Why Is Dancing So Good for Your Brain?

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Why Is Dancing So Good for Your Brain?

Dancers maximize cognitive function and muscle memory through practice.

Dancing improves brain function on a variety of levels. Two recent studies show how different types of practice allow dancers to achieve peak performance by blending cerebral and cognitive thought processes with muscle memory and ‘proprioception’ held in the cerebellum. Through regular aerobic training that incorporates some type of dance at least once a week anyone can maximize his or her brain function.

When was the last time you went out dancing? I make a habit of going to my local dance club called the Atlantic House at least once a week. I have been dancing to DJ David LaSalle’s music in the same spot in front of a huge speaker since 1988. Some of my friends make fun of me for ‘chasing butterflies’ and acting like a fool on the dance floor. I don’t care. I know that dancing and spontaneously trying to spin like Michael Jackson is good for my brain.

While researching this blog, I pulled up some old footage of Michael Jackson spinning. He was an incredible dancer. Please take a minute to watch Michael Jackson dance here (link is external). In this video you can see how practicing a dance move like ‘spinning’ from childhood reshapes the cerebellum (down brain) and allows a dancer to create superfluidity and not get dizzy while rotating quickly.

Professional dancers don’t get dizzy. Why?

Do you feel dizzy sometimes when you stand up? Does a fear of falling prevent you from exploring the world more? If you are prone to dizziness, a new study has found that dancing may help improve your balance and make you less dizzy. In September 2013, researchers from Imperial College London reported on specific differences in the brain structure of ballet dancers that may help them avoid feeling dizzy when they perform pirouettes. You don't have to train to become a professional ballet dancer to benefit from some type of dancing.

The article (link is external) is titled, “The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Training-Related Perceptuo-Reflex Uncoupling in Dancers.” The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear linked to the cerebellum. The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help to improve treatment for patients with chronic dizziness. Around one in four people experience this condition at some time in their lives.

In a previous Psychology Today blog titled “Fear of Falling Creates a Downward Spiral” I talk about the risk of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) due to a fear of falling and impaired balance. Taking time throughout your life to improve the function of your cerebellum through aerobic activity and some type of dance is a fun and effective way to avoid the perils of dizziness.

For this study the researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers. Interestingly, most rhythmic aerobic exercise is going to be a bi-pedal motion or very linear—like rowing. It is interesting to note the benefits to proprioception and balance based in the cerebellum that is enhanced through dance.

The study volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants' brain structure with MRI scans.

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you're still spinning.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers. Sensory input evokes low-order reflexes of the cerebellum and higher-order perceptual responses of the cerebrum. Vestibular stimulation elicits vestibular-ocular reflex (VOR) and self-motion perception (e.g., vertigo) whose response durations are normally equal.

I have a section in my book, The Athlete’s Way, which explores the connection to VOR and muscle memory during REM sleep that I will write about more in a future blog. On Page 54 (link is external) I say, “It became clear to me that creating a dreamlike default state of flow through sport is linked to VOR, too. It is really like REM in reverse. This is my original hypothesis. My father thinks it makes sense, but other scientists have yet to explore this theory.” The new research from London this month offers exciting new connections to VOR and peak performance.

Dr. Barry Seemungal, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, said: "Dizziness, which is the feeling that we are moving when in fact we are still, is a common problem. I see a lot of patients who have suffered from dizziness for a long time. Ballet dancers seem to be able to train themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the same principles to help our patients."

The brain scans revealed differences between the groups in two parts of the brain: an area in the cerebellum where sensory input from the vestibular organs is processed and in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for the perception of dizziness.

"It's not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy. If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better."

"This shows that the sensation of spinning is separate from the reflexes that make your eyes move back and forth," Dr. Seemungal said. "In many clinics, it's common to only measure the reflexes, meaning that when these tests come back normal the patient is told that there is nothing wrong. But that's only half the story. You need to look at tests that assess both reflex and sensation." In summary, dancers display vestibular perceptuo-reflex dissociation with the neuronatomical correlate localized to the vestibular cerebellum.

Visualizing Movements can Improve Muscle Memory

A July 2013 article (link is external) titled, “The Cognitive Benefits of Movement Reduction: Evidence From Dance Marking” found that dancers can improve the ability to do complex moves by walking through them slowly and encoding the movement with a cue through ‘marking’. Researcher Edward Warburton, a former professional ballet dancer, and colleagues were interested in exploring the "thinking behind the doing of dance."

