Updated: Feb 10
Your favorite song comes on the radio, and suddenly your head starts bobbing, your foot starts tapping and you start to sway to the beat. It seems like the whole day gets a little happier. What’s going on? Actually, quite a lot. Movement to music--dance--is a worldwide, cross-cultural aspect of nearly every nationality and ethnicity from almost the beginning of recorded history, but its benefits have only recently begun to be researched. Studies show that dance is an effective tool to increase the well-being and health of people of all ages and abilities—not only physically, but also their emotional well-being, neuroplasticity, memory and brain function, social bonding, and in treating neurological disorders, autism spectrum disorder, severe trauma, substance-use disorders, and emotional disorders.
Let’s dive into how this simple experience can have so many benefits and how you can get some of them into your own life--no sparkly leotard or tap shoes required.
Have you ever seen a group of toddlers at a preschool or music class do a simple finger play together? As little chubby hands start moving together to show that eensy weensy spider going up the water spout or to explain a little teapot’s anatomy, smiles and giggles often erupt along the line of tikes, and the general mood is of uplift and connection. Recent studies explain why these effects are so powerful.
Synchronized movement leads to marked increases in compassion, altruism, and social bonding. When people move in sync with one another the boundaries they feel between the self and others are weakened, leading to reporting more similarities and a greater sense of comradery. When this happens people become more likely to engage in pro-social behavior such as generosity, cooperation, compassion, and increased tolerance. When people (even babies!) move synchronously they become more willing to help each other, more tolerant of fellow-movers they had biases against, more likely to assign positive attributes to one another, and more generous with their altruistic tendencies. It is hypothesized that the reason humans have danced across time and cultures is because of the social bonding that ensues. When large groups partake in cultural dances they feel they are a part of the community and that they are safe within it.
Throughout time, cultures have had group dances that strengthened bonds and served as a social signal of belonging. Even simply tapping fingers in unison to a song will send a signal to the brain to connect, bond, and integrate with the group. Dancing in sync improves the quality and tone of the memory of those you were synchronized with. How can we utilize this benefit to feel safer and more connected to our communities? New college roommates, a family struggling to connect, or even a group of coworkers butting heads over a project could harness this secret ingredient in order to accomplish unity and cooperation. Maybe we could inject those “team building” exercises with some proven science if we were taught and then enjoyed a line dance or “mirroring a colleague” activity.
Dancing releases four neurotransmitters: dopamine (motivator), endorphins (feel-good/ pain reliever), oxytocin (social bonding), and serotonin (a mood regulator), which all play a role in creating sustainable well-being. Moreover, when they are released together they combine in a way that leaves the dancer feeling happy, content, connected, and energized.
My sister-in-law had been in labor with her baby girl for hours. She was exhausted, physically and mentally, from the unyielding contractions and unknown future. She’d been listening to meditative music as she tried different positions and methods of relaxing, releasing tension, and moving the baby down. Finally, she had a great idea—she surprised her husband by resolutely standing up after a contraction and walking over to put on the very upbeat dance song, Waka Waka, by Shakira. He was even more surprised when she started dancing around the room! The other helpers at the birth got into the groove, too, and the whole experience of the room changed. It really helped her to get through that part of labor, and her healthy baby was born about two hours later.
Dance and exercise in general have a positive impact on mood. Dopamine is a hormone that both helps to motivate people and then rewards them after action with a sense of accomplishment. Creative forms of exercise such as tai-chi (although not other forms, like running on a treadmill) release dopamine, as does listening to music. Dance packs a dopamine-releasing punch because it is creative movement to music! When someone engages in moderate exercise their brains release endorphins, the "feel good" hormones that communicate with the reward centers of the brain and work as a mood booster and pain buster. In this study, dance was shown to be an effective treatment for low-level depression in university students. Moreover, in this study, it was discovered that when people exercised synchronously, which is typical of dancers, pain tolerance was significantly higher than those who exercised alone. This is attributed to higher levels of endorphins being released during synchronized exercise. Dancing also releases serotonin which is a chemical that impacts many bodily systems, but emotionally serotonin helps with mood regulation. Oxytocin has far-reaching impacts from romantic attraction, childbirth, and lactation to social bonding and feelings of well-being. Dance is one great way to release oxytocin because both music and social interaction each increase oxytocin and dancing typically involve both.
Music and movement can help people express themselves when words don't do the trick. Movement is built into our biology as a way to express our emotions: feeling angry means fighting, scared shows up as running or cowering, sad manifests as crying, and excited as smiling or jumping. Why not harness that natural response and use it to help people express themselves in a safe and healthy manner and integrate their experiences through movement rather than suppressing them? Most people have experienced a time when they cannot describe in words how they feel or how emotional an experience was. It is in these times that movement can be instrumental in expressing one's self. Recently “bottom-up” therapy has gained traction-especially in cases of trauma. Sometimes simply logical understanding and thought-based skills (top-down therapies) are insufficient for processing those experiences and emotions. This is when dance movement therapy or somatic therapy can help express and move through those emotions.
