Dancing for the brain
“Good for body and mind” is a common slogan that you read on flyers or posters advertising dance classes. But there is more to this statement than just being a bold phrase. I surely don’t have to explain the fact that dance training is good for your body. Dance challenges our body in both stamina and strength maximization. It is therefore as effective and healthy as a good interval training or well-composed fitness programs. Read more about this in my blog about the ideal dance training.
However, how much influence dance has on our brain has been studied scientifically at the University of Maryland and the University of Houston. The results of this three-year study came out last year and confirms what I have experienced as a dancer since long. The fact that dance has a positive effect on our cognitive performance is obvious when looking at elderly dancers who still show incredible creative power even in old age. I am thinking in particular of Anna Halprin, the great American dance pioneer. I saw videos of her when she was over 80 years old, but mentally she appeared like a middle-aged woman of maybe half her age.
The aforementioned American study of dancers and their brain thus confirmed this experience of mine. Dancers’ brains are not only working in the area of movement and motor skills, dancing is an all-encompassing brain activity. A dancemagazine.com report cited Karen Kohn Bradley, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Dance Department, who points out that in dance, aspects such as space, time, process, expression, etc., must be considered simultaneously. So, dancing is multi-tasking, or it at least trains us to do so.
But what does that mean in practice? While a dancer is dancing, she has to pay attention to many other things besides movement and body coordination. Is the space around me sufficient to carry out my movement? In which zone will I be when this sequence of steps is completed? At what speed do I have to start to reach the right end speed? How do I get from the final position of this element into the initial attitude of that element? The considerations are seemingly endless and all absolutely relevant to deliver a successful performance. Dancing also includes strategic decisions. They affect how we use our energy or what radii and step sizes we take. And then there’s the emotional component. We cannot dance expressively without using our memories of feelings, situations or events. We have to be able to retrieve them at will and the emotional response must be implemented in our dance. And let us not forget, while we should do all this, our back has to be straight, our shoulders should be relaxed and our pelvis straightened up.
Of course, this insight can also be used in the opposite direction. If dancing means that the entire brain is involved, as a dance teacher I can use this knowledge to my benefit. I can work with images, use suggestions or moments of feeling, etc., to get my students in the right direction. These strategies have proven to be very useful in my class. They have several times brought more learning success than repeating the same movements for hours.
So, the next time you read somewhere that dance is good for body and mind, remember, that’s REALLY the way it is!