The notion that dance is good for you must surely be self-evident. Taking exercise is better than not taking exercise, and leaving aside the dangers of suddenly doing a lot of exercise where one had been doing none at all, we can say that virtually all exercise is good.
But our headline offers a second thought: that among activity dance has a particularly profound and important part to play. The aim of this article is to consider that claim, and see where it leads.
For a long time it has been thought that dance must play an important part if life, for all such evidence as we have suggests that dance has existed in human societies for as long as story-telling and cave painting. The general view is that it has great benefit in expressing a sense of community and oneness within a group setting.
However in the last few years it has become clear that there is much more to dance than this, with the view being expressed that dance not only has a unique place in social groups, but it also offers an unexpected set of benefits to people who partake of the art – at any level.
This debate was stimulated by an article in New Scientist magazine (issue 3035, 22 August 2015) “Circuit train your brain,” which highlighted the point that “The brains of exercisers look different to those of their more sedentary counterparts”.
This of course is not new. But what is new is the fact that, as the article continues, “Researchers are starting to find more specific effects related to different kinds of exercise.”
One of the first findings that has arisen from recent study is that although walking as an activity is better than doing no activity, to maximise the benefits to the body and the brain one needs to partake both of exercise and an activity that enhances one’s strength.
Thus a gentle stroll is fine, but really one needs more than this.
Another finding is that if one wants children to focus on (for example) a maths test, they should exercise first. Then, according to studies, the physical activity will enhance brain activity in such a way that the results of the maths test improve.
As a result of this, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois amended the standard recommendation that children get an hour of exercise a day to suggesting that it be spread across the day. A break for physical activity every two hours is particularly effective at stimulating learning, it seems.
Meanwhile research at the University of Rome has found that twice weekly sessions of coordinative exercise helped children do better on tests that required concentration and helped them ignore distractions.
In short, practising complicated movements seems to improve the ability to ignore distraction and improves attention.
Indeed the Illinois research reached the conclusion that even small gains in fitness through additional activity leads to measurable benefits in brain function and cognition. As the programme leader said of the students, “They’re going from being unfit to slightly less unfit, but we’re still finding benefits to brain function and cognition.”
This was backed up by research from the University of North Florida. A couple of hours of activity of the type children enjoy has a dramatic effect on working memory.
But what activity is best?
The researchers all found that the most positive results in terms of brain function came when the activity incorporated a combination of two things: activity that on the one hand challenges the sense of the position and orientation of the body, and on the other introduces issues such as considering where we are vis a vis other people or objects, how fast we are moving and where we are going.
In short, by far the best activity is activity that challenges us to balance, think and move at the same time. New Scientist gives two examples of such activity. One is surfing, and one is dance.
Peter Lovatt, a dance psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire clarified this finding by emphasising the need for there to be an element of improvisation in the dance, and has argued that the trick is to experiment moving in different ways.
This does not necessarily mean that absolutely free-form dance is what is required, but rather one benefits most from dance that allows the dancer the freedom to improvise to some degree, while at the same time considering exactly where one is and where one is going. Thus a partner dance that allows improvisation seems to fit the bill as the ultimate form of exercise for schools not situated next to an Atlantic beach where the waves roll in and the surfing club can be active most of the year round.
Interestingly other research cited in New Scientist also stresses that dance is a way to boost creativity. And researchers found an added bonus: even short bouts of the activity can reduce cravings for sugary snacks.
Further research suggests that the changes that occur from taking up dance (or indeed similar activities) can last until well into old age. The particular benefit in terms of dance is that while most practitioners of athletics, five aside football, weight lifting etc feel the need to stop by the time middle age sets in, dance is an activity that can be continued throughout life.
Indeed if one visits any of the huge number of adult dance clubs that exist in the UK today, it is clear that the age range of practitioners of dance forms from ballroom to modern jive is 16 to 80+.
So it seems we have found not only a reason for dance, but a huge, lifelong benefit that derives from dance. It stimulates creativity and divergent thinking, it sets up the mind for mental activity, improves educational test and exam results, and (some results suggest) it can be active in reducing the chances of getting dementia.
It is in fact, one of the most powerful tools in the school’s arsenal in terms of both improving exam results, and helping the pupils and students prepare for a healthier life, which perhaps can make us wonder why schools don’t do more of it.