You don’t have to work with a therapist to utilize the body’s ability to process emotion through movement (although it can be a great idea!). I often dance when I am feeling sad, overwhelmed, or tired. If I am sad, I play sad music and express myself through movement. If I am tired, I put on upbeat music and jump and shake to the beat. If I am overwhelmed I put on my favorite playlist and start dancing to move some of that tension through my body. I almost always feel more grounded, energized, and emotionally elevated afterward.
I can not emphasize enough that you DO NOT have to be a “dancer” to reap the benefits of dancing. Nearly everyone can dance with at least one part of their body: It is an inclusive art and exercise form. I recommend that you find a room in your home without mirrors. Put on some music and close your eyes. Don’t force your body to do anything in particular. Try to let your body take the lead and guide you into movement. I find that it can be helpful to start with your feet planted and just move your arms, torso, and head to start. If you feel a drive to your feet, go for it (but open your eyes first)! Your body is capable of dancing and it does not matter what that looks like. I wish I could undo all of the cultural programming in our minds that tells us that we need to look or move a certain way in order to dance. Dancing is a ubiquitous form of expression that your body already knows how to do. Even babies bob their heads to music and shake their little bodies. Try to channel your toddler self and trust your body to do its thing.
A visitor to Hong Kong was surprised to find an apparent dearth of dementia, even in seemingly ancient “poh-pohs” (grandmothers, the word for old woman) with deeply lined faces, hands bulging with arthritis, backs bowed, and hair wispy and white. She was also amazed when she woke up early one morning to go on a walk and found multiple groups of hundreds of women, all over fifty, in the park, dancing together. Whether they did tai chi or other group aerobic dances, their ability level, appearance, and physical health were not a consideration. They came every morning to move to music together, forming not just bonds with people, but also, likely unknowingly, neural bonds in their brains.
Dance has been found to improve memory, strengthen neural connections, develop new neural connections, and improve spatial awareness, decision-making abilities, visual recognition, and executive functioning.
Brain integration and makeup
Dance is a cheap and efficacious way to increase brain plasticity in mature brains. "Structural changes included increased hippocampal volume, gray matter volume in the left precentral and parahippocampal gyrus, and white matter integrity. Functional changes included alterations in cognitive function such as significant improvement in memory, attention, body balance, psychosocial parameters, and altered peripheral neurotrophic factor. Based on the evidence, dance practice integrates brain areas to improve neuroplasticity." These findings are particularly exciting because mature brains are less neuroplastic than child and young adult brains so anything we can do to increase neuroplasticity is good for brain health. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to rewire and create new neural connections, and neural circuits, and learn new ways to respond to internal and external stimuli. It is essentially the ability that humans have to learn and grow. We need neuroplasticity in order to learn new skills, change unhealthy thoughts or behavioral patterns, solidify new learning, and relate to ourselves and others in new ways.
Dancing has lasting positive impacts on memory. Dance has a positive and notable impact on slowing the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Dementia. It is the only physical activity that has been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia, and it does so by 76%. It is by far the most effective prevention method--including reading (35% reduction) and completing crossword puzzles at least 4x per week (47% reduction). Human brains are complex systems that science has only begun to understand. Therefore, it is impossible to say with certainty why dance has such an incredible impact on the brain. However, put in very simple terms, it seems that brain integration is great for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is essential for new learning and a healthy brain. Having a healthy brain leads to positive outcomes such as a stronger and more resilient memory system.
There are plenty of movement-to-music activities that can be started at any age, such as water aerobics, tai chi, chair dance classes, Zumba, and ballroom dance classes. These activities have the added benefit of sociality and synchronization leading to the greatest impact on brain health, but even a new dedication to gentle creative movement for a few minutes each day can better your mental and physical health.
Many people don’t enjoy going to the weight room, running on a treadmill, or playing competitive sports. I happen to be one of these people! I have five brothers who all played soccer, basketball, tennis, racquetball, wallyball (I could go on), and ran track or cross country. But I didn’t enjoy– in fact, I disliked– all of these sports. I had danced on and off for much of my life, but when I was a teenager, I started taking ballroom dance lessons. I absolutely loved it. I started going 4-6 days a week to train and practice. It gave me all of the physical and mental benefits of exercise and made me feel like I had a community of people who supported me. I became strong and flexible with greatly improved lung and cardiovascular capacity.
Maybe you can relate to me? If you haven’t found a form of exercise that you want to engage in many days a week (“want to engage in” as in genuinely enjoy participating in- not “want” because you have a goal to lose weight or improve your heart health), I highly recommend you try dancing or another form of non-competitive communal movement with music.
Dance is a wonderful way to improve physical health. Like other forms of exercise, dance increases cardiovascular strength and endurance, coordination, muscular strength, and muscular stamina. Dance also significantly improves balance and range of motion.
