You know it feels good to dance. These scientists reveal why.
Wouldn’t it be great if science could confirm what dance enthusiasts know in their bones: that dancing is one of the best things we can do for our health, cheerful well-being, and even our brains?
This is what brain scientists Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang set out to prove by researching their living and informative book, “Dance is the best medicine: the science that shows how good rhythm is for body, brain and soul” (Greystone Books). I recently spoke with Christensen, a dancer turned neuroscientist at Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, on the health benefits of a passion for dance. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
I injured my back in a fall and it ended my professional ballet training. It was devastating. I couldn’t even bear to hear ballet music, it was that bad. But even when I worked out, at night I took math lessons for fun. I have always been very interested in human behavior, which is related to dance. I started to research morality and how we make moral judgments. I’m so curious as to why we make the choices we make. This is an important motivation: how can I feel good? And I’m pretty sure dancing is one of the top three things one should do to feel better. The other two find food and shelter. After that, our behavior should include rhythmic movements of the body. Our brains want us to dance.
We looked at studies in which people were evaluated for 10 or 15 years on their hobbies, such as swimming, running, crossword puzzles, and dancing. People who dance have an advantage. They are less likely to develop heart disease or dementia. So what makes dancing so different? Three reasons: music, a social aspect and movement. First, music has really powerful effects on our neural architecture, hormones, and metabolism. All of our biochemistry is influenced by music. And our brain is a prediction machine. He likes to feel safe. Everything that sets the pace for our day gives the brain a sense of security and safety. Rhythm is an event that occurs on a regular basis and that the brain can predict. The fact that rhythm is very important to us from an evolutionary point of view has so much to do with music.
Second, there is the social aspect of dancing. Moving in sync with others unites us. Even our immune system is regulated by making movements with others, when we are in the presence of people with whom we feel safe. We produce oxytocin and prolactin, which can be a comfort to us.
Third, dance is a sport, an aerobic exercise. It makes your heart beat, keeps your muscles in shape, and releases toxins from your body.
On top of that, there is the emotional component. We express ourselves when we dance. We don’t just create shapes. We can be genuine and be what we feel. Sport has extrinsic rewards: being faster, losing a kilo, getting stronger. Dancing can have this too, but often the rewards are being with other people, having fun, and managing the mood. If you run, you can still think about all your troubles. If you are dancing, try this and you will trip over your feet. So the dance brings you back to yourself.
Specifically, dancing that we do as a hobby is the healthiest. Anything that is competitive puts stress hormones in the blood, and this downregulates the immune system. Competitive or professional dancers have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol on the day of a competition or performance. It’s not healthy. Make sure you have room to dance for fun.
Yes, it’s about finding a balance. Learning the technique is good for your brain, for keeping it flexible. It helps you make more neural connections and keep the brain fresh, and could be one of the reasons dancing protects against dementia. But remember that technique is just a vocabulary that we learn so that we can “speak”. As the movements of the dance style materialize in our brain, we can use the technique to express ourselves. And it illustrates the cognitive, physical and emotional nature of dance. Learning the technique, memorizing the steps and synchronizing with another person: From a multitasking point of view, dancing is impossible. And yet we can do it.
From an evolutionary point of view, dancing makes absolutely no sense. It burns a lot of calories and makes you visible to predators. So why did the dancers survive? They had to have an adaptive advantage. Maybe it was some kind of mutation that people could move at a pace, and were able to be so cohesive in society and could be stronger than others. Because dancing makes you healthy and strong. We’re not quite sure why, but it’s a fascinating fact that we’ve kept this behavior even though you’re standing and making noise. There is death all over it! But we still survived.
Of course, the dance does not fossilize. But there are cave paintings around the world, dating from around 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, which show the same subjects: family, hunting, sex scenes, and dancing. There is also the audio-motor evolutionary hypothesis, concerning the neural connections between the parts of our brain that process auditory stimuli – what we hear – and the large muscles in our body, from the spinal cord to the large ones. muscles. These do not exist in other species.
It seems that these paths give us the possibility to move rhythmically to a rhythm. This suggests that human dancing has something to do with the way our brains are wired. And we can study newborn babies, by gently and very carefully placing electrodes near their heads, to measure their brain waves as they listen to a beat. Their brains synchronize with the rhythm and they begin to move in rhythm. So we discover that there is something special about the rhythm. Evolutionarily, it must be quite old.
It’s a good question. Especially in the 20th century, there were a lot of taboos around dancing, in Europe and the United States, for different reasons. There were often myths about dancing leading to social unrest. I think there is a conversation to be had about these effects because it is a very powerful behavior. People can be overwhelmed by what dancing can do. You can have near-trance states, and it’s so body based, and we have mixed feelings about the body. It can be difficult to understand. But I think science can really help with that, by educating about the good things dancing does and the hormonal-neural cocktail going on.
The first step is to find a style of dancing that you like, that makes you feel good. There is no better style. Maybe something resonates with you in the music, where you feel âI’m at homeâ. For me, it happened with Argentine tango. I heard that old tango music from the 30s and it was there, that feeling of being at home, even if it had nothing to do with my culture. So this is my medicine. For Dong-Seon Chang, my co-author, it’s American swing dance, which has nothing to do with his upbringing either, but he immediately loved the music.
Plus, passing on the pandemic: It has helped advance line dancing, whether live or on-demand. I have a busy schedule, so I take online dance lessons on demand. Whenever you want you can have a dance class.
Yes! It is probably the purest form of dance because you can express yourself freely. If you are sad, for example, put on a sad song and dance it. It is the self-expression that the arts give us, and that nothing else does