Words by Sophia Auld
When Ernie Diaz was just 24 years old, the time bomb ticking in his brain – what doctors call an arteriovenous malformation – exploded, causing a massive stroke. Despite being given just 50/50 survival odds, Diaz pulled through.
And then, a few months into his recovery, he decided to take up salsa dancing.
As it turned out, this not only benefited him physically, but helped Diaz – now 36 – regain much-needed confidence and mental function too.
It seems that Diaz, who works in real estate and now teaches dance, was onto something. Apart from the obvious physical benefits, evidence is suggesting that dance has additional benefits for the brain.
Studies using brain imaging have identified regions that contribute to dance learning and performance, including the motor and somatosensory cortices, basal ganglia, and cerebellum. These areas work to plan, coordinate and execute complex dance movements.
As adult dance becomes increasingly popular, people of all ages are taking up ballroom, ballet and pole dancing classes, among many others.
But these lessons are not just a good work-out. Research is showing that dance can actually help manage the symptoms of a range of nervous system disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia. It can also help to maintain healthy brain function.
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Professor Gene Moyle, a sport and exercise psychologist from the Queensland University of Technology, explains that findings from numerous research studies conducted over the past five years have provided clear evidence for the positive impact that dance has on the brain.
“These results have not only focused on how dancing can decrease the risk of dementia, prevent dizziness, and slow down ageing in the brain,” she explains, “but how it can also increase a range of cognitive functions.” These include boosting memory, enhancing neuroplasticity (the ability to ‘rewire’ the brain), and improving motor (movement) function.
“The integrated requirements of memory and movement that dance is comprised of helpfully engages many aspects of the brain’s functions – to our advantage,” Moyle says.
These advantages have been explored in various scientific studies. Research published in 2017 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, for example, compared the effects of 18 months of dancing versus endurance training on the hippocampus region of the brain – an area involved in memory, balance and learning.
Both groups revealed increased hippocampal volumes, but only the dancers achieved a significant increase in their balance scores.
This lead the researchers to conclude that dancing is a promising candidate for counteracting age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.
Boogie for your brain Dance benefits the brain in four main ways, says Susan Hillier, Professor of Neuroscience and Rehabilitation at the University of South Australia. The first is physical. Just like going for a brisk walk or cycle, dance raises the heart rate, gets the blood pumping and has all the known benefits of physical activity.
The second comes from the innate rhythm of dance. “The brain has got this resonance system,” Hillier explains. “When there is a rhythm or a beat, it helps to tap into more basic neural networks.”
This is proving to be particularly helpful for people with Parkinson’s Disease, Hillier says, where the lack of a neurotransmitter chemical in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia causes problems with goal-directed behaviour, like walking.
The third aspect is the intrinsic reward of dancing. “Having a good dance is incredibly therapeutic and makes you laugh,” Hillier says. “On an emotional level there’s something about dancing that people love. We can couch it in scientific terms, but it is fun. That, in itself, is therapeutic.”
She says this is especially true in rehabilitation, where people get can tired of therapy. “Let’s keep [dance] as something fun, where people can have a get-together and … feel good in their capacity to play and muck about.”
In her work as a physiotherapist, Hillier has used dance as a form of rehabilitation. She notes that dance has many elements in common with traditional rehabilitation of nervous system injuries – like weight-bearing, developing strength and control in both legs, shifting weight from one foot to the other, coordinating arm movements and maintaining balance.
For Diaz, the fun of salsa dancing was a key part of his recovery.
“I was determined that having a stroke was not going to stop me,” he says. He recalls listening to the music and watching the moves until he could copy them. “I remember going home and drawing little stick figures doing what we’d learnt that day, just so I didn’t forget it,” he says. And dance gave him something far more important. “I thought I was dumb and stupid,” he says. “I thought I was worthless because of having a stroke.”
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Learning to dance provided a massive boost for his self-confidence. It also gave him many new friends.
The social aspect of dancing is the fourth benefit, Hillier explains. She says that physios who run classes comment on the positive interactions of people with disabilities within the groups. “Instead of sitting around … they’re up on their feet helping each other feel good.
There is something inherently rewarding about jumping about with a group of people with a shared understanding, a shared goal. “Most people don’t want to go to a gym and push weights around … but there are lots of people who are happy to go to a dance class,” she says. “I’m talking about old guys who were sports junkies in their youth. I’ve had a few that I’ve worked with in my clinic, and they love it. Nobody’s judging them, they’re having fun and they can feel that it’s really doing them good.”
Hillier adds that no prior experience is required. And for Diaz, who teaches salsa and bachata (a form of dance from the Dominican Republic), there is no good excuse not to give dance a try.
“When people say to me, ‘I can’t dance, I’ve got two left feet’, I’m like, ‘Hold on a second, buddy. I’ve had a stroke and I learnt how to dance and now I’m teaching. So don’t tell me you can’t do it, because you can.’”
The neuroscience of dance While the many benefits are clear, researchers are only just starting to uncover the mechanisms behind how dance helps the brain. Hillier explains that, because of its complexity, dance excites many different brain regions.
“If you wired people’s brains up while they were dancing, they’d be shining like a Christmas tree,” she says. “Much more so than with other, more basic kinds of physical activity.”
“Dance involves focused and conscious attention on moving in synchrony with the accompanying music,” she says. “In addition, the dancers are encouraged to express their feelings and tap into emotions – which could increase motivation, provide enjoyment, and potentially improve mood.”
She says that Parkinson’s involves a deficit in the brain’s internal timing, which leads to gait problems. The external cues used in dance, including vision (watching the teachers) and sound (music), can serve as surrogate cues for the impaired internal timing.
These can bypass the damaged brain areas and improve gait by providing feedback signals that temporarily ‘recalibrate’ internal pacing.
Her study looked at the effects of classes based on the Dance for PD model, primarily focusing on gait, cognition and cognitive dual-tasking (performing a mental task such as subtracting numbers while walking) in people with early-stage PD.
It also assessed the severity of the disease, functional mobility, habitual physical activity levels, psychological symptoms (including anxiety and depression) and overall quality of life. One group attended a one-hour dance class twice weekly for 12 weeks, while a control group had treatment as usual.
The study found that gait and dual-tasking improved significantly in the dance group compared to controls. Both episodic memory and executive function improved, but the remaining cognitive skills did not change.
There were also significant improvements in disease severity, functional mobility, anxiety, depression and quality of life in the dance group.
Kalyani notes that the dance classes had high levels of adherence, with an average attendance rate of 93 per cent. “The social nature of dance promotes longer-term participation and adherence,” she explains. “The opportunity for socialisation and to meet people with the same condition also facilitates the psychological adjustment to the disease.”
She adds that the pleasurable experience of participation fosters positive changes in perspective and attitude – which may encourage a more proactive approach to disease management. The study concluded that dance classes could be a highly useful supportive therapy for the management of PD symptoms.
As Professor Moyle notes in a 2015 article in The Conversation, dance may mostly be associated with after-hours exploits (like parties, weddings or TV shows), but it also provides a promising avenue of neuroscientific exploration.