Release your inner caveman, and dance!
By Valerie Webber
As a life-long dancer, teacher and overall dance enthusiast, I often say that dancing is the number-one form of physical exercise for not only physical, but mental and emotional health. Now, I know you can make an argument for just about any kind of exercise, but bear with me here—when you are dancing, you definitely get a cardiovascular workout. You might also get some strength, depending on what kind of craziness you’re doing. But you also have to build movement patterns that challenge your brain and your coordination. Even better—if you are dancing with a partner, you get to build partnership skills and form new neural patterns.
Dancing with others creates some musical magic: You have the rhythm of the song, you have other people, and you move together and play off of one another. I like to imagine primitive cultures of long ago, where the only entertainment available in an evening may have been the tribe, the fire, and a drummer. I imagine that every person in the group contributed something different to the dance around the fire, and everyone would play off of one another, maybe trying to outdo one another with new dance moves or impressive feats of strength and agility. For me, that sounds like an awesome evening.
So often, I run into adults who say they don’t know how to dance, or that they feel uncoordinated or look “weird.” I imagine that our ancestors around the campfire didn’t worry too much about whether they were doing things “right.” They just felt the music and moved. Have you ever watched a toddler react to a strong beat in music? They aren’t very aware of actually doing anything, but they just hear the rhythm, bend their knees, bounce, and maybe sway, and look—they’re dancing!
You certainly don’t need a partner of any kind to dance. We have our own modern-day campfire circles in fitness classes, where we do our Zumba and Hot Hula moves, and maybe learn some new footwork patterns in barre. You can take those same moves home with you, and dance in your kitchen while you make dinner (y’all know I do). If you have some small children at home, try putting on a song with a strong beat, and let the toddler be your teacher—seriously, copy whatever the kid does. (This idea is not for the faint of heart. I did it one day with my husband’s 2-year-old granddaughter. Once she figured out I was copying her, things got crazy).
In any form of dance, we are exercising the creative sides of our brains as well as our bodies. Even in a class, where an instructor is telling you what to do, you are making your own personal choices about how to do the move. Are you sassy or reserved? Hips or no hips? Jumping or not? Without an instructor, when you are just reacting to the music that you hear (say, dancing in your living room or at the club), you are making things up as you go—so you are doing some spontaneous choreography inside your head, and then translating this into movement. And you’re working both brain and body.
I may be biased, but I personally think partnered dance is the best form of dancing, and that it also tops all other kinds of exercise for mental benefits, especially for the follows (generally speaking, ladies follow and gentlemen lead, but there are certainly exceptions). In a partnered dance, our leads are not only doing the spontaneous choreography, but they also have to think about 8 counts ahead of the music, so that they can communicate the next move to their partner. That’s a lot of mental work, and it really dusts the cobwebs off of neural pathways.
For the follows, the mental benefits multiply: Not only are we reacting in real time with the music and the spontaneous decisions of our partners, but we also have the opportunity to follow an unlimited number of leads—in other words, if you go to a social dance, you can dance with a different leader for every single song, which means your brain and body have the opportunity to respond to the unique dance patterns of an unlimited number of leaders. We also have a shorter response time: while leaders are thinking a few counts ahead of the music, follows are existing 100% in the current beat. We can’t know what our leaders are planning, so we focus on being responsive, which creates the blissful, zen-like dancing state I love so much.
There is actual scientific evidence (links below) showing that partnered dancing helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease, largely because of continually building new connections in the brain.
For a couple in a long-term relationship, partnered dancing helps improve our nonverbal communication. We develop a strong sense of teamwork. It also forces us to put aside our disagreements. It’s really hard to dance with someone you’re mad at.
Beyond the couple-building benefits, dance brings a powerful community connection. Thinking back to those ancestors who danced around the fire at night; I like to believe that their exertions helped them build a sense of community and connection to one another that was vital for their survival. Even today, have you ever been at a party where the DJ played a line dance almost everyone knew, like the Cupid Shuffle, and the dance floor suddenly filled up, and everyone came together for four minutes, and at the end of the song, the whole group applauded? That is community.
The dance community is central to my life. I spent a lot of time in ballet and jazz classes and developed many deep and life-changing friendships there. But I never had the opportunity to learn to dance with a partner until I found myself a divorced mom of three in my early 30s. I took some Zumba classes, and I enjoyed the salsa, cha-cha and merengue steps so much that I knew I wanted more. All my friendships from my married life had become a little strained, because that’s how it goes—so I was pretty lonely and bored on the days when my kids weren’t home. During this time, I also had no friends I would consider close enough to put on an emergency contact form.
It didn’t take me long to find a ballroom dance studio. I took some classes. I went to social dances. I learned to salsa and cha-cha with another person. I built new neural networks. I felt so welcomed, and I bonded so well with this new community that I always drove home with a natural endorphin high, and I sang that song from “My Fair Lady,” “I could have danced all night,” over and over again.
The dance community quickly became my family, and I went from being uncertain who I could put on my emergency contact form to having the kinds of friends that you could actually call at 2am to come pick me up if my car battery died.
I realize not everyone is going to get as much into dancing as I have, but I do believe it’s right there inside of each one of us, that happy caveman who still wants to get out around the fire circle every once in a while, and sway to the rhythm, and maybe even throw down some amazing feats of strength, if he’s so inspired.
Check out these articles about the mental benefits of dancing:
Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter, Longer. By Richard Powers
Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly, Joe Verghese, M.D., et al.