The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggest that marking may alleviate the conflict between the cognitive and physical aspects of dance practice — allowing dancers to memorize and repeat steps more fluidly. This creates what I call “superfluidity," which is the highest tier of ‘flow.’

Expert ballet dancers seem to glide effortlessly across the stage, but learning the steps is both physically and mentally demanding. New research suggests that dance marking—loosely practicing a routine by "going through the motions"—may improve the quality of dance performance by reducing the mental strain needed to perfect the movements. 

"It is widely assumed that the purpose of marking is to conserve energy," explains Warburton, professor of dance at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "But elite-level dance is not only physically demanding, it's cognitively demanding as well. Learning and rehearsing a dance piece requires concentration on many aspects of the desired performance." Marking essentially involves a run-through of the dance routine, but with a focus on the routine itself, rather than making the perfect movements.

"When marking, the dancer often does not leave the floor, and may even substitute hand gestures for movements," Warburton explains. "One common example is using a finger rotation to represent a turn while not actually turning the whole body."

To investigate how marking influences performance, the researchers asked a group of talented dance students to learn two routines: they were asked to practice one routine at performance speed and to practice the other one by marking. Across many of the different techniques and steps, the dancers were judged more highly on the routine that they had practiced with marking—their movements on the marked routine appeared to be more seamless, their sequences more fluid.

Conclusion: Synchronizing the Cerebrum and Cerebellum Creates Superfluidity

The researchers conclude that practicing at performance speed didn't allow the dancers to memorize and consolidate the steps as a sequence, thus encumbering their performance. This type of visualization and marking could be used to maximize performance across many fields and areas of life.

"By reducing the demands on complex control of the body, marking may reduce the multi-layered cognitive load used when learning choreography," Warburton explains. "Marking could be strategically used by teachers and choreographers to enhance memory and integration of multiple aspects of a piece precisely at those times when dancers are working to master the most demanding material," says Warburton.

It's unclear whether these performance improvements would be seen for other types of dance, Warburton cautions, but it is possible that this area of research could extend to other kinds of activities, perhaps even language acquisition. He said, "Smaller scale movement systems with low energetic costs such as speech, sign language, and gestures may likewise accrue cognitive benefits, as might be the case in learning new multisyllabic vocabulary or working on one's accent in a foreign language."

Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter, Longer.

Richard Powers

For centuries, dance manuals and other writings have lauded the health benefits of dancing, usually as physical exercise.  More recently we've seen research on further health benefits of dancing, such as stress reduction and increased serotonin level, with its sense of well-being.

Most recently we've heard of another benefit:  Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter.

A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one's mind by dancing can ward off Alzheimer's disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit.  Dancing also increases cognitive acuity at all ages.

You may have heard about the New England Journal of Medicine report on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging.   Here it is in a nutshell.

The 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

The study wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity.  They discovered that some activities had a significant beneficial effect.  Other activities had none.

They studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments.  And they studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.

One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia.  There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind.

There was one important exception:  the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.

Reading - 35% reduced risk of dementia

Bicycling and swimming - 0%

Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week - 47%

Playing golf - 0%

Dancing frequently - 76%.   That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.


What could cause these significant cognitive benefits?

In this study, neurologist Dr. Robert Katzman proposed that these persons are more resistant to the effects of dementia as a result of having greater cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses.  Like education, participation in mentally engaging activities lowers the risk of dementia by improving these neural qualities.

As Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Coyle explains in an accompanying commentary:  "The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use."

Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed.  If it doesn't need to, then it won't.

            Aging and memory

When brain cells die and synapses weaken with aging, our nouns go first, like names of people, because there's only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information.  If the single neural connection to that name fades, we lose access to it.  As people age, some of them learn to parallel process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks.

The key here is Dr. Katzman's emphasis on the complexity of our neuronal synapses.  More is better.  Do whatever you can to create new neural paths.  The opposite of this is taking the same old well-worn path over and over again, with habitual patterns of thinking and living.

When I was studying the creative process as a grad student at Stanford, I came across the perfect analogy to this:

            The more stepping stones there are across the creek,
            the easier it is to cross in your own style.

The focus of that aphorism was creative thinking, to find as many alternative paths as possible to a creative solution.  But as we age, parallel processing becomes more critical.  Now it's no longer a matter of style, it's a matter of survival — getting across the creek at all.  Randomly dying brain cells are like stepping stones being removed one by one.  Those who had only one well-worn path of stones are completely blocked when some are removed.  But those who spent their lives trying different mental routes each time, creating a myriad of possible paths, still have several paths left.

