Summary: Dancing Is the Best Medicine By Dong-Seon Chang and Julia F. Christensen
Summary: Dancing Is the Best Medicine By Dong-Seon Chang and Julia F. Christensen

Summary: Dancing Is the Best Medicine By Dong-Seon Chang and Julia F. Christensen

Magic Rhythm

Many researchers of cognition and evolution agree that classifying art as music, dance, or singing is a very modern invention, and that for most of human history the arts were at the center of social life and not separate from each other. We can see this unity reflected in languages that to this day have only a single word denoting both music and dance. The Greek origin of our word “music”—mousike—referred simultaneously to music and dance, while the Greek for “rhythm” referred to movement and was not limited to the musical aspect. This makes a lot of sense, for research has shown that music and dance—or listening and moving—are firmly connected in our brains. Dividing them into different categories is a violation introduced more recently by a society shaped by the dominance of reason we inherited from the Enlightenment.

When we listen to music, we often cannot help but move. You, too, have probably tapped your foot in time with music without really meaning to. This happens because the nerve cells in our brain responsible for listening and controlling movement are linked. Sounds from our environment enter our ears and travel as nerve impulses for movement straight into our legs. Studies have shown that strong rhythms can sometimes be measured as minimal muscle contractions in our arms and legs. We are born with these connections, which are then reinforced by the behaviors of the people around us in our first years of life: to put babies to sleep, we rock them and sing lullabies, and we clap and stamp our feet when we sing with children. Our brains translate sounds into impulses for movement. The sound waves of our favorite music take charge and command our muscles to move.

Much of what we do happens according to rhythms of which we are entirely unaware, and that’s a good thing. Imagine if our brain were incapable of recognizing regularities in our environment. Each event would be a first and would need to be thoroughly assessed, since everything could potentially be dangerous. Everything would have to be monitored at all times. It would be hugely exhausting. This is why our brain is able from birth to recognize regularities as rhythm. The sun comes up; the sun goes down—day and night, alternating roughly every twelve hours. We know this, and so we don’t need to be frightened when it grows dark. As soon as we have seen or heard a particular rhythm a few times, our brain recognizes it, can anticipate it, and assesses it as not dangerous.

The beat we know best is the rhythm of our feet when we walk: one-two, one-two, one-two. Spend a few minutes listening to the music played by a marching band at a parade and it’s easy to hear how it draws on the natural beat of our gait. When people in the eighteenth century heard a waltz for the first time, three-four time was a novelty for their brains: one-two-three, one-two-three . . . It was new and exciting. But once they’d heard it a few times, their brains memorized it, just the way they learned to recognize the rhythm of the sun rising and setting, or of their own feet on the ground.

When you hear a new rhythm for the first time, give your brain a chance to take it in. Listen for a moment, and perhaps even mimic it with your hands. Follow the rhythm of a waltz, for example, by gesturing waves or by clapping along. As soon as your hands can do it, your legs will find it easier, too.


To Lead and Be Led

Partner dancing always plays with role allocation. Classic partner dances have a leader and a follower. In the past, those roles were assigned according to gender, and even today—especially with ballroom dance—we find separate instructions for the gentleman and the lady.

Although we no longer have a rule that dance partners must be of different genders, or around which gender has to lead, it is often the man who leads in partner dancing. To lead and to be led requires that both dancers pay close attention, because ideally the leader indicates with gentle physical signals which move, which step, or which figure will be next, and the partner makes a move in response. The follower needs to carefully observe the leader’s body language to make sure their dancing will be unified and harmonious. But the leader, too, has to empathize in order to decide where the journey will go. They must engage with their partner and their partner’s body language. The most important aspect of partner dancing is thus the attentive contact with one’s partner. The more we dance with our partner, the better we get to know them.

In a 2008 study, psychologists Eva Wunder and Klaus A. Schneewind surveyed 650 couples about the key prerequisites for a good partnership. Sharing a hobby was ranked fifth, right after tolerance, trust, love, and communication. If you are part of a couple that dances together, you experience yourself and your own body very consciously, and you get to experience your partner and their body in the same way. It’s also fun to learn something new together. The choreographies of individual dances may initially seem very complicated, and it may be hard not to step on each other’s toes, but things get easier with every dance. Promise! This is where the neurotransmitter dopamine comes into play. Dopamine is a substance produced by our bodies that plays a central role in learning and remembering. Numerous scientific studies have proven that when we feel a sense of achievement, our body releases extra dopamine. This in turn has a positive effect on our emotions and, most importantly, on our motivation. If you practice and learn something new with your partner, life will never get boring.


