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University of Akron students learn how dance and mental health are connected: You Are Not Alone mental health series

That intersection is being explored by a dancer in residence at the University of Akron.

AKRON, Ohio — Students at the University of Akron's School of Dance, Theatre and Arts recently improved their skills with a dancer in residence. But, California-based dancer Ben Needham-Wood says he uses dance to also teach lessons in mental health.

Needham-Wood was brought in by the school's administration and the National Center for Choreography - Akron (NCCAkron) for a Community Commissioning Residency. He was chosen specifically for his choreographic research intersecting mental health and dance.

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“So I started taking ballet classes when I was 5 years old, and I grew up doing ballet, jazz, hip hop, all different styles," he explains. "Dance is something for me that’s always been very therapeutic, and with the pandemic, I started to wonder, 'Is there research that can show how dance can be as a modality for treatment within the mental health space?'”

For most of October, Needham-Wood served as a guest teacher for The University of Akron’s Ballet V-VIII course, but he says there were other discussions throughout his teaching.

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"What I’ve been learning a lot about is how our bodies are so connected to our minds. What we’re feeling, how we’re choosing to sit, how we hold our arms does actually have an impact on how our brains are processing the world around us."

Needham-Wood also talked with the students about psychology and substance abuse. He even had the chance to visit the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology and Dr. Bob’s Home, a historic house museum that belonged to one of the cofounders of Alcoholics Anonymous. He says talking about the pressure athletes are under has become more popular, especially with the courage of athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, but it's a crucial topic he brings up with his students.

"Professional athletes take that responsibility to perform at their best and show how great we can be -- and that’s immense pressure," he says. "And so I think that that type of stress that is then put on professional athletes needs to be addressed and supported so that they can continue to recognize that they are one of us, not responsible for us.”

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The lessons he's teaching the students are something almost more valuable than just the expert dance experience he brings to the students, says the university's staff.

“I think that’s something really incredible that Ben has done with his team and his residency here," says Colleen Barnes, an assistant professor dance at the school. "I also think that it’s been incredibly beneficial to our dance majors and minors who have gotten to not only see his process through class but witness his choreographic process, which encourages a sense of autonomy and ownership and vulnerability," 

“The entire environment here has been super supportive, and the student body has been very open and welcoming and also very curious," Needham-Wood says.

The university also says Needham-Wood is the first in-person residency it's been able to have in almost two years due to COVID-19.To learn more about the University's School of Dance, Theatre & Arts Administration, click here. To follow Needham-Wood's work, click here.