Partner Dancing Benefits the Brain and Body

From my article in UCLA Healthy Years.  For more health news, check out University Health News.

Stimulate neurons and improve mood when dancing with others.

If you’re looking to meet new people, get a little exercise and do something for your brain, consider partner dancing.

164580_1535127340096_4345456_n-2“Social dancers are some of the most welcoming, supportive people out there,” says Lora Wilson, board certified dance therapist at the UCLA Arts and Healing Social Emotional Arts program. “Most classes are set up so that partners change regularly. So if you don’t have a partner, you can go by yourself and you will meet and dance with many people over the course of a night.”

Partner dances include everything from traditional ballroom, such as waltz, foxtrot, and swing, to more sultry Latin dances, like salsa and Argentine tango. Each dance has its own unique steps, protocols, and even clothing and shoes for those who really get into the groove. For many people, partner dancing fosters a healthy passion and a whole new network of friends.

How partner dancing benefits the brain

The brain continually rewires itself and creates new neural connections as required. That’s the essence of what’s called the neuroplasticity of the brain. It’s also what keeps the brain young. Stop learning new things, and the brain stops making new connections.

Dancing promotes neuroplasticity because you’re constantly multitasking—navigating the dance floor, integrating new movement patterns with music, and connecting with your partner. Spilt second decision-making is also part of the process, which relies more on intuition and trust than intellectual thinking. “Research has shown that exercise, social interaction, and novelty each stimulate activity-dependent genes that initiate the process of creating new neurons in our brain,” says Wilson. “Social dancing is an activity that integrates all three of these neuron-growing activities in one experience.”

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the relationship between leisure activities and the risk of dementia in 469 subjects older than 75 years of age who resided in a retirement community. None had dementia at baseline. Of the physical activities analyzed (including dancing, walking, bowling, and bicycling), dancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia. Fewer than 10 subjects played golf or tennis, so those activities weren’t assessed in this study.

Tango helps those with Parkinson’s disease

Dancing the Argentine tango could have potential benefits for people at certain stages of Parkinson’s disease, according to findings of a small study by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital–The Neuro, McGill University and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre. The study looked at changes in patients’ motor abilities following a 12-week tango course, and is also the first study to assess the effect that tango has on non-motor symptoms.

Tango requires specific steps that involve rhythmically walking forward and backward. This may be particularly helpful for walking difficulties, especially for freezing of gait and to prevent backward falls. In addition, tango requires working memory, control of attention, and multitasking to incorporate newly learned and previously learned dance elements, to stay in rhythm with the music, and maneuver around others on the dance floor. In particular, researchers noted that tango was helpful in improving balance and functional mobility, and had modest benefits in terms of patients’ cognitive functions. It also helped reduce fatigue.

Non-verbal, physical communication

While there are rules that govern all dances, socially, partner dances are not choreographed. Partners learn basic steps and cues to understand how to communicate with each other non-verbally in class. Once the social dancing begins, it’s totally improvised to the music. You never know for sure exactly what is going to happen next. Partners must listen and respond to each other in this music-inspired physical conversation. It is among the joys and challenges of partner dancing.

Dancing is as integral to human life as music. It fosters self-expression and lifts the spirit. Likewise, socializing is ever more important as we age. Partner dancing enables you to grow your circle of friends whether you have a spouse or not.

“Moving in synchrony with others to shared rhythms improves our mood and feelings of belonging and connection with others,” says Wilson. “Engaging in shared rhythms is a natural community builder, pain reliever and mood enhancer.” You can find partner dance classes in YMCAs, dance studios, community centers, and through the popular website Meetup.com.

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