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Out of this whirled: Can dancing be addictive?

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in the UK, celebrity dancing television shows (such as Strictly Come Dancing and Dancing On Ice) have become highly popular as evidenced by the huge ratings successes over the last few years. As my family are big fans of these shows I’ve come to learn more about dance than I would care to admit. It’s also because of this that a recent paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions caught my eye. It’s a paper by French researchers Remi Targhetta, Bertrand Nalpas, and Pascal Perney entitled Argentine tango: Another behavioral addiction?’ I’m sure many of you reading this will be sceptical about whether dancing can be addictive, but I have always argued that any behaviour can be addictive if there are constant rewards for the individual.

For those of you who know nothing about the Argentine tango (me included before I read this paper), the authors note that:

“Tango is a popular dance for two, which originated in Rio de la Plata, Argentina, in the mid-19th century. Although several styles exist, tango is mostly danced in either open or close embrace, with long elegant steps and complex figures often with sensual connotation. Dancers, men and women, wearing specific clothes and shoes, are perfumed and very elegant”.

The first author of this study (Dr. Targhetta) admits in the paper that he himself is an experienced tango dancer. He got the idea to investigate ‘tango addiction’ because of someone who had attended every night of a 10-day tango festival. Dr. Targhetta developed a friendly relationship with the dancer and suspected that the dancer might be “addicted” to tango. Dr. Targhetta then formally interviewed the dancer:

“He was a white collar in an insurance firm and has a very good income; he suddenly stopped working at 52 years of age in order to practice more and more tango as he wanted; then he moved to Argentina for 2 years to improve and intensify his practice; in Buenos Aires he danced every day from 11 PM to 4 AM and moreover spent 2 hours at least for preparation; he has never considered to reduce or stop dancing and, conversely, he started liking dancing more and more because he was feeling growing pleasure. He claimed that this practice presented no drawback, and on the contrary, there have been advantages such as well-being and self-confidence. Finally, the only time he did not dance was during a holiday week, he developed symptoms looking like those observed during withdrawal such as sadness, feeling uncomfortable and leg prickling”.

Following the interview, Dr. Targhetta concluded that the tango dancer might indeed be addicted but was substantially different from other similar behavioural addictions such as exercise dependence on sports such as running or body-building because “tango dancing requires usually smooth physical effort, it is always performed in an arousing senses environment, while embracing consecutively different partners”. (I’m not sure I follow this line of argument but it’s not critical for a appreciation of the study carried out).

Dr. Targhetta’s observations became the basis for carrying out a much bigger study to examine whether dancing can be addictive. The authors recruited their participants from subscribers to a monthly magazine called ToutTango devoted to tango dancing. Of the 15,000 subscribers, 1,129 tango dancers participated in the study (following an advertisement in the magazine asking for tango dancers to take part in an online survey entitled ‘Are you tango addicted?’). The survey included three measures of addiction: (i) the first measure was based on the DSM-IV criteria for substance dependence, (ii) the second measure comprised Dr. Aviel Goodman’s criteria of dependence, and (iii) the third measure was a self-evaluation of the degree of addiction to tango. More specifically, the authors wrote:

“We built a questionnaire based upon DSM-IV by re-writing each criterion to adapt them to tango, but without modifying their actual meaning; to complete our evaluation toolbox, we also adapted [Dr. Aviel Goodman’s 1990] diagnostic criteria for addictive disorders and, secondly, we added a Likert scale from 0 to 5 for self-evaluation of the degree of addiction to tango…To fit with the future DSM-V definition of substance use disorders, we added a question regarding craving for tango. On the basis of the information recorded from the dancer’s interview, we added some specific and hedonic questions related to the positive (physical or psychological) effects and some items related to the negative (physical or psychological) effects experienced”.

The authors reported that the “dependence rates” were 45% for the adapted DSM-IV criteria, 7% for Goodman’s criteria, and 36% self-rating scores. The difference in these prevalence rates is likely to be because of inadequate conceptualizations of the phenomenon to identify or from differences in the screening tools used. However, they also noted that physical withdrawal symptoms were reported one-fifth of the total sample and that a “strong craving” for dancing was reported by one-third of the total sample. Only 64 dancers (5.6%) were dependent according to all three addiction measures and it is this small percentage that is most likely to be the “hard core of dependent dancers”. Other interesting results included:

“Positive effects were high both in dependent and non-dependent groups and were markedly greater than negative effects. Long practice of tango dancing did not modify the dependence rate or reduce the level of positive effects”… According to our results, tango dancing satisfies several criteria of addiction: feelings of tension or arousal and craving state before dancing, pleasure or relief when dancing, tolerance characterized by a need to increase time spent dancing, and finally physical withdrawal symptoms following abstinence. Altogether this suggests that dependence on tango could exist…[However] tango dependence is associated with several strong and sustained positive effects (pleasure, self-esteem, reduced stress, physical health, etc.) while negative effects are weak”.

There are obviously some major limitations to the study in that the data were based purely on self-report, and the sample was totally self-selected (and was likely to include the most fanatical tango dancers as they were subscribers to a very specialist tango magazine). The authors concluded that if tango addiction exists, it most resembles exercise addiction (in fact, the authors cited our work on exercise addiction to support their argument). Personally, I think it would take more robust data to convince me that excessive tango dancing could be classed as an addiction, but at least there is now an empirical study that future research can build upon.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Allegre, B., Souville, M., Therme, P. & Griffiths, M. (2006). Definitions and measures of exercise dependence. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 631–646.

Berczik, K., Szabo, A., Griffiths, M. D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B., Rand, R. & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: Symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use and Misuse, 47, 403–417.

Demetrovics, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Behavioral addictions: Past, present and future. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 1-2.

Goodman, A. (1990). Addiction: Definition and implications. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 1403–1408.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Targhetta, R., Nalpas, B. & Perney, P. (2013). Argentine tango: Another behavioral addiction? Journal of Behavioral Addictions, DOI: 10.1556/JBA.2.2013.007.