Why Dance Makes Brains Better

Why Dance Makes Brains Better

"Ballerina Prima" by Kyle Michel /

Explore how an effort to help people with Parkinson’s disease now helps everyone keep a healthier brain, mind, and body.

Bathed in a romantic palette of light, shimmering tree branches rhythmically sway to a vibrant movement of Handel’s L’Allegro, mesmerizing the audience at the Luminato Festival in Toronto. The branches are, in fact, the outstretched limbs of fifth and sixth graders from the Nelson Mandela Park Public School and Winchester Public School intertwined with the limbs of elder members of Dancing with Parkinson’s Canada. The combined troupe is known as L’Allegro Movement Project.

One of the elderly dancers describes herself as “old and cranky and creaky—and all the rest of it [that goes with Parkinson’s],” but she says this while grinning from ear to ear. Another elderly dancer recounts the “number of times I have this kind of epiphany where, at the end of the class, I catch myself doing something that I didn’t think I could really do. And yet, just the shared experience of other people moving around—and, I think, primarily the music—just makes things possible that were difficult just ten minutes before.”

These 50 dancers have come together to express John Milton’s poetic masterwork in movement—and the result is beautiful. It also turns out to be a powerful demonstration of the ability of dance to improve not just movement, but also memory and the ability to learn in both young and old.

The Start of a Movement

L’Allegro Movement Project is the result of a collaboration between Mark Morris, a world-renowned choreographer, dancer, and director, and Olie Westheimer, the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group. It all started in 2001 when the Mark Morris Dance Group moved into their new studio space in Brooklyn, and Westheimer had an epiphany: She realized that dancers and people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) exist on the same spectrum of conscious movement, just at opposite ends. In her mind’s eye, she saw them coming closer together.

Parkinson’s disease results from the degeneration of neurons in the substantia nigra, a midbrain nucleus that controls movement. The disease results in a complex of problems, including difficulty in the sequencing of movements required to complete a task. While listening to a PD client describe the series of visual, mental, and physical steps she had to focus on just to get up from the table, turn around in space, and move toward her kitchen to get a platter of food, Westheimer recognized the similarity between her client’s effort and that of a dancer consciously planning and executing a choreographed turn. At once, she knew that dance training with a professional could help people with PD move more fluidly.

Westheimer began to search for dance classes for people with PD. She found none. She searched for research to support her hunch that dance could transform her clients’ lives. She found none. Undaunted, Westheimer approached her new Brooklyn neighbors, the Mark Morris group, and proclaimed, “All I need is a dancer who is interested. We’ll develop the class together, and I know the classes will work.” The Morris group accepted the challenge, and they created a class with six PD participants. It worked spectacularly. Twenty years later, the Dance for PD program motivates more than 10,000 participants—located in more than 300 communities across 28 countries around the world—to dance.

Dance Enhances Mood, Cognition, Movement

The Dance for PD program has stimulated an impressive amount of scientific research designed to assess the effects of dance on the various motoric deficits of the disease. Now there is a wealth of evidence to support Westheimer’s hypothesis that dancing helps people with PD move with more confidence, skill, and grace. It increases their muscle strength and tone, functional mobility, and agility; it improves their manual dexterity, dual task performance, posture, and balance; and it increases their gait speed and symmetry, giving them a more youthful stride.

Beyond the extensive range of movement benefits dance offers people with PD, it’s also a tonic for their emotional challenges. The findings of numerous studies now confirm that regular participation in dance programs can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression associated with the disease. This mood-elevating effect likely results from both the dance-induced motor stimulation of relevant brain circuitries, as well as the social-sensory aspects of participating in a dance program. Living with Parkinson’s can be socially isolating, so it’s not surprising that Dance for PD participants feel an elevated sense of wellbeing when they’re moving with others who share their experience. After taking her first dance class, one participant exclaimed, “I was filled with great joy!”

Not surprisingly, the therapeutic benefits of dance aren’t exclusive to Parkinson’s patients. Dance acts as an effective remedy for people dealing with the symptoms of primary depression and anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, age-related dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Some of the most exciting dance research findings are those that focus on the effects of dance on cognitive functions. The results of multiple studies provide evidence that participation in a regular program of dance enhances executive functions, spatial cognition, and episodic memory. Why would dancing improve mental processes? Because dance has dramatic effects on the brain itself.

