Canberra dancers Serkan Alasya, left, and Christian Riley, who did not participate in the study, do the tango at the Italian Cultural Centre, Forrest.

Christian Riley and Serkan Alasya practise their tango moves at the Italian Cultural Centre, Forrest. Photo: Melissa Adams

Feeling blue? Tango may be the answer, with researchers finding the dance is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and depression.

The research - carried out by PhD student Rosa Pinniger of the University of New England - found the tango was more effective in alleviating a wider range of mild to moderate symptoms of depression than circuit-training exercise or mindfulness mediation.

So successful was the tango program that participants have formed close friendships and continued dancing in their groups well beyond the study, with the teacher and dance partners volunteering their time.

It has led Ms Pinniger to set up an organisation - the Institute of Tango Therapy - to allow an expansion of the programs, as she notes regular commercial tango classes may not produce the same results.

''The classes are made to minimise any anxiety or stress that a regular tango class may produce - for example, choosing a partner.''

Ms Pinniger was supervised by Dr Rhonda Brown, an associate professor of psychology at the Australian National University, who has become one of the directors of the nascent institute, calling the study ''such a happy experience''.

''Broadly speaking, we measured depression, but also symptoms that are commonly associated with depression, such as high stress, anxiety, fatigue and sleep disturbance,'' Dr Brown said. ''We found out that tango dance was effective in not only reducing feelings of depression but also the degree of sleep disturbance or insomnia, whereas the other treatments weren't as effective in normalising such a broad range of responses. In general, tango dance was associated with improved outcomes that were persistent - so when we measured them a month later, the improvements were still there.''

Dr Brown said it was likely there was a range of factors contributing to the results.

''It's a bit difficult to look at which aspect of the activity is really treating the depression, but I would say it's that nice combination of exercise, social interaction and focusing on something to the exclusion of being able to worry. It's one of those lovely holistic therapies that can both improve psychological outcomes and physical outcomes, and it's got a beautiful social context to it as well.''

The study measured the effects of tango on people who self-reported mild to moderate depression, but also included a group of people with age-related macular degeneration.

''It was a small study [but] it was exciting because these are people who are blind or almost blind and they were able to participate in the activity,'' Dr Brown said. ''So this is an activity they can do quite safely. I wouldn't have believed it myself, but I actually went along to one of these tango classes, and it's easier to do tango with your eyes closed.''

It is this Sydney-based group that has continued on for two years after the study, and Ms Pinniger recently applied for funding through a Bupa grant, as she wants to continue the program long-term.

Dr Brown said tango therapy could become an important mental health treatment. She added: ''We're responding to the need to have more physical, activity-based treatments for depression, and from the desire of many patients not to be labelled as medically ill and not necessarily wanting to be treated through the usual channels - either a psychologist or antidepressants.''