How Dancing Gives Your Brain and Mood a Big BoostIt doesn’t matter if you are a professional dancer or if you just like to move on the dance floor on Saturday night. It doesn’t matter if you like to tango or break dance. Dancing, of any kind, combines physical exercise with the positive power of music and social engagement. Together, these yield major mental health and brain benefits.

In fact, it has such beneficial effects on the brain that dancing is increasingly used as therapy for developmental disorders like Down’s syndrome, mood disorders such as depression, and neurological disorders as in the case of schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and dementia. Here is why it’s so good for your brain.

Dancing Gets Your Brain and Body Involved

Some workouts, like running on a treadmill or spinning, you can do and completely turn your brain off. When you exercise in ways that disengage your brain from actively participating, you’re getting the physical benefits of increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain and the release of feel-good, stress-reducing neurochemicals, but you’re losing out on cognitive gains.

In How To Work Your Brain in Your Workout (and Why It Matters), I write:

While doing anything physical is still way better than sitting on the couch, using exercise machines that involve a limited range of identical, repetitive movements takes your brain offline, asking very little of it. Doing the same thing over and over again, in life and in your fitness routine, is the enemy of brain health and physical neurological movement, flexibility, and control. It’s like asking your brain to solve the same crossword puzzle a thousand times.”

Like playing a musical instrument, dancing requires complex cognitive coordination and function. Studies using PET imaging have identified regions of the brain that contribute to dance learning and performance. These regions include the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum.

Dancing Activates the Brain’s Reward Center

Dancing combines the therapeutic power of music with physical activity. As with any cardio-based workout, dancing causes the release of feel-good neurochemicals, endorphins.  When you combine dance and music, you get the added bonus of activating the primal reward centers in the brain. One study concluded that dance constitutes a “pleasure double play” in your brain. Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.

Not only does dancing stimulate the reward circuit in your brain, but it also activates the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain primarily responsible for emotions and memory. Whenever you dance, it can subconsciously remind you of good feelings at other times when doing it, like at your wedding or just having a good time with friends. 

Dance Lowers Dementia Risk

Just like learning a musical instrument, language, or any other new skill, learning dance moves takes focus and activates the hippocampus. Keeping the hippocampus engaged is key for preventing cognitive decline and dementia. One study found that when people between the ages of 63 and 80 were taught dance moves, it had a lasting effect on their brain’s neuroplasticity — the formation of new neural connections.

Another study investigated the effect various leisure activities had on the risk of dementia in the elderly. The researchers looked at the effects of 11 different kinds of physical activity, including cycling, golf, swimming, and tennis. Of all the activities studied, only dance lowered participants’ risk of dementia. According to the researchers, dancing uniquely combined stimulation from physical and mental effort as well as social interaction.

Dancing Gives You Social Brain Benefits

Humans are social animals who need contact with one another. Your brain needs it. Dance is a social activity that connects you with other people. When you’re dancing with others, your brain actually relaxes because you are in a group. It recognizes that what’s happening is a communal experience which activates mirror neurons in your brain. Your brain likes feeling like it’s part of something bigger.

Mirror neurons are circuits of neurons in the prefrontal cortex of your brain which subconsciously map out and follow the minds and actions of others. Mirror neurons play a vital role in human interaction, behavior, and thought processes. The article, Science Says: Dancing Makes You Happy, explains it like this:

It may be an art form, but it’s also a great opportunity for socialization. Since the very beginning, dance has been used as a social activity that connects us with others. You’ll make lasting bonds with your instructor or choreographer, with your partner or other dancers, and even with audience members. You don’t even have to speak out loud to create those connections with other people. Simply doing those steps in sync with other people can be a shared euphoric experience that you won’t soon forget. When you get social, you feel happy. Perhaps it’s the endorphins that are being produced when you interact with like-minded people — laughing, chatting, enjoying time together. But it also may be something even deeper. 

Having the opportunity to partake in an emotional catharsis with everyone else in the room is a unique experience that can help you bond with a complete stranger or deepen the connection to your loved one. As humans, we constantly seek out those meaningful connections with others. Dance provides a way for us to relate to others on both a physical and emotional level in a way that other situations may not.”

Dancing Decreases Depression and Anxiety

Because dance is both a physical and emotional release, it’s ideal for people experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety. Studies show that dance, in particular, can decrease anxiety and boost mood more than other physical outlets. In one study, researchers had people with anxiety disorders participate in one of four activities: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety.

