your brain on dance

Oh yeah, dancing is exercise.

Sometimes I forget that I’m actually exercising in a dance class because it requires so much of my focus and concentration. But lo and behold, dancing offers countless benefits to our physical fitness. It may come as no surprise that dancing improves conditioning of the heart, lungs, muscle tone, and overall strength. Bopping around regularly improves coordination, agility, balance, spatial awareness, and flexibility. Dance strengthens bones and reduces the risk of osteoporosis. It’s also a great alternative to the boring gym workout. Dancing is fun, which I don’t typically equate to physical exertion. But maybe that says more about me than about dance.

Dancing in mind, body, and spirit.

Those are just the physical benefits. Now let’s talk about the psychological benefits. Dancing improves your mood. How exactly does it do that? Well, for one, it aids in the production of natural antidepressants like endorphins. In combination with increased physical fitness, dancing can produce a stronger sense of self worth and confidence.

What about spirituality? For me, dancing is sort of a religion. Certain elements within a dance class produce a meditative quality, like dynamic stretching and methodical warmup sequences. This requires focused attention on breathing, which sets the tone for clearing the head and connecting the body to mind. Choreography coupled with the right song can really send me to that deeper sense of self, to that pure joy of being.

Dancing reduces the risk of dementia?

No one has to sell me on the benefits of dance. However, I was surprised to recently learn about the neurological benefits. Numerous people have been blogging about this over the past couple of years, so I was surprised to find out that these bloggers are all citing the same research from 2003. The New England Journal of Medicine published findings, led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, indicating that dance, alongside a few other activities, reduces the onset of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The findings revealed that select activities, when done frequently, offer protection against dementia. The positive results landed on reading, dancing, and doing crossword puzzles. In fact, dancing was the only physical activity in the study that tested positively, and it tested highest of all, reducing the risk of dementia by 76%. Crossword puzzle aficionados will be happy to know that they’re reducing their risk by 47%. But wow, a whopping 76% risk reduction for dancing. That’s an astonishing statistic. I was delighted until I dug further into these findings. It turns out that it’s the partner-style dancing (such as freestyle, social dancing) that was found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

What about my generation?

I don’t dance with partners. I’m not knocking it. I’m just saying it’s not for me. The human touch alarms me, so coupled with my germaphobia, I’m all set with that. The kind of dance I’m a fan of is found in structured dance classes for the individual—particularly hip hop, modern, and jazz dance. The idea is to follow the movements of the instructor at the front of the room.

So yeah, my heart sank when I read that it’s only this one specific style of dance that improves the memory. I can’t imagine I’m alone in my disappointment because partner-dancing isn’t much of a thing with younger generations, or even middle-aged generations. Don’t quote me on this, but I think its popularity fizzled out somewhere around the baby boomer generation. My parents belong to that era. I had to buy reading glasses last month. So what about me? What about my generation?? I decided to keep digging in hopes that I’d finding some trace, any trace, of conflicting information. Surely there are follow-up studies?

Shouting 5-6-7-8!

I didn’t find any follow-up studies. Digging into the science of this 2003 study, I discovered that the cognition involved in social, partner-dancing creates new neural pathways, which, in the end, improves your memory. More to the point, it’s the rapid-fire decision making that forges these new pathways in the brain. That means practicing memorized sequences is a sure fire path to dementia. No, I kid! This study simply concluded that the memory would not improve if merely practicing memorized sequences.

It seems to me that the complexities of the dance class were not taken into consideration. All that is dance didn’t get its proper examination. I understand that wasn’t the specific scope of the 2003 study, but these bloggers seem to be making sweeping conclusions based on that study. What about the mental acuity involved in learning new choreography, especially when it’s challenging and fast—especially when the dance instructor turns on the music way before you’re ready and shouts 5-6-7-8! I’m no scientist, but that’s a lot of rapid-fire decision making when you don’t know the sequence yet, but you keep moving anyway, free-styling awkward transitions to connect the bits you sort of know. Sure, when the instructor keeps the same choreography for the next 2-3 classes, you begin to tap into the memory bank, especially that elusive muscle memory bank which has bailed me out many-a-times. But what about that 5-6-7-8 moment, and the rapid-fire moments to follow? We need more studies!