As the study shows, we need to keep as many of those paths active as we can, while also generating new paths, to maintain the complexity of our neuronal connections.

In other words: Intelligence — use it or lose it.


What exactly do we mean by "intelligence"?

You'll probably agree that intelligence isn't just a numerical measurement, with a number of 100 plus or minus assigned to it.  But what is it?

To answer this question, we go back to the most elemental questions possible.  Why do animals have a brain?  To survive?  No, plants don't have a brain and they survive.  To live longer?  No, many trees outlive us.

As neuroscience educator Robert Sylwester notes, mobility is central to everything that is cognitive, whether it is physical motion or the mental movement of information.  Plants have to endure whatever comes along, including predators eating them.  Animals, on the other hand, can travel to seek food, shelter, mates, and to move away from unfavorable conditions.  Since we can move, we need a cognitive system that can comprehend sensory input and intelligently make choices.

Semantics will differ for each of us, but according to many, if the stimulus-response relationship of a situation is automatic, we don't think of the response as requiring our intelligence.  We don't use the word "intelligent" to describe a banana slug, even though it has a rudimentary brain.  But when the brain evaluates several viable responses and chooses one (a real choice, not just following habits), the cognitive process is considered to be intelligent.

As Jean Piaget put it, intelligence is what we use when we don't already know what to do.

            Why dancing?

We immediately ask two questions:

Why is dancing better than other activities for improving mental capabilities?

 Does this mean all kinds of dancing, or is one kind of dancing better than another?

That's where this particular study falls short.  It doesn't answer these questions as a stand-alone study.  Fortunately, it isn't a stand-alone study.  It's one of many studies, over decades, which have shown that we increase our mental capacity by exercising our cognitive processes.  Intelligence: Use it or lose it.  And it's the other studies which fill in the gaps in this one.  Looking at all of these studies together lets us understand the bigger picture.

The essence of intelligence is making decisions.  The best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style.

One way to do that is to learn something new.  Not just dancing, but anything new.  Don't worry about the probability that you'll never use it in the future.  Take a class to challenge your mind.  It will stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new pathways.  Difficult classes are better for you, as they will create a greater need for new neural pathways.

Then take a dance class, which can be even more effective.  Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.

            What kind of dancing?

Do all kinds of dancing lead to increased mental acuity?  No, not all forms of dancing will produce the same benefit, especially if they only work on style, or merely retrace the same memorized paths.  Making as many split-second decisions as possible, is the key to maintaining our cognitive abilities.  Remember: intelligence is what we use when we don't already know what to do.

We wish that thirty years ago the Albert Einstein College of Medicine thought of doing side-by-side comparisons of different kinds of dancing, to find out which was better.  But we can figure it out by looking at who they studied: senior citizens 75 and older, beginning in 1980.  Those who danced in that particular population were former Roaring Twenties dancers (back in 1980) and then former Swing Era dancers (today), so the kind of dancing most of them continued to do in retirement was what they began when they were young: freestyle social dancing -- basic foxtrot, waltz, swing, and maybe some rumba and cha cha.

I've been watching senior citizens dance all of my life, from my parents (who met at a Tommy Dorsey dance), to retirement communities, to the Roseland Ballroom in New York.  I almost never see memorized sequences or patterns on the dance floor.  I mostly see easygoing, fairly simple social dancing — freestyle lead and follow.  But freestyle social dancing isn't that simple!  It requires a lot of split-second decision-making, in both the Lead and Follow roles.  Read more about the differences between the three different kinds of ballroom dancing here, to gain a better understanding of the role of decision-making in social or ballroom dance.

At this point, I want to clarify that I'm not demonizing memorized sequence dancing, or style-focused pattern-based ballroom dancing.  Although they don't have much influence on cognitive reserve, there are stress-reduction benefits of any kind of dancing, cardiovascular benefits of physical exercise, and even further benefits of feeling connected to a community of dancers.  So all dancing is good.

But when it comes to preserving (and improving) our mental acuity, then some forms are significantly better than others.  While all dancing requires some intelligence, I encourage you to use your full intelligence when dancing, in both the Lead and Follow roles.  The more decision-making we can bring into our dancing, the better.

            Who benefits more, women or men?

