Dancing has been a part of human history since before the beginning of civilization, predating modern history and written language. The earliest archeological evidence of dance comes from 9,000-year-old cave paintings in India. Historians believe dance, along with oral storytelling, was originally used as a medium to express stories and myths that carried important lessons and cultural values to younger generations.
The prominence of dancing across cultures created a staggering variety of different traditions, styles and applications. African dance, Salsa, Samba, tai chi, ballroom, jazz, hip-hop, karate, contemporary, swing dance, yoga, ecstatic dance and Capoeira are all forms of dance, some with multi-purpose properties—and this only scratches the surface.
In addition to being a form of personal expression, dancing has ritualistic, religious and social applications. Dance boasts a multitude of different functions, including but not limited to social, martial, erotic, competitive and ceremonial. Beyond the practical applications, dancing is a fun way to get loose and let go of the day’s worries, and it also carries a multitude of physical and mental health benefits.
Let’s Get Physical
Physical exercise is one of the key pillars to longevity and greater health. Dancing is an exercise that builds muscular strength and endurance. It promotes cardiovascular health, helps protect against heart and blood vessel diseases, improves posture and supports healthy weight.
Dancing also aids in flexibility. Stretching before and after a dance helps improve your flexibility and prevent injuries. Prolonged stretching over time improves your range of motion and makes dancing easier. Dance movements usually involve practice and repetition, which develops our cardiovascular system and promotes endurance. Dancing also strengthens the bones and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.
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Enlivening The Mood
We’re motivated to move to music because music makes us feel good. Music naturally lights up the reward centers of the brain, releasing mood-uplifting hormones like dopamine and oxytocin.
There are many different types of dance, and each style utilizes different rules, techniques and tempos. Dancing can be a medium through which we can learn new skills, listen to music, and learn about our own or other’s culture. It’s also fun!
Dancing encourages a sense of playfulness and self-expression. As adults we often get wrapped up in our obligations and responsibilities, and dancing can be a great way to tap into the joy of the present moment and become aware of the joyful movements of our bodies.
Practicing challenging and new activities not only strengthens our ability to learn but also promotes self-confidence. As martial artist Morihei Ueshiba said, “Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.”
There’s a lot of value in the process of practicing a difficult skill. Dancing can be awkward, especially when we’re first starting! We feel like we have two left feet. We have to overcome our shyness and self-consciousness around looking silly or uncoordinated. We can be afraid we look clumsy or that we have no rhythm or mojo. With practice, we can prevail over these obstacles and challenges to learn a new skill. We get better at syncing our movements with the rhythm. We become more aware of the movements of our body and gain greater control over our gross motor skills. This builds self-confidence.
Dancing requires a high level of spatial awareness and coordination. It helps us move through space with greater awareness of the relationship between our body movements and the space in which we exist. Dancing promotes communication between different parts of the brain. It also encourages synchronicity between those parts. People who dance are less likely to suffer from Alexithymia, an inability to consciously feel or express the feelings that are going on in the body.
So much of our daily habits, whether it be technology or TV, support a general sense of disembodiment. We detach from the awareness of our current moment and get swept up into the mental headspace or imaginary world of a good story. Nothing is inherently wrong with this coping style, but being tethered to screens all day does not foster a connection with our bodies or our environment.
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Dancing with a partner or in a dance class helps us form connections with others and fosters empathy and emotional intelligence. When two people dance together, they have to tune into each others’ body language and subtle shifts to coordinate their movements. The leader communicates to the follower through subtle movements that it’s time to change direction or move in a different way. The follower must sense the subtle cues from the leader.
While there are coded gender roles in who leads and follows, the best dance classes I’ve taken have given the participants a chance to embody both roles. Switching roles helps the leaders feel what it’s like to follow and vice versa.
Music inherently fosters social connection. When we listen to music together, our heartbeats actually sync up with the rhythm of the music. Psychologists believe this promotes a feeling of social cohesion, shared experience, and belonging to a group.
Keeps the Brain Youthful
Dancing can help with neuroplasticity and decrease the effects of neural deterioration onset by aging. It promotes activation of multiple areas of the brain, leading to greater connectivity between different parts of the brain. Dancing lights up the areas of the brain associated with kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional centers. After all, you have to memorize the steps, knowing how to coordinate movements with another person with sensory skills, motor skills, and coordination.
We’re excited when we listen to the music of a piece which stimulates the reward systems in the brain. It actually increases cognitive function and reduces the effects of Dementia. Tai chi has even been shown to reduce falls and improve balance in patients with Parkinson’s Disease.
Dancing not only fosters brain and body connection but our own self-confidence, spatial awareness, self-expression, and a sense of play. You don’t have to be a professional dancer to enjoy the benefits of dance. All you need to do is to close your eyes and feel the music.