Whatever our age, dancing can have a hugely beneficial effect on our physical and mental wellbeing. It can help us to maintain or build muscle tone, flexibility and stamina, while also releasing endorphins which can ease symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Some people, however, appear to have a natural talent which allows them to pick up dance steps with apparent ease, while others find moving gracefully difficult.
It is often thought that some people are “born to dance”, while others have “two left feet” – but in fact, a combination of real-life experience and science shows us that almost anyone can learn to dance well with the right training.
It starts at only a few months old, when babies are able recognise the beat of a piece of music and can move along to the rhythm. In fact, we aren’t the only species to respond rhythmically to music – parrots and one species of elephant can too.
Studying our fleet-footed feathered friends may help to reveal more of how dance has evolved, and why it may simply be down to social bonding and assessing potential mates.
But being born with the ability to respond to music is far from the whole story, and many other factors determine what enables some people to progress to be professional dancers while others shuffle awkwardly at the school disco.
Genetic factors that promote social communication by changing the levels of chemicals in our brain are more common in professional dancers, giving them an enhanced ability to express emotion through dance.
The amazing benefits of dance training
But even if we lack the genetic and physical traits of the professionals, we can still progress through hard work. To dance requires the integration of music, movement, and spatial awareness, all of which are controlled by the brain. It is here that we see the remarkable effects of years of training encoded.
Dance training induces subtle changes in the brain. This occurs by a process known as plasticity, where the brain adapts in response to experiences. Dancing can increase plasticity throughout the brain, even in the elderly.
When we dance, the premotor cortex and supplementary motor area, which sit near the front of our brain, link our memories of previous actions through training with our spatial awareness. Signals travel to the primary motor cortex, which relays these instructions to the muscles via our spinal cord and the dance begins.
The more often we complete this task, the easier it becomes for our body to do so without conscious effort. This is the neural basis of muscle memory, which we hear professional dancers talk about.
Meanwhile, at the back of our brain, our cerebellum receives important information, including messages from our auditory and visual systems. And an area called the anterior vermis helps to synchronise our dance steps to music.
The cerebellum also regulates balance and coordination and receives information from the vestibular organs, which tell us we feel dizzy. Interestingly, the area that receives vestibular input is much smaller in classical ballet dancers. Through plasticity, their training de-couples the input that could cause dizziness from the feeling of dizziness, leading to beautiful pirouettes and fantastic turns. Here, training is more important than genetics.
Dedication and training can help dancers to refine and develop their art, suggesting that all of us can become better dancers.
It is a worthwhile pursuit, as dance has many benefits. Argentine tango training can improve gait and posture in Parkinson’s disease patients, while life-long dancing reduces our risk of developing dementia.
Thanks to the plasticity of the brain, even non hearing dancers can learn to dance to an extraordinary level, illustrating the inclusivity of dance and its ability to bring people together.
Using mirrors and following visual cues such as copying teachers’ moves allows deaf dancers to acquire the physical movements of dance.
To achieve their hugely impressive timing to music, non hearing dancers report using vibrations to follow the beat of the music. Their brains have adaptations in an area called the auditory cortex, which is activated in response to vibrations instead of sound – another example of plasticity.
With the arrival of hearing-impaired dance troupes such as DMD, who integrate elements of sign language into their performances, dance accessibility can only continue to grow.
Although some brains are wired to dance thanks to differences in the genes contributing to emotion and communication, we can all re-wire our brains to be better dancers while enjoying the many health and social benefits that dance can bring.
Gayle Doherty is affiliated with Dance St Andrews Community Interest Company. This is not-for-profit organisation that promotes wellbeing through dance across the lifespan.
Dance to Enhance Neural Synchrony
Rhythmic patterns are omnipresent throughout nature, such as the rising and setting of the sun, the movement of ocean waves, the beating of the heart, or the inhalation and exhalation of respiration (Strogatz, 2004). Natural systems are periodic, persistent, and often represented as cyclical waves (i.e., sine waves; Winfree, 1967).
Along with this rhythmic nature, many natural systems are complex (Strogatz, 2004; Ma’ayan, 2017). Complex systems are open systems, adhere to non-linear dynamics, and are self-organizing in nature, moving from disorganization to organization (Kauffman, 1993; Corning, 1995; Kaplan and Glass, 1997). Examples of complex systems include the organization of DNA, insect colonies, or schools of fish in the sea (Ma’ayan, 2017).
