the focus is more on winning something extrinsic to the sport than in the case of recreational athletes where they probably play for fun rather than to win at all costs.

Fortier, Vallerand, Brière and Provencher (1995) developed a study on this matter in which they found that the pressure to win in case of competition, or, in general terms, the aim to be the best, which is recurrent in the field of dance, possibly induces a shift in athlete’s perceived locus of causality from internal to external, which will diminish their sense of self-determination and, consequently, their intrinsic motivation.

Maraz, Király, Urbán, Griffiths and Demetrovics (2015) started by applicating a questionnaire online to a sample of 447 Latin dancers which they analysed via exploratory factor analysis, founding eight factors comprised into the new Dance Motivation Inventory: Fitness, Mood Enhancement, Intimacy, Socialising, Trance, Mastery, Self-Confidence and Escapism. Mood Enhancement, which refers to the capacity of dance to improve one’s mood and reduce stress, was the strongest motivational factor, in both genders, however, while in Women it is more associated with variables like Fitness, Self-Confidence and Trance, in Men it was more related to Intimacy. Dance intensity, the number of hours spent training in an average week, was predicted by three of the eight motivational factors: Mood Enhancement, Socialising and Escapism. The Dance Motivation Inventory proved to be effective, however, the authors referred the need for more investigation in this field, especially approaching the motivations of dancers of different styles of dance. So, now that we have a proper instrument to measure, where should we start?

Gender Differences

Another study from Shen, Chen, Tolley and Scrabis (2003) tried to examine the extent to which personal interest and situational interest accounted for boys and girls learning outcome in a middle school physical education dance unit. Normally, dance teaching in a physical education context is challenging, at least. As a ballet dancer, this topic is very sensitive to me because I also had to attend to all the physical education classes, practise all the sports they tried to teach me and I liked almost all of them. But when, for a tiny period of time, we had to learn dance, it was like everyone’s favourite soccer team was eliminated in the finals. Everyone was grumpy, and sad and didn’t even make an effort. So, I always wondered: is this a real issue? Can it be changed? And if so, how?

Motivation to learn in the pedagogical context can be defined as the willingness that a student has to engage in the content (Burke, 1995). According to Griffin (1985), gender stereotyping of physical education affects students’ motivation to learn via mediating their perception of physical ability (Williamson, 1996). For example, football is one of the physical activities present in any context of physical education and even if it’s not so influential nowadays, it was for many years a sport highly associated with the male gender. This stereotype lead to a sense of lack of physical ability of the opposite genre to play football, which could presumably affect these individuals’ motivation to learn. Some researchers also found that boys and girls usually hold strong motivational and competence beliefs in activities they consider to be “gender appropriate” (Lee, Fredenbur, Belcher & Cleveland, 1999). And this is defined, of course, by their own social and cultural traditions (Williams & Bedward, 2001): boys and girls know what is expected from them in terms of participation in physical activities and sports, as it is demonstrated by the football example. While boys are expected to engage in group activities that seek physical contact as a central feature of sports, in order to establish an acceptable masculine identity (Gard & Meyenn, 2000), girls struggle to negotiate their gender status that is ambiguous or contradictory to the social and cultural expectations in those sports and physical activities (Flintoff & Scraton, 2001). Shen, Chen, Tolley and Scrabis (2003) based their investigation on the Interest-based Motivation Theory which conceptualizes two kinds of interest: the personal interest, that is the psychological disposition in preference of an action over others (Krapp Hidi & Renninger, 1992); and the situational interest, that is a momentary appealing effect of an activity on individuals in a particular context and moment (Hidi & Anderson, 1992). The results showed that personal interest is highly correlated with the grades that students had: high levels of interest led to higher grades. They also found significant differences in the personal interest in square dance, the type of dance being taught, in boys and girls, which can be an indicator of social influences and may reveal students stereotypes towards it. Comparing both genres we can perceive that girls have, as expected, higher personal and situational interest than boys. However, the facts we can find by scrutinizing this information are the most interesting. Boys showed low personal interest and high situational interest which may suggest that in the accumulation learning stage, from the Theoretical Learning Model proposed by Alexander et al. (1995), they’re motivated by the situational interest. So, these high levels of situational interest overcome the boys’ low levels of personal interest in dance, promoting their learning.

Research also has shown that personal interest is strongly associated with acquired knowledge and skills (Chen & Darst, 2001), which is confirmed by the better performance of girls (with higher personal interest) in skill and written tests. In summary, the findings of these study suggest that gender may be associated with students’ personal interest, but its effect on situational interest is very limited. Situational interest is considered a viable motivator for both boys and girls (Shen, Chen, Trolley & Scrabis, 2003) and personal interest should be nurtured during the learning process because it represents the motivator that leads to persistent effort and achievement in learning (Hidi, 2000). The socially constructed “genre appropriateness” in students can mediate their motivation in learning physical activities, so, the results of the study indicate that the students’ personal interest derived from gender stereotype may be addressed with situational interest (Shen, Chen, Trolley & Scrabis, 2003). What we can conclude from this study is that it is possible to minimize gender stereotype construction in physical education, where carefully designed learning tasks may provide a situationally interesting learning environment in which students are likely to internalize the content and develop a genuine personal interest (Shen, Chen, Trolley & Scrabis, 2003). According to this study, dancing can be faced like any other sports activity, if the teachers know how to teach it that way. And here we can see the possible benefits of a sports psychology intervention.