One study involving teenagers with depression, anxiety, and stress found that those who attended dance classes two days per week showed significant improvement in their psychosomatic symptoms and self-reported that they felt happier. Other research found that when people with depression participated in salsa dancing, they had fewer negative thoughts, better concentration, and an improved sense of tranquility.

35 Comments

  1. I find this kind of research information so fascinating. I’m not a big dancer myself, but when I see the benefit, it make me think twice.

    • Ben Galloway Reply

      Very interesting article!
      Especially intrigued by the section comparing the 4 classes done by anxiety disorder sufferers. I am a pretty anxious person and am also very physical. Have done a fair bit of swing dancing in the past, but for the last couple years have primarily been a gym/fitness enthusiast….
      But your article makes me think I may need to swap my gym trainers for some dancing shoes!!

        • I was born in the lovely Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It’s a culture that celebrates music and movement. I have lived in Canada for a significant portion of my life and it is my love of dance that fuels my spirit especially in the cold winter months. Escaping to a dance world is an awesome vacation, albeit it be in my bedroom, dancing to a song that just moves me. Celebrate and give thanks, for your body moves beautifully and don’t forget to add a smile to your routine. 🙂

      • Go do some country line dancing. Does not require a partner or you can do some partner round dancing. Been doing it for almost 30 years. 73 years old and the brain doesn’t miss a beat!!

  2. I’ve not danced in a long time. Reading this post seems like a reminder for me to put on my dancing shoes! I find it fascinating that dance classes beat the other type of classes for anxiety reduction. Thank you for sharing about the research!

  3. I can relate, Evelyn, I used to love to dance and did it often. It’s been way too long. I need to put my dancing shoes on. 🙂

  4. Always loved to dance…and now you’ve got me thinking I need to get back to it. Thanks for the reminder and the research Debbie.

  5. Try Argentine Tango when you dance. It`s more effective than dancing apart as shown in the photo of this article. The movement, plus the coordination to music/rhythm, between two people, has been shown to help Parkinson`s patients.

    • I’ve been dancing for about a year now. The best! It’s so social, I swing, hustle, learning some cha cha, can follow a,foxtrot, salsa. I’ve met a great group of friends. We dance everywhere, dance and smile for 4 hours straight. It’s a great workout and elevates your old from 0 to 100.

  6. This reminds me of a euphoric experience I had in 2018 while traveling to Punta Cana. My spouse & I went for a drink in the lobby bar, where there happened to be a live DJ playing the “Casper Slide”. A room full of about 15 strangers from all different countries recognized this tune and all danced to the steps. My heart rate was pumping and I was almost giggling with glee from this shared human experience. It was a pretty cool 4 minutes.

    • That’s a perfect example of what the article is talking about. Sounds awesome. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  7. Actually it does matter what kind of dance one does. In agreement with Federic who wrote that tango is better than the dance featured in that rather unfortunately chosen picture for the story, dances that have some sort of structure and meaning are far superior to the brain and to the mind than just moving about. Studies have shown that certain types of folkdance is beneficial in learning math, (where rhythm and timing are key) and I suspect that this would also be true of formal, paired dancing. These kind of dances have also been important for forming social behavior for centuries.

    • Thank you for the additional information, Juliet. The image was not meant to imply the best type of dancing to benefit your brain.

  8. tl;dr: Being a dancer helped me during my recovery from a back injury that had me hospitalized for a week and a half and walking with the aid of a walker for while thereafter. (I am in my late 30s.)
    The short version of the full story:
    A little over a year and a half ago, I was doing some last-minute straightening up before lunch guests arrived. In the process, I inadvertently re-herniated a disc or two, and eventually could not stand or walk. I had to “cruise” along furniture and countertops or use folding chairs as “crutches” in order to do anything—even to go to the bathroom—so that I didn’t fall down or pass out from the crushing pain in my lower spine.
    After it became clear that waiting for the next available doctor or PT appointment was a waste of time (I had a history of disc herniation, but never this bad), I was eventually carried out of our apartment by a crew of medics and placed in an ambulance for one of the most excruciating rides of my life. Every bump and curve had me seeing stars. And my pain tolerance threshold is usually very high.
    More than once, I wondered whether this were a life-altering injury. Would I walk independently again? Would I be able to drive a car? Would I dance again?
    I was in rehearsals at the time for an annual charity dance spectacular. I ended up having to drop out of all of my dance numbers, as the doctors said there was no way I’d recover in time and be strong enough to perform. With the help of my co-choreographer, I eventually finished choreographing my number from a rocking chair, at least. Thankfully, by the time the show happened, I was well enough to walk out on stage as one of the emcees…without my walker. As part of the program, I described how dance is so powerful that it even benefited me when I couldn’t move.
    While I was stuck in a hospital bed for a week and a half, feeling bad for myself and severely disappointed and frustrated at having to drop out of performing in the show, I found that mentally going through the choreography of the various dances helped me immensely. Simply closing my eyes and *imagining* myself dancing to the music in my head minimized my stress, brought down my heart rate, calmed my breathing. It was remarkable.
    Fast-forward… I got better.
    I returned to dancing this year. Standing onstage again as a dancer this time around was a wonderfully emotional experience, knowing how far I’ve come since that hospital bed. (A particular blessing from our daily morning prayers has extra significance for me now, as well. Loosely translated, it expresses thanks to God for “straightening the bent.” Yup…that was me for a while.) Every step, spin, jump, and gesture is that much more valuable to me now; I don’t take my mobility for granted for a moment. Dance is such a precious tool, and I am so lucky to have it at my disposal, ready to use at a moment’s notice. Truth be told…anyone can use it. Anyone. Anywhere.
    For example, we use dance as a stress-buster at home; sometimes, there’s nothing better than a spontaneous dance party in the kitchen to get everyone out of a funk and into a better mood. I think I’ll go start one now…

