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Life Through Dance

Tapping into the Neuroscience of Dance

By Elizabeth Dickinson

Here are some dance facts to rock your world:

For neuroscience geeks, we are the only primates with a functional connection between the auditory and the dorsal pre-motor cortex. However, unless you want to be mistaken for a Big Bang Theory actor, I discourage asking a potential dance partner, “Would you like to integrate with me in the functional connection between our mutual auditory and dorsal pre-motor cortexes?” Could lead to unpleasantness … but I digress.

So what does this mean? We are the only primates able to dance, and we were capable of doing this long before we were able to communicate with words. Neuroscience also indicates that our brains go into ecstatic overdrive when several cognitive systems get fully synchronized, all firing in unison—which is basically a long way to say dance can be enjoyable.

It’s easier to remember things when more than one sensory mode is employed. For instance, rhythm and rhyme of all kinds are easier to remember than non-rhyming speech. No wonder science considers dance, particularly partner dance, to be the best exercise for preventing Alzheimer’s. (The mother of the Greek muse Terpsichore, or goddess of dance, was called Mnemosyne, or memory.)

The muscular bonding of moving to a beat, whether marching or dancing, increases social ties and lessens fatigue. When a military commander revived marching drills in 1590 after it had been neglected for a thousand years, it was such a success in bonding soldiers and reducing fatigue that other commanders soon copied him. How often have you been able to keep dancing long after you would have stopped any other sweat-inducing activity?

I have long believed there is something spiritual about dance. When invited to present an archetype at a Working with the Sacred workshop, I chose the goddess Terpsichore and led the entire group in a spontaneous, drum-driven dance. The effect of synchronized movement can promote a spiritual connection by keeping a dancer in the present of the Big Mind, similar to meditation. It’s very hard to stay in the Small Mind and to worry about the past or future when dancing; people often say they dance to forget their troubles. Dancing shamans and Sufis have also used dance as a way of entering trances and healing people.

So whether you dance socially or competitively, you are tapping into a deep reservoir of history, neuroscience, muscular bonding, positive psychology, and even spirituality, all through the simple actions of moving your body rhythmically with a partner to music.

The Indian teacher Osho said, “To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it.”

So let us be creative and in love with life. Let us dance.