The Science of Dance

Written by Grant Mills on . Posted in Science

We humans were made to dance. For countless animals what we would term ‘dance’ fulfils a role in courting and mating rituals, you might even say that some dance in displays of fear or ferocity, but no other animal that I can think of dances for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

And I’m convinced that it’s a universal impulse in humans. Even the surliest and burliest of men, I’m sure, have cracked out some Saturday Night Fever moves when they’ve found themselves alone, or abortively attempted to moonwalk across the kitchen floor.

We’re amply equipped to express ourselves through body language and movement – our bodies are programmed from birth to be a part of our expressive arsenal.

I broke what felt like a long dance drought last week, and it felt good! You don’t have to tell people who dance regularly that it’s beneficial for you, they already know, it’s self-evidence at its best – but, as with everything that seems simple, there are some complex and intriguing mechanisms at work.

Incidentally the band was The WooHoo Revue from Melbourne and I highly recommend pausing here for a bit of a wiggle in your chair or a full-on gypsy wig-out in your lounge room.

We are all familiar with the chemical highs associated with dancing, our brains crackling with such happy-making neurotransmitters as serotonin and norepinephrine. But what other benefits do we derive from embracing our urge to dance?

Dancing makes you smarter

Dancing simultaneously engages numerous parts of the brain, including the hippocampus – which is responsible for memory formation and spatial navigation – and the cerebral cortex – responsible for many higher brain functions. These sections of the brain are highly ‘elastic’ meaning that they readily rewire themselves based on use.

Reinforcing these pathways is exercise for your brain, and trying new things that are as mentally and physically rigorous as dancing helps open up new neural pathways that increase cognitive ability.

A 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, tested the effects of various ‘cognitive’ and ‘physical’ activities on reducing cases of dementia. Not surprisingly, the ‘cognitive’ activities, such as doing crosswords four-times-a-week, reduced incidences of dementia, but dancing was the only ‘physical’ activity to do so.

And it did so with the biggest impact on reducing your chance of getting dementia.[1]

Nuno Duarte/Flickr via Creative Commons licence

Nuno Duarte/Flickr via Creative Commons licence

Dancing can shape your brain

Watching ballet dancers pirouette almost endlessly is enough to make people a little woozy in empathy…but recent studies have found that ballet dancers train their brain to avoid dizziness and it changes the shape of their brain.

An area in the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor control, was smaller in dancers, and this may be involved in suppressing the impulses sent to brain from the balance systems in the inner ear. [2]

And there’s hope that the discovery assist people with chronic dizziness.

Dance it out

In a University of London study, people with anxiety disorders spent time in one of four therapeutic environments; a dance class, a math class, a music class and an exercise class.

And yes, you’ve probably guessed it; only the patients in the dance class reported a significantly reduced level of anxiety.[3]

And all the rest

And there are too many studies to list that have correlated dance to an increase in general happiness and feelings of well-being, empathetic stimulation of our brains just watching a dancer[4], as well as the social and interpersonal benefits of dance.

But then we already knew all this as intuitively as our dance steps didn’t we?





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Comments (1)

  • Beth


    DANCE! nothin’ left for me to do but DANCE! All these bad times I’m goin’ through just DANCE! Got Canned Heat in my heels tonight baby


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