Balance and Coordination
Dancing has been shown to improve both balance and coordination. By engaging in movements that shift weight from one foot to the other while moving in space, students improve proprioception. Proprioception is the ability to sense bodily movements in relation to one's body as well as their surroundings. In this study, they found that older adults were able to significantly improve their proprioception by engaging in dance training for 12 weeks. When proprioception improves it results in coordination and balance both improving simultaneously.
Both stretching and engaging in dynamic movements can improve muscular flexibility as well as joint mobility. Dance is a fun and effective way to do both. Flexibility is an important and often overlooked element of a healthy body. By improving one's range of motion people can decrease the risk of pain and injury and improve athletic performance and balance.
Note: Stretching should be done in the middle or at the end of exercising (not as a warm-up!) while active movements that use a full range of motion are a great way to warm up!
Dance is particularly good at strengthening leg, core, and glute muscles and even increases the strength of bones. When someone dances they put low-level stress on tissues in the body, which causes a small amount of damage to those tissues (muscles, bones, etc.). When tissues are damaged the body sends cells that repair tissue to those micro-injuries. After the body repairs the tissues, they become stronger than they were before the damage occurred.
Cardiovascular health is improved through dancing. Due to the nature of dance- movement with music- dance is a perfect interval training workout. It ebbs and flows with increases and decreases in intensity due to the change of music tempo, the vibe of the song, how many muscle groups are incorporated in specific movements and the break between songs. Interval training has been shown to improve heart health and the circulatory system.
If you are looking for a way to get more exercise and even enjoy the process, dance is a great solution. You could join a Zumba class, take a salsa or swing class with your significant other or friend, join a beginning hip hop or contemporary class (and paying for these might make you more likely to go!), simply clear some space in a room and play your favorite music to move to, or if you live with others you could have a daily/weekly communal dance party!
Note: I know it can be intimidating to start something new and to dance in front of others but in order to get a lot of the non-physical benefits, the social element of dancing seems to be important. Consider taking incremental steps with the goal of eventually joining a group. It might make sense to start by dancing alone and as you get more comfortable in your own skin start looking into options like dancing with friends or joining a class. You could also take 1:1 lessons with a dance teacher to get more comfortable with dancing. If you do join a class, keep in mind that everyone there is also a beginner and probably feeling self-conscious right along with you!
Dance as an intervention for people living with ASD
I am a dance teacher who works with a large range of people some who have disabilities. With my students, I see a marked change in how they interact with me, the frequency of harmful behaviors (like hitting themselves), and their ability/willingness to communicate with me. Many students start their lessons with a lot of resistance. They may cry, tantrum, or ignore me for the first many lessons. But with the help of music and movement, over time we build a joyful bond and create an environment where we can enjoy music and movement and authentically connect. I have seen this process work time and time again.
One of my students and I spent the first many months trying to find our groove. At first, she would lie down on the ground multiple times each lesson and it would take 5+ mins each time to convince her to continue dancing. She would primarily dance by herself and refused to listen to new songs. Her favorite phrase and one of the only phrases she said to me was “no way”. Fast forward about a year and a half, and now she asks for me during the week, greets me at the door and asks how I am doing, requests specific songs and dances for the majority of the lesson, dances with me and by herself, mirrors my movements, and will tolerate new music from time to time. So much progress!
In this meta-analysis, the researchers looked at seven eligible studies that compared dance to other forms of exercise as an intervention for kids with autism spectrum disorder. They compared the effect on negative symptoms associated with ASD, social interaction, and empathy. Dance as a treatment modality had a strong positive effect on both the overall negative symptoms and social interaction, above any other form of physical exercise studied (but no effect on empathy).
This study found that after six months of dance classes, autistic kids between 8-15 years old with varying levels of support needs had positive improvements in social cognition and communication including “psychosocial adjustments (communication and social aspects), imitation, emotional and visual response, verbal and non-verbal communication”.
If you have a child with disabilities and want to try dancing with them, put on their favorite music and start to dance. Invite them to join you, but don't push or pressure them. Let them join in when they are ready (it may not be the first few times you try). If you would like to structure it more and try different games, check out this blog post with a few ideas or this post with more ideas that also help develop social skills through creative movement.
Let's get to it!
It is my dream that as awareness of the benefits of dance grows, people harness the power of dance to support their well-being. Families could have dance parties where they synchronize their movements, express themselves freely, and let loose. Individuals could use dance as an intervention for a bad day or in order to help them process trauma. Schools could start to teach dance as part of their gym programming, and use other forms of synchronous movement rather than primarily competitive sports. Dance could be utilized in cultural and social centers as a way to promote healthy aging. We could learn to accept and appreciate our bodies more fully by dancing. Dancing could be a part of marriage counseling, treatment centers, therapeutic interventions, and more. I challenge you to find a way to engage with dance and synchronized movement in your life and see what it can offer you.
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