These systems are emergent, with the end outcomes often being unpredictable due to the non-linear dynamics that are at play (Kaplan and Glass, 1997). The brain is also a complex, self-organizing system, which organizes in activity patterns known as oscillations [e.g., theta wave (4–8 Hz); alpha wave (8–12 Hz); beta wave (12–30 Hz); Buzsáki, 2006]. This continuous rhythmic activity meaningfully encodes information and creates our conscious experience (Buzsáki, 2006; Gallotto et al., 2017; Cebolla and Cheron, 2019).
Recent theoretical work suggests that movement is inherent to or perhaps drives consciousness (Cebolla and Cheron, 2019). Rhythms of the body are important throughout life. The first action of the nervous system is movement, and it is through the spontaneous movement of the fetus that the body and brain can correctly develop.
Early in life, motor movement actually propels cortical brain activity (called spindle oscillations; Khazipov et al., 2004; Buzsáki, 2006), and these movements help in the development of cognitive skills like language, as well as social and emotional intelligence (Zentner and Eerola, 2010; Cirelli et al., 2014; Trehub and Cirelli, 2018).
Later, movement propels hippocampal and cortical oscillations, which increase synaptic plasticity, facilitate enhanced communication between brain areas, and optimize brain functioning throughout adulthood and into old age (Sirota and Buzsáki, 2005; Headley and Paré, 2017). That is, brain-body connectivity is bidirectional: oscillatory rhythms in the brain drive movement and movement drives oscillatory rhythms.
Dance, as a multifaceted movement form, is truly an intrinsic human behavior that emerges as early as infancy. Babies move in sync with musical rhythms, with the synchronicity between the movement and sound related to the experience of pleasure (Zentner and Eerola, 2010; Fujii et al., 2014; Trehub and Cirelli, 2018).
This synchronicity of movement to music can also be seen on any dance floor. When humans hear music, they are driven to move in tune or entrain to the beat, with this rhythmic entrainment leading to positive affective states (Phillips-Silver et al., 2010; Trost et al., 2017).
In this manuscript, we synthesize findings from anthropology, sociology, psychology, dance pedagogy, and neuroscience to propose The Synchronicity Hypothesis of Dance, which states that humans dance to enhance both intra- and inter-brain synchrony. We explore this idea through several avenues.
First, we examine evolutionary theories of dance, which suggest that dance drives interpersonal coordination.
Second, we examine fundamental movement patterns, which emerge throughout development and are omnipresent across cultures of the world.
Third, we examine how each of the seven neurobehaviors increases intra- and inter-brain synchrony.
Fourth, we examine the neuroimaging literature on dance to identify the brain regions most involved in and affected by dance. The findings presented here support our hypothesis that humans dance for the purpose of intrinsic reward (Richard et al., 2013; Robinson et al., 2016), which as a result of dance-induced increases in neural synchrony, leads to enhanced interpersonal coordination.
Throughout the manuscript, the term “neural synchrony” refers to oscillatory neural activity. Neural oscillations emerge as a result of population-level neuronal firing and enable effective communication within and between brain structures (Koepsell et al., 2010).
Neuronal oscillations, recorded in humans primarily through the technique of electroencephalography (EEG), can be quantified in terms of power (i.e., amplitude) and coherence (i.e., correlated power and/or phase between multiple brain areas or between people; Figure 1). When we discuss intra-brain synchrony, we refer to coordinated neural activity or neural coupling within or between brain regions at an individual level. When we discuss inter-brain synchrony, we refer to the neural coupling between people.
Inter-brain synchrony is measured by the hyperscanning technique, which is a term coined in 2002 that refers to the simultaneous recording of brain activity between two or more individuals. To explore intra- and inter-brain synchrony, we include studies that have recorded brain activity utilizing EEG, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), or functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which each utilize unique statistical methods to quantify neural coupling but use the general approach of correlating neural activity between brain regions or between people (Hasson et al., 2004; Liu et al., 2018a).
Though EEG measures neural activity directly through population-level neuronal firing, fMRI and fNIRS measure neural activity indirectly through changes in blood-oxygenation level (i.e., the hemodynamic response). Each of these techniques has unique advantages, with EEG having an excellent temporal resolution, fMRI having an excellent spatial resolution, and fNIRS being superior to fMRI in terms of its temporal dynamics and tolerance for motion.
