Dance in all its forms has been the subject of a buildup of research, all over the world, in the past twenty years. There is no doubt that dance is amongst the best forms of exercise and recreation that everyone can participate in.
We know that dance seems to be somehow fundamental to human behaviour. Societies dance for ritual, as performance, and to socialise. Dance can help build strong personal connections. It’s why young people instinctively dance with their friends.
Dances define cultures. It is even thought now that dance not only pre-dated written language, but was a contributing factor in the development of language.
So what are the benefits of dance?
Dance is well known as being beneficial for mental health, especially anxiety, depression and stress related disorders. As dance teachers, we have numerous examples of students who have changed their lives through dance. It includes people who have endured family violence and people emerging from mourning the loss of a loved partner.
Less well known is long-term academic research that has shown regular social dance is the best exercise, by a margin of 25% over all other physical and mental exercise, for retaining mental acuity into old age. It was demonstrated in a large world-wide research project that regular social dance improves cardio-vascular health by at least 50%.
Pierre Dulaine, a world champion ballroom dancer, founded Dancing Classrooms, a social and emotional development program for school children in poor schools in the United States. It has been incredibly successful in teaching respect and compassion, self-control, being “in the moment and communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Children’s behaviour in class and grades improve. His work was fictionalised in the movie, “Take the Lead”. He later succeeded in bringing Jewish and Palestinian children and families together in Palestine, a project that was documented in his movie “Dancing in Jaffa”.
It is not had to conclude that regular dance teaching to school children from primary school on is an excellent early intervention in fighting the rise in family and street violence in our modern society.
For the same reasons, dance can bring the attributes of respect, compassion, self-control, collaboration and equality to workplace relationships where the worst behaviour is being exposed in the “me too movement”. It reinforces the knowledge that equal and different multiplies the effectiveness of any organisation.
At the same time, dance can reinforce personal relationships in our busy lives.
On a more serious level, dance has proved to be beneficial in the treatment of motor-neurone disorders including Parkinson’s Disease and brain damage.
Above all, it is a joyful, healthy, active, relaxing social activity.
But how does it work?
Dance is an extraordinarily complex activity. It involves movement, timed to music, and non-verbal communication, often in a relaxing (once you’re past beginner), social environment.
Tests indicate that dance fires more neurone activity in different parts of the brain a the same time that any other physical or mental activity. In effect, it re-wires the brain.
At the same time dance increases your body’s production of happy hormones - dopamine, seratonin, oxytoxin and endorphins and reduces stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These changes in body chemistry tend to make us more receptive to the potential benefits.
The complexity of dance comes from the combination of moving to music and coordinating with other people. Partner dancing involves human touch and incorporates the added complexity of coordinating with a partner and other couples in a moving group. To this is added the general benefits of social contact.
Of all the dance genres, we find that classic social Argentine Tango is in the top tier for developing health and wellness in adults.
The reasons are that Tango, at it’s best, is intensely connected and improvised. It is not based on sets of learned figures. The music is polyrhythmic so dancing requires intense concentration. The objective fo the dance is the intense connection between the dance partners, the music and other couples. There is a continual exchange of invitation, acceptance and change of direction that requires the dancers to be totally immersed and “in the moment” during the dance. It is a conversation without words.
It can lead quickly to states of relaxed meditative mindfulness and flow state.
Of course you will never know until you start and dancing is like any other skill. It takes commitment and time to achieve the level required to start to derive real long-lasting gain.
For us, we experienced regular improvement plateaus for at least fifteen years.
So it’s just as important to enjoy your dance journey as you should with every other part of your life.
This post is based on research we have studied, but is not a scientific paper. It is intended as an introduction to the subject of dance for health.