Dancing together is good for your health!
By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD
Social dancers know the amazing feeling that a synchronized dance could bring. When your follower or leader is connected and it feels like you are one mind and body following the music, it is mystical and magical… Well, it turns out that synchronized dancing is also good for your health. I started dancing salsa because a good friend was going crazy about it and she recommended it, this inspired me to join a class. At this point I was a solitary belly dancer only following in team dances where you have choreography and if you are coordinated enough you feel this celestial connection with the other dancers…but without any physical contact.
On the other hand, in social dances like salsa, bachata, tango, zouk or swing, the connection is the base of a good dance. Nobody wants to be the person stepping to the left when 5 other dancers moved to the right while performing in a stage in front of hundreds of people, as well as nobody enjoys turning to the wrong side for misreading your dance partner lead, or watching how a follower does a completely different step that the one the leader indicated. Furthermore, being “in sync” with the group or your direct dance partner may help to improve your health, science says. In a nutshell, a recent study found that synchronizing with others while dancing raised pain tolerance and encouraged people to feel closer to others.
This year, Dr. Burzynska et al., at Colorado State University, separated 174 healthy adults, 60s to 79 years old, who had no signs of memory loss or impairment, into 3 activity groups: walking, stretching and balance training, or dance classes. The activities were carry on for 6 months and three times a week, those in the dance group practiced and learned a country dance choreography. Brain scans were done on all participants and compared with scans taken before the activities began. Not surprisingly, the participants in the dancing group performed better and had less deterioration in their brains than the other groups. Their most recent study published in November: “The Dancing Brain: Structural and Functional Signatures of Expert Dance Training” showed that dancers’ brains differed from non-dancers’ at both functional- and structural-levels. Most of the group differences were skill-relevant and correlated with objective laboratory measures of dance skill and balance. Their results are promising in that long-term, versatile, combined motor and coordination training may induce neural alterations that support performance demands.” (link 2)
Moreover, It is well established that dancing-based therapies are providing outstanding results in the treatment of dementia, autism and Parkinson’s. Indeed, dance therapy improves motor and cognitive functions in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Dancing was suggested to be a powerful tool to improve motor-cognitive dual-task performance in adults. Dance movement therapy has known benefits for cancer patients’ physical and psychological health and quality of life. Another study by Domane and collaborators, working with a cohort of overweight and physically inactive women, showed that Zumba fitness is indeed an efficacious health-enhancing activity for adults. Park also concluded that “a 12-week low- to moderate-intensity exercise program appears to be beneficial for obese elderly women by improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease”.
Dancing helps generate positive connections with others and this is one of the evolutionary reasons you are “called” to the dance floor when a song you like starts playing, and probably you will start your dance by coordinating with or copying others. Probably this behavior signaled tribe membership for early humans and also got couples together in a more romantic way, creating emotional bonds. Coordinated dances are as old as music, and distributed in a lot of different cultures, for example, the nowadays Hakka, used by rugby players, was a native group dance that intimidates rival tribes.
Talking about the chemistry of dancing, as any other exercise, it releases endorphins (the hormones of happiness and pain relief). For example, a study from the University of London were anxiety-sufferers enrolled in one of four settings: exercise class, a music class, a math class and a dance class, showed that only the last group displayed “significantly reduced anxiety.”
In the most recent study done in the same London University by Tarr and collaborators, the researchers used pain thresholds as an indirect measure of endorphin realize (more endorphins mean we tolerate pain better) for 264 young people in Brazil. The volunteers were divided into groups of three, and they did either high or low-exertion dancing that was either synchronized or unsynchronized. The high exertion moves were standing, full-bodied movements, on the other hand, in the low-exertion groups did small hand movements sitting down. They measured the before and after feelings of closeness to each other via a questionnaire and their pain threshold by attaching and inflating a blood pressure cuff on their arm, and determining how much pressure they could stand.
Most of the volunteers who did full-bodied exertive dancing had higher pain thresholds compared with those who were in the low-exertion groups. Most importantly, synchronization led to higher pain thresholds, even if the synchronized movements were not exertive. Therefore when the volunteers saw that others were doing the equivalent movement at the same time, their pain thresholds increased.
The results also showed that synchronized activity encouraged bonding and closeness feelings more than unsynchronized dancing. Therefore, “Dance which combined high energy and synchrony had the greatest effects. So the next time you find yourself in an awkward Christmas party or at a wedding wondering whether or not to get up and groove, just do it”, claims Dr. Tarr.
Coming back to the dance floor, I had reached out for an opinion about the wellness of dancing to the best Bachata DJ: Brian el Matatan: “I enjoy the dancing for a few reasons. There’s the enjoyment & challenge of using what I’ve learned; socially as well as choreographed performance. Also, there is the rush of endorphins similar to “runner’s high”. There’s also the socializing aspect of dancing. It’s like having a conversation without speaking.” Well said DJ!
He also offered some advice for followers: dance with many different types of leaders if you’d like to improve your following. There are many different leads, and there is an experience to be gained in social dancing that would not be gained via dance class. Also, feel free to ask a leader to dance, & be courteous in how you decline a dance. Most importantly- communicate. Don’t “lead” a leader into thinking their lead is better than what it really is- for your sake & that of your fellow followers. For example, if he almost ended your life with that risky move, let him know so that he doesn’t try it on you or anyone else again (at least not without figuring out how to do the move properly). And some advice for leaders: be VERY courteous in how you ask for a dance, try to not take rejection personally, be patient with follows who may not be on the same skill level as you, & don’t almost end her life with risky moves.
Lastly, I asked for the most sensual dancer, scientist, and project manager – Debbie McCabe – for her advice for followers. She commented “The lady’s job is to surrender and connect to her partner…it is a 3-minute love affair and energy exchange. I love Bachata because I can get out of my head and just feel, express my sensuality, be playful and connect… it balances out my left brained day job.”
More than 20 years ago, scientists found a connection between music and enhancement of performance or changing of neuropsychological activity involving Mozart’s music from which the theory of “The Mozart Effect” was derived. The basis of The Mozart Effect lies at the super-organization of the cerebral cortex that might resonate with the superior architecture of Mozart’s music. Basically listening to Mozart K.448 enhances performance on spatial tasks for a period of approximately 20 min.
So dear reader, please stop complaining and making excuses and just dance! Or at least listen to music, as the outstanding jazz singer Tamar Korn once told me when I was in distress “music heals”.
This post was originally published on Dec 30, 2015 and was updated with new research on Dec 12, 2016 and on Dec 19, 2017.