The Synchronicity Hypothesis of Dance
Historically, dance as an art form has been viewed by Western scholars from a limited and Eurocentric perspective (primarily placing value on dances with Western European lineage and aesthetic preferences, such as ballet; Amin, 2016; Walker, 2019). However, when we think of dance more comprehensively and inclusively, we can include other contemporary movement forms such as hip hop, improvisation, and authentic movement, as well as non-Western traditional folk dances. To help us think about dance, we must expand our perspective of dance as a pure art form.
Arriving at one concrete definition of dance is difficult, as dancing serves an array of purposes for human populations in vastly different cultural contexts. Worldwide, dance has traditionally been integral to religious rituals and rites of passage (Hanna, 1988). This can be seen in contexts as disparate as the Salpuri shamanic dances of Korea, the Sun Dance of the American Plains Indians, and even in the ecstatic dances of the Dionysian cults of ancient Greece (Lawrence, 1993; Lonsdale, 2001; Park et al., 2002).
Previous definitions of dance have focused on anthropological and sociological perspectives (Hanna et al., 1979; Reed, 1998; Kaeppler, 2000). For example, dance anthropologist, Joann Kealiinohomoku, defines dance as “a transient mode of expression performed in a given form and style by the human body moving in space.” She goes on to note that “dance occurs through purposefully selected and controlled rhythmic movements; the resulting phenomenon is recognized as dance both by the performer and the observing members of a given group” (Williams, 1976).
Previous scientific work has proposed several neural and biobehavioral functions of dance including: (1) attention focus/flow; (2) basic emotional experiences; (3) imagery; (4) communication; (5) self-intimation; and (6) social cohesion (Christensen et al., 2017).
Here, we create a new definition of dance that encompasses both of these lenses, and that focuses on dance as a human behavior that emerges from the brain: The Neurocentric Definition of Dance (Box 2). This definition provides a neuroscientific framework from which to investigate how the brain manifests dance and movement forms, as well as the effects of dance on the brain.
The neurocentric definition of dance.
Dance encompasses an unlimited array of movement patterns that: (1) are spontaneously or intentionally generated; (2) are manifested for the purpose of ritual, performance, or social interactions; and (3) engage a diverse network of brain regions that support neurobehavioral processes in seven distinct areas:
- • Sensory
- • Motor
- • Cognitive
- • Social
- • Emotional
- • Rhythmic
- • Creative.
Fundamental movement patterns codified in dance.
Taking note of the developmental movement patterns (described above) and following from the work of Rudolf Laban and Laban Movement Analysis (LMA), Irmgard Bartenieff developed a set of movement principles known as the Bartenieff Fundamentals (Berardi, 2004). Bartenieff noted a series of six movement patterns that humans move through continually, first as infants then later in varying forms throughout the life cycle. These patterns were later codified by her student Peggy Hackney as the Fundamental Patterns of Total Body Connectivity. These six neurodevelopmental patterns of movement are described below and visually presented in Figure 3.
1. Breath: The most important adaptation after birth is the transition to breathing, which occurs approximately 10 s after birth (Hillman et al., 2012). Breath is the first of the movement patterns to develop in a newborn and is essential for life. Respiration occurs in the body on a micro-level via cellular respiration and at a macro-level via the functioning of the lungs. Recently, respiration has also been linked to global brain oscillations, concomitantly occurring with theta oscillations (Tort et al., 2018a,b). For dancers, breath is especially important. Respiration rate and the increased exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide dictates the ability to engage in vigorous movement. Additionally, breath allows for the phrasing of movement as well as the growing and shrinking of the body in space, which helps shift the musculoskeletal structure of the body.
2. Naval Radiation (Core-Distal): Naval radiation patterns of movement are based on the connectivity between the center (core) of the body, and the distal ends of the body (hands/feet/head/tail). During these movements, the core is engaged, and movement radiates outward from this point, with movements contracting in and radiating out. These patterns of movement are observed in starfish and other sea creatures that use radiation to locomote. In human development, these patterns of movement can be observed in human infants with the Moro reflex, which can be seen when a baby is startled (Futagi et al., 2012). In a dance context, core-distal connectivity includes any type of movement in which the core provides stability to facilitate mobility through the distal ends of the body (e.g., jumping jacks).