In social dancing, the Follow role automatically gains a benefit, by making hundreds of split-second decisions as to what to do next, sometimes unconsciously so.  As I mentioned on this page, women don't "follow", they interpret the signals their partners are giving them, and this requires intelligence and decision-making, which is active, not passive.

This benefit is greatly enhanced by dancing with different partners, not always with the same fellow.  With different dance partners, you have to adjust much more and be aware of more variables.  This is great for staying smarter longer.

But men, you can also match her degree of decision-making if you choose to do so.

Here's how:

1) Really pay attention to your partner and what works best for her.  Notice what is comfortable for her, where she is already going, which signals are successful with her and which aren't, and constantly adapt your dancing to these observations.  That's rapid-fire split-second decision making.

2) Don't lead the same old patterns the same way each time.  Challenge yourself to try new things each time you dance.  Make more decisions more often.  Intelligence: use it or lose it.

The huge side-benefit is that your partners will have much more fun dancing with you when you are attentive to their dancing and constantly adjusting for their comfort and continuity of motion.  And as a result, you'll have more fun too.

            Full engagement

Those who fully utilize their intelligence in dancing, at all levels, love the way it feels.  Spontaneous leading and following both involve entering a flow state.  Both leading and following benefit from a highly active attention to possibilities.

That's the most succinct definition I know for intelligent dancing: a highly active attention to possibilities.  And I think it's wonderful that both the Lead and Follow role share this same ideal.

The best Leads appreciate the many options that the Follow must consider every second, and respect and appreciate the Follow's input into the collaboration of partner dancing.  The Follow is finely attuned to the here-and-now in relaxed responsiveness, and so is the Lead.

Once this highly active attention to possibilities, flexibility, and alert tranquility are perfected in the art of dance partnering, dancers find it even more beneficial in their other relationships, and in everyday life.

            Dance often

The study made another important suggestion: do it often.  Seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week.  If you can't take classes or go out dancing four times a week, then dance as much as you can.  More is better.

And do it now, the sooner the better.  It's essential to start building your cognitive reserve now.  Some day you'll need as many of those stepping stones across the creek as possible.  Don't wait — start building them now.

Backstage Bliss: 11 Guidelines for Students in a Dance Recital

May 19, 2009 by Nichelle (owner/editor)

Whether it is your first recital or your fourteenth, it never hurts to be reminded about proper backstage etiquette and behavior.

Your studio owners and teachers may have specific regulations and procedures for you to follow. Adhering to these rules helps the performance to run smoothly for you and the others around you. Recitals can be hectic and stressful for those trying to make the day/evening go off without a hitch. I know your teachers will appreciate not having to remind you or your friends of these basics on recital day.

1. Don’t mess with other people’s props or costumes

This is a top directive of any backstage situation. Playing with or moving someone else’s props or costume pieces always results in one of the following: A) items will not be in the correct place when they are needed, stalling the show or leaving someone without, B) items get broken, torn, damaged, stalling the show or leaving someone without, C) someone being rather upset with you. If the prop or costume is not yours, don’t touch it! Even if you think it’s in the wrong place and are trying to help, you should just tell the person to whom it belongs or an appropriate adult.

2. Stay in your designated area

I know it can be annoying to be restricted as to where, when, or how you can go somewhere, especially when you are quite familiar with the building or backstage area. It can also be tempting to want to move from your green room (or waiting area) if your friends are required to be in another location. However, it is important to stay where you are supposed to be throughout the recital process. Why? Teachers and recital helpers have a lot of kids to keep track of during a performance. When their requests are ignored, you stand the chance of missing your entrances or causing someone else to miss theirs. Even worse, is that no one knows where to look for you should something unfortunate occur.

3. Bring something to do

Recital performances almost always involve a lot of waiting either during dress rehearsal or on show days or both. Even if you think you’ll be busy, it’s always a good idea to bring something quiet to do backstage as you wait (in your designated area). Some possibilities include a book, a simple card game, pens and paper, coloring books and crayons, puzzle books, even a hand-held video game if the sound can be turned off. It is alright to play games with friends as long as you can keep the noise levels down. Just make sure you are ready and in your next costume before engaging in an activity, and that you can drop what you’re doing immediately when asked to go.

4. Always stay one step ahead and on top of your own ‘stuff’

You’re piloting your own plane — be responsible for yourself. Don’t rely on others to know what’s next, know where you are supposed to be, or what you have to do – not if you don’t have to or are old enough to do it yourself, anyway. This involves laying out your costumes ahead of time and knowing what order they go on, keeping track of where your dances are in the performance (and what’s before them), knowing what hair or makeup changes are made and when, being sure about which side of the stage you enter from, double checking that you have all you need before you leave the house.