Recreational vs Competitive Dancers

Gardner, Komesaroff and Fensham (2008) developed a qualitative study of young people attending recreational dance classes, addressing their motivations, the nature of the class experience and the implications for health and well-being. They undertook semi-structured, in-depth interviews with 10 young people attending a variety of community-based recreational dance classes. After analysing the interviews, the authors found five major themes: dance classes foster respect for physical activity and expertise acquired over the long term; participants gain self-confidence with respect to their bodily experiences and social relationships; dance classes increase respect between older and younger people in a physical activity context; dance classes are sites for exploring or maintaining social, community/cultural, recreational or intersubjective values; and they involve experiences of self, body and the world that lie beyond the everyday. As a dancer, these themes seem to me quite accurate. The first theme is highly related to the fact that dance is something that doesn’t have a limit of age. Normally, the more you practise, the better you get. This topic just makes me think of how I saw myself evolving over the years and how I’m never satisfied and can’t even think about stopping dancing, ever. The second theme is quite obvious, dance enhances self-esteem, body perception, it’s good for posture and helped the participants feeling more comfortable about intimacy (Gardner, Komesaroff & Fensham, 2008). The third theme is also very touching to me. Normally, dance teachers are a little bit older than the students, it’s normal and natural because in order to be a teacher you have to get some years of practice and experience. I had the same teacher for 15 years and I can’t even pronounce the respect I have for her. And this is one of the beautiful things about dance: you don’t only create a spiritual connection with yourself and your body but you also connect to the people who teach you, who give you the tools to aim higher and higher. And this leads to the fourth topic, the opportunity that dance provides of meeting new people and cooperate with the people that are dancing with you. This also meets my expectations because I think that, when you dance, it’s not only about you. You share that experience with who’s watching but also with the ones standing on stage with you. And, as much as ballet, especially, is known as a competitive and individual style of dance, it would be impossible to improve and especially to enjoy it, if you don’t have people backing you up, lifting you up (most of the times literally) and helping you getting better. The last theme is the most difficult to illustrate because, like the participants of this study mentioned it’s about the capacity that dance has to explore our energy and to let us release and express our feelings (Gardner, Komesaroff & Fensham, 2008). Relating to this last theme, Gobbi et. al (2007), defended that different kinds of physical activity may lead to different emotional states. Silva (2007) added that when we engage in a physical activity to escape from problems, looking for fun, leisure, love and dedication, the use of movements is a way to explore our creativity, capability of imagination and cognition, making us capable of transforming them into expression. According to Strazzacappa (2001), the expression is the most significant motivation of dance.

I have to admit that this study is not the best example regarding the representation of the sample; also, the results cannot be generalised to a whole population of dancers, and using a qualitative approach is always something that can be more easily biased. However, I couldn’t not present it because the themes found are, in my opinion, completely accurate and, in future research, I would like to approach them more deeply and maybe try to insert them in a quantitative approach.

Finally, I will present another study conducted by Shannon (2016) that explored the factors that influenced girls continued participation in community-based competitive dance during adolescence. For adolescent girls, dance is perceived as a physically active, enjoyable leisure activity (Flintoff & Scraton, 2001; Quin, Frazer & Redding, 2007; Stinson, 1997) that can be more consistent with the feminine ideal (Embry & Rose, 2002; McRobbie, 1984). Enjoyment, social relationships, course content, being labelled as talented (Aujla et al. 2014) and developing an embodied identity as a ballet dancer (Pickard, 2012) have influenced dancers ongoing participation throughout adolescence. Shannon (2016) conducted a study in a small rural community studio where she interviewed seventeen dancers in order to promote their reflection regarding their dance experiences, in general. The data analysis produced three themes that proved to be essential to the girls continued participation in competitive dance: the opportunity for flexible participation, in terms of engaging in other sports and to attend to as much classes as the dancer wants; the enjoyment of dance, which is related to the elevated variety of alternatives in terms of styles and choreographies a dancer can develop; and the supportive environment found within their studio, expressed by the use of the term “dance family” from whom the participants claim feeling responsible and that helps them coping with aspects of their life not directly associated with dance (Shannon, C., 2016).


So, why do I dance? Basically, because I love it. It’s because the feeling I get when I’m dancing is something I can’t find in anything else (and believe me, I looked for it). After writing this article I can definitely add to this the fact of every note I hear being able of enhancing my humour and every movement, as smaller as it is, having the power of capturing all my mental and physical strength. Dance is the only thing capable of enhancing my self-esteem, not for being a good dancer but because I know that when one’s dancing it will be, in some way, beautiful. It will be art, no matter what. Dance has given me an incomparable opportunity to socialize with different people regarding their age, profession or origins since we would always have something much bigger uniting us. It makes my body ache for movement, it makes me feel uncappable of hearing a music and not join in, even if the context only allows me to tap my feet or to formulate a whole choreography in my imagination. And, believe me, when the music is playing and your body and mind are all connected in order to dance, there’s no escape quite like this.

To finish I would like to present one of the most beautiful and accurate sentences that illustrates perfectly, in my opinion, why do we dance and why those motivations are not always reachable: “… Where we did not hear the music; the dancing that we saw there would appear insane.” (Staël, 1813).


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