Most of us are aware of the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal benefits of dance, but did you know that scientific research is showing how a regular routine of dancing, in comparison to other forms of exercise such as running or lifting weights, may go further in improving the health and function of your brain?
The key, neuro-scientists are saying, is learning something new. When you jump on the bike, perform a bicep curl, or hike up a mountain your body is performing a movement pattern it is familiar with, which means the neural pathways in your brain involved in performing these movements already exist and are being reinforced through repetition. These types of exercise are excellent for your heart, muscles, bones, and certainly play a role in healthy brain function by increasing cerebral blood flow and aiding the creation and maintenance of neurons, but you are more or less ‘going through the motions’ without having to mentally concentrate on the mechanics of each step. In a dance class, you are forced to process and execute new movement patterns which requires greater mental focus and the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. A brain with a more complex and varied neurological network is stronger and may be more resistant to cognitive decline later in life.

Over the last fifteen years, scientific research has begun to explore the link between dance and cognition. One article in particular, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, wanted to see if regular engagement in cognitive activities and physical exercise may have an effect on mental aptitude. Researchers at Syracuse University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine looked at how regular participation in six different cognitive activities including crossword puzzles, reading, playing an instrument as well as eleven different physical activities such as golf, bicycling, walking and dance might have a possible impact on cognitive health. The study observed 469 individuals 75 years old and over and measured rates of dementia, including Alzheimers, over a 21 year span. Results of the experiment showed that none of the physical activities tested were shown to have a measurable impact on dementia, with the exception of one – dance. Of the 17 leisure activities observed in this study, reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing were the only four determined as having a measurable impact on preventing dementia.

In physical therapy we spend a lot of time working with patients on something called ‘motor control’. In addition to strengthening and stretching our muscles, it is important to work on how our brain communicates with our muscles. Often times an injury, or just a simple ache or pain, can stem from a habitual faulty movement pattern in the body. In order to correct this, our brain must have the ability to observe and interrupt that dysfunctional sequence of movement, using our sense of proprioception and kinesthesia. The proprioceptive sense is your brain’s ability to determine where your body is positioned in space, whereas the kinesthetic sense is the awareness of your body moving through space. Both of these senses work together and are pretty darn important when it comes to recognizing and correcting a harmful movement pattern. In order to learn and perfect new movements, dancers must become highly practiced in the skill of sensing, changing and adapting to new patterns of movement in their body. Because dancers are trained in this process over and over again, they can quickly stop and correct themselves because their brains are trained to do so.
In working as a dance teacher for the past fifteen years, I have encountered countless numbers of students who have entered my class saying they lack rhythm and coordination. These same people have gone on to master intricate patterns of movement through practice, practice and more practice. If it is truly going to strengthen your brain, it should not come easy. It should require that you have to slow down, concentrate, and practice it over and over again. Although this can be a tedious and sometimes frustrating process, the rewards of mastering a complicated step that at first glance seemed impossible, are hugely rewarding. The more you put your brain through this process, the more you will seek it out because it will just feel good in your body and brain.

If you have never taken a dance class before, and you are unsure where to start, partner dancing is a great place for beginners. Often times your local community and recreation center will host classes, or you can also look into private dance studios in your area. Most partner dance classes do not require that you bring a partner, and it is a great way to meet others and socialize along with flexing your physical and cognitive muscles. Swing, salsa, contra or any type of ballroom dance is a lot of fun and very accessible to first time dancers. Most adult dance studios will also have beginner classes in most forms of dance – jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop, and modern are common offerings. A lot of people find that if they give one style a try, they get curious about other techniques. If you are not sure which style of dance speaks to you, I suggest looking at videos of a variety of styles online – or better yet, go out and see live dance! – get a sense of which style calls to you.

If dance truly is not your cup of tea, look for ways to switch up your activity of choice. Essentially, any new exercise will challenge and strengthen your brain and neuro-muscular system. As adults, we are accustomed to moving about our day without having to pick apart each tiny muscle movement. Thank goodness for this, or we would not be able to get much done! But once upon a time, when you were a wee little one, you had to think REALLY hard in order to make the smallest of movements. As adults, we too often get out of this practice and become comfortable moving our bodies in ways we are familiar with. If you want to consider the health of your brain with your workout routine, consider picking up a new activity that will challenge not only your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health, but your cognitive health as well.

If we take the mental shift and give ourselves permission to fumble a bit and experience ‘having 2 left feet’ with a new activity, the rewards are far reaching. The knowledge that you are feeding not only your body but your brain as well, makes it all the more worth the while.

Laurel Lakey has a BFA in Dance from the University of Utah and has over 15 years of experience performing, teaching and choreographing as a professional dancer in a variety of locations including Salt Lake City, Seattle and most recently Woodstock, VT. She is recently moved to the Burlington area and currently works as a Physical Therapist Assistant at Dee Physical Therapy in Shelburne, VT.

Keep an eye out for classes held by Laurel at Dee PT where she teaches the dances to popular music videos like ‘Thriller’ and Men in Black’!