Dance is a fundamental form of human expression and communication consisting of movements and shapes which can be induced through music, but also detached from any external source of sound. The motivation to dance throughout cultures and history is very diverse. Dance can be part of societal and religious ceremonies, it exists as a form of art and it can act as a medium of communication between individuals, but also within a dancing individual (for a dancer to communicate and reconnect with himself).
Dance as a form of art in western culture has gone through extensive changes at the beginning of the 20th century. In stark contrast to ballet and paired dances, modern dance evolved. One essential change was that the focus shifted from esthetic and acrobatic movements to natural sequences of motion and the expression of emotions. This new appreciation of the personality of the dancer and the authenticity of the dance gave room to an ever increasing repertoire of dance styles and qualities of movements. The idea of using the body as a non-verbal instrument to express conscious, as well as unconscious emotions also gave rise to the field of dance therapy.
“I praise the dance,
for it frees people from the heaviness of matter
and binds the isolated to community.
I praise the dance,
which demands everything:
health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.
Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people,
who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.
Dancing demands a whole person,
one who is firmly anchored in the center of his life,
who is not obsessed by lust for people and things
and the demon of isolation in his own ego.
Dancing demands a freed person,
one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers.
I praise the dance.
O man, learn to dance,
or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you”
— Saint Augustine
Mary Wigman (in the above figure), one of the pioneers in European modern dance, stated: “Dancing means to move; to transform internally indiscernible movement into visible motion” (translated from German). This can happen in two ways, either one starts to dance because of an emotion or one can feel an emotion through dance. Either way, it is a highly complex action that requires not only control of the skeletal muscles, but also integration of sensory information, such as auditory perception of music, visual perception of space and vestibular control of balance. This challenging task for the brain has been shown to improve health and brain function on a variety of levels. For example, it was reported that people who habitually dance throughout their lives have a better balance and less variable gait than non-dancers and that regular dance practice improves balancing in elderly people. Additionally, a study from 2011 showed that dance training improves cognitive flexibility in aging individuals. This effect was not seen in experimental groups which practiced Tai-Chi or pure motor training programs, suggesting that the cognitive flexibility is a result of the dance itself and not a secondary effect of increased body exercise. Similarly, some studies investigated the effect of dance training in patients with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease associated with difficulties in movement initiations. It was observed that in the dance group, but not in the exercise group, movement initiation was improved. Also, a further study showed that dance therapy in patients with neurological deficits, such as stroke or brain injury, improved balance, gait and cognitive performance.
But what is actually happening in the brain when we dance?
Positron emission tomography is a functional imaging technique which allows us to visualize tissues with metabolic activity. In a study from 2006 (1) investigated brain activity during dance using this method. People were asked to repeatedly perform a sequence of tango steps with and without music. This revealed different brain areas which may be responsible for spatial navigation, rhythmic motion and music coupling of dance. However, did you notice that in this study people are only performing a sequence of foot movements along with music?
This is because for the imaging technique to give clear results, the head needs to stay fixed (see on the right). Can you imagine how much more active the brain must be when we are dancing with the whole body and not just the feet? And also how much more complex it must be when we dance freely, rather than repeating steps that were taught before. Unfortunately, due to the limits of the imaging techniques, so far the complex brain activity during dancing can only be unraveled in very small steps. Meanwhile, there is also more to ask than just how the brain makes us dance. We may also regard dance from a more philosophical and psychological point of view and ask why do people dance? Dr. Lovatt, leader of the dance psychology lab at the University of Hertfordshire, has investigated this question and received a diverse set of answers. Some people dance because it makes them feel attractive, some because it brings them in touch with their body; others dance to please their partner or to find a partner and again others dance as an unavoidable reaction to music. On the other hand, Dr. Lovatt has also tried to understand why people do not dance and here the diversity of answers seemed much lower. Most people do not dance because they feel self-conscious and fear to be judged by other people. I, from my side, can only tell you that I get deeply moved when I witness someone dancing entirely freely of any concerns about judgment, giving his or her body to be become one with the music, irrespective of the esthetics of the movement itself. Therefore, as Saint Augustine already posed: O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.
Brown S, et al. (2006) The Neural Basis of Human Dance. Cortex, 16(8):1157-1167.
Antonia Groneberg is a PhD student at the Collective Behavior lab, Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme. She studied Molecular Biotechnology and Neuroscience at the University of Heidelberg in Germany before starting her PhD. She is a passionate dancer.