How Dance Grows Our Brains

Dance is a boon to memory at any stage of life, but it’s espe-cially advantageous once we enter middle age. At around the age of 40, an important hub of memory, the hippocampus, begins to shrink at a rate of one to two percent per year. Various forms of physical activity have been found to hedge against age-related hippocampal shrinkage, but dance provides a specific advantage. In a study lead by Kathrin Rehfeld of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, healthy seniors between 63 and 80 years of age were assigned to one of two 90-minute activity groups: a dance group that learned constantly changing choreography, or a sports fitness group that engaged in endurance, strength, and flexibility training. Although both groups showed an overall increase in hippocampal volume, only the dance group showed an increase in the dentate gyrus, the hippocampal region critical for episodic memory and novel learning.

In another remarkable study, Irena Rektorová and her colleagues at Applied Neuroscience at the Central European Institute of Technology performed magnetic resonance imaging of subjects in their 60s (with no evidence of dementia or depression) both before and after a six-month course of dance. They found a significant dance-induced thickening of the cortex in areas associated with action observation, visual-motor integration, and action imitation (the right inferotemporal, fusiform, and lateral occipital regions)—all of which are important for learning and executing skilled movements. Not surprisingly, they also found that dance increased the diffusivity of white matter tracts, which proffers great cognitive advantage.

Dance on the Brain

For an extensive archive of research on the benefits of dance for people with PD, as well the effects of music and dance on the brain, go to: To watch a short documentary on L’Allegro Movement Project, click here.

The Dance of Neurons

White matter (neurons insulated with myelin) link neurons both within and between gray matter (where most neuronal processing is done), forming ensembles. Noting that white matter joins all four lobes of the brain, as well as the limbic system—the brain’s emotional center—and the hippocampal memory hub, behavioral neurologist Christopher Tilley asserts that “without functioning white matter, the brain would be like a group of people in proximity to each other, but unable to communicate.” It appears that dance increases our brain’s capacity for internal communication—essentially teaching neurons to “dance better” together—thereby increasing information integration across and between various areas of specialized function. In other words, physical dance improves the “dance” of our neurons and makes us comprehensively smarter.

Dance for Body, Mind, and Spirit

Even in silence, movement is life-enhancing. A brisk walk increases the circulation of nutrients throughout the body, stimulates the release and excretion of toxins, increases flexibility and strength, and initiates the production of synovial fluid, which lubricates and cushions the joints. Movement increases metabolism, which results in healthy weight loss and increases our energy levels. It melts tension, dissipates anxiety, and lifts depression. But put on music, and movement seems to happen of its own accord. Music stimulates the cerebellum, the “little brain” situated on top of the brainstem that controls balance and coordinates complex motor movements in response to the rhythm. Rich connections between the cerebellum and the limbic system light up emotional centers and activate neocortical memory networks. Effortlessly, music and movement evoke meaning.

Without any teacher modeling movement for us, and in the absence of any prescribed choreography, music lights up our neural intelligence system and moves us to express whatever feelings the melody, harmony, and rhythm evoke in us. The music awakens emotions archived in the neural networks of experience, often associated with muscular ten-sions, which our movements then release. Whether you’re on the dance floor at a wedding reception and the DJ is playing a song that reminds you of an intense past romance, or you’re at an ecstatic dance where the musical set has been arranged to take you on a tour of various emotions guaranteed to light up big swathes of your life history, music and movement can dramatically enhance your state of being in the present moment.

When we take a contemporary, modern, jazz, Latin, or hip-hop class with choreography that has us executing (and remembering) movements we’ve never done before, we’re stimulating the formation of new neural networks, forever changing the foundational scaffolding of our neural “self.”

With a healthier, stronger, more flexible body, a neuronally enhanced brain, a cognitively enhanced mind, and an expanded neural foundation of self, it’s no wonder that people who dance feel joyous and want everyone, regardless of their age or current state of health, to dance. And, as Mark Morris says, “Dance isn’t for anybody; it’s for everybody.”

25 Years: From the Archives

Peggy La Cerra, PhD, is known for her work in evolutionary neuroscience, but her passion for decades has been dance, which she calls “an ever-available source of joy.” You’ll also enjoy her piece: “Dance Ecstasy: The Art and Science of Dancing into Nirvana” from Jan/Feb 2012.

Not yet part of the Spirituality+Health community? Celebrate 25 years of S+H by subscribing here.

Ballerinaprima credit Kolormore forweb

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