The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You know it feels good to dance. These scientists reveal why.

According to a new book, taking time to dance, especially socially, benefits not only your body, but also your brain. (Alex Goncharov/Shutterstock)

Wouldn’t it be great if science could confirm what dance enthusiasts know in their bones: that dancing is one of the best things we can do for our heath, joyful well-being and even our brain power?

That’s what brain scientists Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang set out to prove in researching their lively and enlightening book, “Dancing Is the Best Medicine: The Science of How Moving to a Beat Is Good for Body, Brain, and Soul” (Greystone Books). I recently spoke with Christensen, a dancer turned neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, about the health benefits of a passion for dance. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How did you move from ballet to science?

A: I injured my back in a fall and that ended my professional ballet training. It was devastating. I couldn’t even bear hearing ballet music, it was that bad. But even when I was training, in the evenings I took math classes for fun. I’ve always been super interested in human behavior, which tied in to dance. I began doing research on morality and how we make moral judgments. I’m so curious about why we make the choices we do. It’s an important drive: How can I feel good? And I’m pretty sure that dance is in the top three things that one should do to make oneself feel better. The other two are finding food and shelter. After that, our behavior should include rhythmic body movement. Our brain wants us to dance.

This is your brain on art

Q: Why is dance better than other activities that are supposed to be good for the brain?

A: We looked at studies where people have been assessed for 10 or 15 years on their hobbies, such as swimming, running, doing crossword puzzles and dance. People who dance have an advantage. They have less risk of developing heart disease or dementia. So what is it that makes dance so different? Three reasons: music, a social aspect and movement. First, music has really powerful effects on our neural architecture, our hormones and metabolism. All our biochemistry is influenced by music. And our brain is a prediction machine. It likes to feel safe. Anything that gives rhythm to our day gives the brain a sense of security and safety. Rhythm is a regularly occurring event that the brain can predict. So tied in with music is the fact that rhythm is very important to us, evolutionarily.

Second, there’s the social aspect of dance. Moving in synchrony with others bonds us together. Even our immune systems get regulated by doing movements together with others, when we’re in the presence of people we feel safe with. We produce oxytocin and prolactin, which can make us feel consoled.

Third, dance is a sport, an aerobic exercise. It gets your heartbeat up, keeps your muscles in shape and releases toxins from your body.

In addition to these, there’s the emotional component. We express ourselves when we dance. We don’t just make shapes. We can be authentic, and be what we feel. Sports have extrinsic rewards: to be faster, lose a kilo, get stronger. Dance can have these, too, but often the rewards are being with other people, having fun and mood management. If you run, you can still be thinking of all your problems. If you dance, try that and you’ll trip over your feet. So dancing brings you back to yourself.

Art in an instant: The secrets of improvisation

Q: Does this mean high-level dancers — professionals or competitive dancers — gain even more benefits?

A: Specifically, the dancing we do as a hobby is the most healthy. Anything that is competitive puts stress hormones in the blood, and that down-regulates the immune system. Competitive or professional dancers have high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, on the day of a competition or performance. This is not healthy. Make sure you have room for dancing for fun.

Q: Ah, the virtues of dancing for fun. That's music to my ears.

A: Yes, it’s about striking a balance. Learning technique is good for your brain, to keep it flexible. It helps you make more neural connections and keeps the brain fresh, and might be one of the reasons why dance protects from dementia. But don’t forget that the technique is just a vocabulary we’re learning so we can “talk.” As the movements of the dance style become more materialized in our brains, we can use the technique to express ourselves. And this illustrates the cognitive, physical and emotional nature of dance. Learning technique, remembering steps and synchronizing to another person: From a multitasking perspective, dance is impossible. And still, we can do it.

The pandemic was the final blow for some dance companies. How do the survivors stay nimble?

A: This circles back to what you said about our brains wanting us to dance. Was there an evolutionary advantage?

Q: From an evolutionary point of view, dancing makes absolutely no sense. It burns a lot of calories and it makes you visible to predators. So why did dancers survive? They must have had an adaptive advantage. Maybe it was some sort of mutation that people could move to a beat, and were able to be so cohesive in society and could be stronger than others. Because dancing does make you healthy and strong. We don’t really know why, but it’s a fascinating fact that we kept this behavior, even though you’re standing up and you’re making noise. It’s got death written all over it! But still we survived.

A: How do we know that the urge to dance reaches so far back in human history?

Q: Of course, dance doesn’t fossilize. But there are cave paintings around the world, dating back about 50,000 to 70,000 years, that show the same few topics: family, hunting, sex scenes and dancing. There’s also the audio motor evolution hypothesis, regarding the neural connections between parts of our brain that process auditory stimuli — what we hear — and the large muscles of our body, over the spinal cord to the big muscles. These do not exist in other species.

It seems that these pathways give us the possibility to move rhythmically to a beat. This suggests that human dance has something to do with how our brain is wired. And we can study newborn babies, by gently and very carefully putting electrodes close to their heads, to measure their brain waves as they listen to a beat. Their brains synchronize with the beat and they start moving rhythmically. So we’re finding that there’s something special about rhythm. Evolutionarily, it must be quite old.

With MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, this 70-year-old choreographer has big plans for the future

Q: Yet it seems that dance, as part of the human experience, has fallen away from common, everyday practice. Why is this?

A: It’s a good question. Especially in the 20th century there were a lot of taboos around dance, in Europe and around the United States, for different reasons. Often there were myths about dance leading to social unrest. I think there is a conversation to be had about these effects, because it is a very potent behavior. People can be overwhelmed about what dancing can do. You can have near-trance states, and it is so body-based, and we have mixed feelings about the body. It can be difficult to understand. But I think science can really help with this, educating about the good things dancing does and the hormonal-neural cocktail going on.

Q: That's so interesting. What's the best way to access all the benefits of dance? Is there one style that's healthier than the others?

A: The first step is to find a dance style you love, that feels good to you. There’s no single best style. Maybe something resonates with you in the music, where you feel, “I’m home.” For me, that happened with Argentine tango. I heard this old tango music from the 1930s and there it was, this feeling of home, even though it had nothing to do with my culture. So that’s my medicine. For Dong-Seon Chang, my co-author, it’s American swing dancing, which also had nothing to do with his upbringing, but he instantly loved the music.

Also, as a side note about the pandemic: It helped further online dancing, whether live or on demand. I have a busy schedule, so I take online dance classes on demand. Whenever you want, you can have a dance class.

Q: So scientifically speaking, does dancing in our kitchens count?

A: Yes! That’s probably the most pure form of dancing, because you can express yourself freely. If you’re sad, for example, put on a sad song and dance it out. That’s the self-expression that the arts give us, and that nothing else does.

MacKenzie Scott’s multimillion-dollar message: Art is essential everywhere, not just in museums and theaters

In pain and rage, a protester approached police. And then he danced.