    • What a wonderful and uplifting story, Shifra. You were so smart to visualize the dance in your mind. I have no doubt that your brain and body benefitted. I hope the herniated disks have healed and do not act up again. However, if they do, you have the tools to handle it. Keep on dancing! 🙂

  9. John Harris Reply

    Attended an amazing, all-day brain studies conference yesterday with Mary Helen Immordino-Yang where so much that you have discussed here was validated. One of my favorite breakout sessions dealt with incorporating dance in the classroom to utilize those social and emotional experiences our brains crave to reinforce learning and retention. Beautiful article that I’ll be sharing with my colleagues and the parents of my students with autism.

  10. Julie Hein Reply

    I teach dance to actors with special needs. Year after year, I see the joy it brings them. More importantly, I see them comfortable working on what is, for many of them, a real challenge. The comfort comes with the music and the camaraderie; the growth comes from the “work” they do on listening to the timing, remembering the choreography, and performing in front of family and friends. I suspect that your article will appear on the websites/FB pages of many dance instructors. Thanks!

    • Thank you for sharing your wonderful experiences, Julie. And, I appreciate you sharing the joy in teaching dance. 🙂

  11. As a psychotherapist and lifelong dance teacher and practitioner, I cannot agree more with your recommendation to take up dancing! It makes me a bit sad to hear from so many of your readers above that they once practiced and loved dancing but are no longer doing so. I suspect that lack of a partner is a big barrier for many especially with the most common social dance options out there such as swing, ballroom, salsa, etc. And while there are fun non-partner options out there like country line dancing, zumba, and tap etc., the thing that is missing with those is a benefit that you did not mention….the comfort of human touch. So I have some recommendations…. Contra dance is a partner dance form that requires no experienced partner and is progressive so your partners change continuously anyway during the course of the dance. International Folk Dance, my personal favorite, requires no partner but draws from international dance traditions that include circle and line dances where the dancers are connected by a variety of hand holds. You can find these dance groups by simply googling contra dance or International Folk Dance with the name of any large or medium sized city near you. Happy hunting and happy dancing!

    • Beth,

      Thank you for your message and all the information. Sadly, I too am one of those who no longer dances. I used to love to. After a brain injury 12 years ago, it doesn’t come naturally anymore or feel good. Sometimes, I’ll turn the music up at home and dance around though. Thank you for your encouragement and example! 🙂

  12. Square Dancing is an ideal activity for active seniors because it has all of these elements: the commands, the execution, the unusual combinations of patterns, the music, the sociability, the human touch. It is also inter-generational, and an activity that one can do with one’s grandchildren. One is always interacting with the 7 other people in the square. It is easier than ballroom, so those with two left feet can join in and do a whole body exercise that includes a lot of laughter and fun.

  13. I was born in the lovely Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It’s a culture that celebrates music and movement. I have lived in Canada for a significant portion of my life and it is my love of dance that fuels my spirit especially in the cold winter months. Escaping to a dance world is an awesome vacation, albeit it be in my bedroom, dancing to a song that just moves me. Celebrate and give thanks, for your body moves beautifully and don’t forget to add a smile to your routine. 🙂

    • Thank you for your supporting example of how dance helps mental health, Tarrah. I’m glad you still dance – even if just in your bedroom. 🙂 I need to more!

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