12 May, 2014 Last updated: 19 Mar, 2015

Half a million people streamed into Melbourne's CBD on a mild evening in February to celebrate music, art, sport and performance, as Melbourne's White Night captured the city's streets – and its imagination.

Light overtook the darkness, and music and laughter wafted through the night air as people of all ages walked, mingled, marvelled and, most of all, participated in this all-night festival. 

A festival highlight was I Could Have Danced All Night, a dance party held at Federation Square. Every hour from 7 pm to 7 am, professional dancers led the crowd in a different dance style, from salsa to go-go dancing. The event, supported by VicHealth, embodied the evolution of the arts from high-end to accessible: anyone, regardless of age or ability, could participate.

Hilary Glow, the program director in arts and entertainment management at Deakin University, believes the days when audiences would passively spectate are over. "People are curating or co-curating their own creative experiences," she said. "They don’t just go along to concerts, they join choirs. They don’t just read books, they review them ... Audiences don't just sit down and listen, they get up and do."

Evidence is increasing about the benefits that participating in the arts bring to people's wellbeing. According to a 2012 paper for the Australian Health Policy Research Institute1, for example, involvement in the arts can reduce anxiety, stress, pain and mortality. Positive effects on health come from social interactions in creative pursuits, too. 

It is also clear that arts interventions can contribute to and indeed stimulate increased physical activity. MOTION, a VicHealth program, is one example of our work in engaging the creative community to develop projects with an emphasis on providing physical activity opportunities. 

As understanding of these benefits grows, interest and investment in the arts from non-arts organisations have flourished, as have partnerships that might once have been considered unique – such as that between White Night and VicHealth.

Ms Glow agrees: "Partnerships between arts organisations and non-arts organisation, between business, philanthropists, not-for-profits, communities and health sector - these are all partnerships that are changing the nature of the arts. The whole world of collaboration is really opening up."

In the past year, VicHealth has supported a range of arts projects and collaborated with arts organisations both large and small. VicHealth has also played a major role in the development of a National Arts and Health Framework, to be released later this year, endorsed by all Australian Governments.

VicHealth CEO, Jerril Rechter, said: "As part of VicHealth's new Action Agenda, a focus on the arts and its contribution to physical activity and mental wellbeing is under way. VicHealth has always invested in the arts and the evidence shows how important engagement in the arts is for keeping people active and socially connected, for improving their skills, confidence and self-expression. What we have found more recently is that the physical arts like dancing also play an important role in contributing to enhanced wellbeing."

For You: Dancefloor

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter joins in a dance at Darren Sylvester's For You dance floor at NGV.Another example of VicHealth's work in this area is its partnership with the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

VicHealth funded the hugely popular exhibit, For You, in the gallery's Melbourne Now exhibition. In For You, artist Darren Sylvester has transformed the space into a darkened disco with a dance floor illuminated in colour. At any one moment all sorts of people – from tiny toddlers to young hipsters, daggy dads and older people – can be found shimmying, twirling or energetically bopping to the catchy electronic beats.

Tony Elwood, director of the NGV, said that from day one the partnership between VicHealth and the gallery – although not an immediately obvious one – presented "exciting possibilities."

"The partnership with VicHealth has not only enabled us to produce Darren's work on a much grander scale, it has also assisted the NGV to think creatively about the areas where art and health intersect,” Mr Elwood said. "It is extremely innovative of VicHealth to explore opportunities in the arts that encourage healthy living and social connectedness within the community. I truly believe that the arts sector presents creative opportunities for improving the physical and mental health of the community and it is fantastic to see VicHealth leading the way in this area."

The Ripple Effect of participation

The joy on the face of Kayla, a 10-year old member of Ripple Effect’s dance and theatre workshops for deaf and hard-of hearing young people, says much about what it means for her to be able to join in, exercise and meet new people. 

"I don’t feel left out here because there’s a lot of deaf friends that I’ve met and we can all communicate together," she says. "And I really enjoyed the new dance routines because it’s added to my repertoire of what I can already do."

Some four million Australians experience hearing loss, which often brings flow-on effects such as social isolation and mental health problems. A lack of access to community opportunities can compound these difficulties, leading to a decline in physical health. 

Ripple Effect is one of five arts projects VicHealth has invested in as part of MOTION, its program focusing on community arts schemes that increase physical activity and social connection. The projects are designed to inspire people who may not believe that they can get involved in physical activity to join in fun, welcoming arts projects. 

Ripple Effect resulted from a partnership between VicHealth and Arts Access, a leading arts and disability organisation. The organisation's Arts Development Manager, Fiona Cook, said, "Ripple Effect was created in response to a huge gap for young deaf people to get involved in the arts. Often young deaf people are not included in local community opportunities such as dance, drama and circus, because people assume that because they can’t hear music they can’t be involved."

The inspiring sight of young people drumming, laughing, clapping and dancing together in a Ripple Effect workshop highlights the many possibilities for participation and inclusion.

1 Mills, D. 2011, Joining the dots: Strengthening the contribution of the arts to individual and community health and wellbeing, Submission on behalf of The Arts and Health Foundation to the National Cultural Policy discussion paper