5. Maximize your focus and keep socializing to a minimum

There’s a lot of energy in the atmosphere at a performance. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement with your friends backstage, allowing noise levels to escalate and/or creating a distracting environment for yourself or others. To have the best show possible it is important that everyone stay calm and focused. After a successful show is the appropriate time to party. During the show choose calm activities (see #3) to occupy yourself and your friends and reserve your energy for your performance onstage.

6. Keep quiet in the wings

The immediate backstage area is not the place to go over choreography, have a conversation, or ask a question. Sound from backstage can carry surprisingly well to the “house,” or audience. If you are prepared, calm, and focused there should be no reason for talking in the wings. If a peer asks you a question, nod (if the answer is yes or no), and/or calmly remind them to be quiet with the universal symbol at left. Making noise in order to quiet others is not only unhelpful, it doesn’t make much sense! Which leads me to…

7. Be responsible for you and you alone

Unless you are specifically put in charge of a person or group, allow a teacher or someone in authority to take care of any disorderly students. If you know that someone missed being given an important direction, for example, when it is time to line up, calmly let them know and then move along yourself. Don’t waste time helping those who are not helping themselves because your only job is to be responsible for you. When you occupy yourself with what others are or are not doing, you risk missing your own cues, entrances, costume changes, etc.

8. Stay warm, stay safe

It is important to stay safe and free of injury backstage. If you know you have some downtime between numbers, wear a warm-up and/or legwarmers over your next costume (just remember to take them off!), staying active and mobile with full-body movements like noiseless jumping jacks or body swings, and doing some stretching to keep your body warm and limber while you wait. Other safety measures include not wearing soft shoes or bare feet in areas that have not been swept clear (especially in the immediate backstage area where often there can be shards of wood or glass, or things lying about from other performances). Your teachers will let you know if an area is safe to be barefoot but wear shoes/flip-flops if you are going to be moving about backstage in zones that may not have been cleared.

9. Be conscious of bleeding light

This is one that even those helping at a recital sometimes forget. If you’ve ever stood in a dark room when someone opens the door to a room that is lit, you understand that light has a way of “bleeding” into the darkness. This is why it is kept dark in the backstage area with only blue or other filtered lights illuminating the area. Being conscious of this means waiting until someone from the inside (who knows when it is “safe”) opens a door to the backstage area, or listening for the appropriate time yourself. Typically when you know that the dancers onstage are performing and being lit, it is safe to enter but do so quickly, quietly, and close the door behind you. Any light from backstage can affect the lighting design onstage.

10. Be conscious of sight lines

This is another one of which novices to the stage may not be aware. Sight lines are imaginary lines that distinguish what is visible to the audience and what is not. A good rule of thumb is that if you can see an audience member, they can see you. However, you must be aware of your whole body, not just your eyes. When waiting in the wings, it is a good idea to stand close to the curtain (without moving it) and back from the very edge. Some studio owners will place a line of tape for students to stand within or behind when waiting backstage. Though it can be tempting to try to see everything happening onstage, stay out of the audience’s line of sight. If your cue for entering cannot be seen from where you are waiting, dress rehearsal is the time to figure out a new cue!

11. Don’t argue

Last but not least, it is important to be courteous and respectful toward others, especially during a performance. This includes the teachers, parents, and others who are helping backstage at a recital. By showtime you should know (by face, name, or by an identifying badge or button) teh people who have been designated as helpers and what role they play in helping the performance to run smoothly. If you are instructed to do something or go somewhere, asked to quiet down, or are otherwise asked to respond to a request – just do it! Don’t question, don’t argue, don’t grumble.

If you happen to be absolutely positive that you are being misdirected, ask nicely to check the facts – “I am sure that I am to be in Room C, not Room A right now. Can we double check, just to be sure, please?” People’s patience can run thin during a high-stress situation like a performance. If your respectful response is not appreciated, don’t react. Simply do your best to comply with the direction given.

For those of you who still have recitals ahead, I hope that this list will come in handy. Remember that everyone backstage at a performance wants the same thing – a great show that runs smoothly and is fun for the audience and participants. Though the show’s organization may not be something you can control, you still have the power to make sure you are fulfilling your role to the best of your ability. Following these eleven rules of thumb will help to ensure that.

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