Dancing for the Feeling of Community

No one likes to be alone. Most of us know this from personal experience, but countless studies have also demonstrated how much we treasure our community. To be happy, we need other people, and we feel comfortable and secure when we belong to a group. A sense of community gives us emotional security, creates a sense of well-being, and motivates us to set new goals. In a survey by the journal Zeit in 2015, over 80 percent of people reported that the feeling of belonging to a community is “very important” to them. “Us” can be a couple, a family, a team, or an association of some kind. The important thing is to be together.

We are at ease when we’re around likeminded people. Our brain prefers those with whom we’ve shared difficult, entertaining, or impressive experiences. Research shows that we find these people more pleasant, funnier, and more trustworthy, and we gravitate toward them over others in conversation.

If you like to watch soccer or rugby, you might know the haka, the ritual dance of New Zealand’s Maori. New Zealanders still use this traditional dance to intimidate their opponents, although these days the posturing all takes place on the field. A 2017 comparative study by Yusuke Kuroda and colleagues at New Zealand’s Massey University and Japan’s University of Tsukuba demonstrated that the haka has definite psychological effects: after dancing haka, the participants felt more confident and dominant, full of zest for life, and pleasantly aroused.

Aside from its other benefits, the feelings of community that come through group dancing can motivate people to move more and, as a result, improve their health. Many African Americans, for example, consider their culture an important source of their sense of identity and belonging. With that in mind, Carolyn Murrock and her colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, started an experiment in 2008 to see whether a program based on African dance would encourage African American women who did not exercise to become more active. It worked, and eighteen weeks later the women’s fitness had measurably improved. In a similar experiment in 2014, Candace C. Johnson and colleagues at the University of Virginia used a culture-specific fitness program rooted in African dance. They wanted to find out whether African American women would get on board with the program and whether their health awareness would increase as a result. It did: these researchers, too, reported instances of early success.


I Like to Move It, Move It!

When we move, a lot happens in our bodies. We may be unaware of some of it at the time, but it nevertheless benefits us in the long term. For a start, dancing makes our leg muscles work hard, as anyone who has danced a night away can testify. Although we “only” danced, we may feel sore the next day. But dancing involves many more muscles than we may realize in the moment. Whether enjoying ourselves on the dance floor of a club, practicing ballet at the barre, or dancing a rumba with a partner, certain postures are required: we have to tense the muscles in our buttocks, abdomen, and upper body or it won’t work. Dancing is thus belly, butt, and leg training, and in the process strengthens our back.

Anyone who dances regularly improves their posture. Dancing has us stand tall and makes us perform various movements simultaneously that require coordination. We spin around, stand on one leg, or lean into our partner’s arms. All of this improves our sense of balance and perception of our own body. Researchers now know that muscles are not merely “power packs” that allow us to move with precision but that they do much more for our bodies.

A team of researchers from Copenhagen discovered that during physical activity skeletal muscles produce certain messenger substances, so-called myokines. This field of research is still in its infancy, and we are not yet exactly sure how these myokines work. The myokine we understand best is interleukin-6: it strengthens the immune system and is anti-inflammatory. It also affects our sugar metabolism by making muscle cells absorb glucose from our blood. This way, the myokine can protect us from developing diabetes. Speaking of diabetes: in 2014, Felice Mangeri and his colleagues from Brescia Hospital and the University of Bologna demonstrated with their BALLANDO program that two hours of Latin dance training twice a week had important health benefits for diabetics. Not only did the study participants show improvements in their fitness data and a reduction of their disease-related problems, but these improvements were still present after three and even six months, something that is not the case with conventional diabetic fitness programs.


Let’s Dance

It’s time to conquer the dance floor—to, as David Bowie once suggested, put on our red shoes and dance away our troubles. Whether it’s waltz or hip-hop, a quickstep whether in a club, a dance class, or at home in your living room, just put on your favorite music and dance. And if you can’t motivate yourself to do it alone, go ahead and sign up for a class. There are plenty of opportunities out there, even online! Dance for kids or ballet for seniors, contact improvisation or folk dance, headbanging or the blues—there are so many facets to dance that there’s something for everyone. Fitness dance programs such as Zumba or Bokwa have also become more widely available. Try out different styles of dancing and take your time as you look for the one that’s right for you. What works for a friend or spouse may not work for you. And once you have found the right style, don’t expect everything to work out perfectly right away

Dancing freely is something that every single one of us can do—as long as we can pluck up the courage. As for certain dance style steps . . . well, it’s a big mistake to think you ought to know or be able to do something before you have learned it. You would never expect yourself to turn a somersault or to pole-vault without training. So why do it with dance? Everyone was a beginner once.

Just enjoy the movements. As we have seen, happiness, health, and mastery will follow on their own. Why? Because our brain and our body can’t help but dance.