3. Spinal (Head-Tail): Spinal patterns are based on the connectivity of the central axis, with the endpoints being the head and tail. This includes mobility of the vertebral column but also includes the movement of other axial structures, such as the digestive tract and the spinal cord. Spinal movements are associated with the horizontal plane and incorporate basic movements of the spine including flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion. Head-tail connectivity is expressed as curvature in the spine and can be seen in cat-cow pose (Chakravakasana) in yoga. In jazz dance, a “body roll” or any undulating movement of the spine exhibits head-tail connectivity.
4. Homologous (Upper-Lower): Homologous patterns are based on the differentiation between the upper and lower body. In these movement patterns, the upper body is engaged in dynamic movements, while the lower body provides stability and locomotion. These movements manifest in the sagittal plane and are often symmetrical such as jumps, push-ups, or burpees. The upper and lower body may move in opposition to provide a sense of balance, such as in balancing postures where the legs ground down while the arms reach up. Conversely, any “inversion” in which the weight is primarily held by the upper body engages upper-lower connectivity (e.g., handstands).
5. Homolateral (Body Half): Homolateral patterns are based on the differentiation between the right and left sides of the body. In these movement patterns, one side of the body stabilizes while the other side of the body moves. These movements exist in the vertical plane and are associated with asymmetrical movements. In humans, this movement pattern emerges with the ability to crawl and can be seen in hopping or skipping. Later, this body half ability helps develop horizontal eye tracking, which is necessary for early literacy skills (Karatekin, 2007).
6. Contralateral (Diagonal): Contralateral patterns are based on the connectivity of an upper limb to an opposite lower limb and involve the crossing of the center of the body. Diagonal patterns are the most evolutionary and developmentally advanced forms of movement and include complex human movements such as walking, spiraling, and turning. These diagonal forms help develop vertical eye tracking also necessary for early literacy skills.
Cross-lateral connectivity (i.e., contralateral/diagonal) is the culminating exercise in Bartenieff’s series of fundamental movement patterns. Bartenieff hypothesized that to fully prepare the brain and body for cross-lateral integration (i.e., the ability to cross the midline of the body), it is important to first also internalize head-tail, homologous, and homolateral movement patterns. By repeatedly returning to and refining these six patterns, Bartenieff and her students hypothesized that individuals could achieve more easeful, efficient, pain-free, and enjoyable movement.
These patterns of movement are present in many forms of dance training and are included intentionally in some contemporary somatic practices such as Body-Mind Centering (developed by Bartenieff’s student Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen). At present, limited research has been conducted to investigate the effectiveness of these innate patterns of movement to brain function and physiology (Chatfield and Barr, 1994).
The primary work in this field has focused on the connection between movement patterns, quantified through LMA, and their connection to emotional expression or the expressive quality of movement (Bernardet et al., 2019; Melzer et al., 2019; Tsachor and Shafir, 2019). More recently, LMA in combination with EEG has been used to extract neural signatures linked to expressive human movement (Cruz-Garza et al., 2014).
Additionally, compared to traditional physical activity, movement programs that include Bartenieff Fundamentals have also proven more effective at improving cognitive issues in individuals with mild cognitive impairment (Kim, 2018). More research is needed to fully understand how engagement in these innate patterns of movement can improve motor and other neurobehavioral functions in both healthy and clinical populations.
. . . .
This definition sets the stage for our neurocentric, evolutionary hypothesis of dance. As we have discussed previously, the brain spontaneously generates states of coordinated activity that lead to our experience of consciousness. Heightened coordinated brain states are associated with an enhanced ability to learn and remember information, heightened affective states, enhanced flow states, and higher levels of prosociality (Buzsáki, 2006), which we will discuss in more depth below.
We hypothesize that dance evolved as a spontaneous process to drive coherent electrical activity between brain regions. As the physical body becomes tuned to either external (e.g., music) or internal (e.g., breathing) rhythms, these rhythms entrain regions of the brain connected to the external world (auditory and sensory) and subsequently recruit other, more internally focused brain areas (motor, cognitive, and emotional).
This entrainment creates enhanced synchronicity (i.e., increased power and coherence) between these areas, promoting enhanced neurobehavioral effects in sensory, motor, cognitive, social, emotional, rhythmic, and creative brain regions. We further hypothesize that when we engage in dance in a group, brain dynamics between individuals in the group become synchronized—that is, dance enhances both intra- and inter-brain synchrony. We term this The Synchronicity Hypothesis of Dance. We engage in dance for intrinsic reward to drive brain synchrony both within and between individuals, which leads to the behavioral outcome of enhanced interpersonal coordination (Figure 2).
reference link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7832346/
Source: The Conversation