We all love dancing, even those of us with two left feet. What makes dancing so special?

It is thrilling.

Our brain loves anticipation, probably even more than the actual rewards themselves. The pleasure that we derive from music is chiefly related to the intermingling of anticipation and surprise - you start listening to a tune, find a repeating pattern in it and then start anticipating the pattern. This anticipation is thrilling and so is the moment when anticipation and reality meet. However, too much predictability can start to get boring, so musicians throw in little elements of surprise - when the brain is anticipating something but gets something else, perhaps even better than what it was anticipating. These little surprises are pleasant for the brain too.

Dance demands a heightened level of anticipation and co-ordination. Its impossible to synchronize to a beat without anticipation (you cant hear the beat and then move, you have to move just at the right time to meet the beat that is going to come up). When mind and body anticipate and move as one, the pleasure is further magnified. The anticipation-reward-surprise pattern is also the reason why we enjoy watching someone else dance or perform.

It is deeply connected with happiness.

Like so many other aspects of human behavior, say laughter and happiness or handwriting and personality, dancing and happiness are connected at the hip. It doesn't matter what comes first. They both stimulate each other. If you are happy, you feel like dancing. That's why 2 year old babies do those cute impromptu jigs when they are happy. Reciprocally, if you dance, you start feeling happy. Dancing lifts our mood, makes us feel positive. We are just wired that way.

Happiness comes from a feeling of security and freedom. When you are secure, your brain's defense mechanisms can take a break. When you don't have a care in the world, your body language tends to be different. You are willing to stand up, make some noise and jump about, show yourself to the world - perhaps this behavior goes back to our hunting behavioral roots. This sense of security and random abandon is further amplified when we are part of a group. When you feel safe, secure, perhaps invincible to some extent - you feel like dancing. And indeed, when you dance, you feel on top of the world.

The benefits of meditation for brain and body are well documented. Emptying the mind, temporarily disconnecting all thoughts and focusing on just the present moment is a recipe for reduced stress, better cognition, improved memory, increased creativity and mental ability.

When you dance (or when you sing or play a sport or paint) you are focused on the present moment, you are in the zone, in an altered state of consciousness. For those of us who find it difficult to meditate (it is so difficult to stop your mind from wandering), dancing is a great way to get there without putting a lot of conscious effort into it.

It is an indicator of health.

Dancing needs multiple faculties to work together. There are some important physical aspects - lungs should be able to draw in more air, heart should be able to pump blood faster, spine and posture need to be strong and limbs should be in good working order. Even more importantly, the brain needs to be functioning well. The ability to listen and pick the beat, get different parts of your body to continuously move and align to a rhythm is indicative of a sound, well-developed mind.

This is probably one reason why dancing has been an integral part of our mating rituals too. In addition to health, dancing tells you how a person is wired. To be able to dance in co-ordination with a partner is indicative of some similarities in wiring, and compatibility.

It is therapeutic.

Music (and dance) are known to influence health through neurochemical changes in the following four domains: (i) reward, motivation and pleasure; (ii) stress and arousal; (iii) immunity; and (iv) social affiliation [1]. Dance (as compared to just music) also includes the all-round benefits that physical activity provides to the body and mind.

Dance Therapy has been used in work with traumatized patients and physical complaints like fibromyalgia and medically unexplained symptoms. It has also been used extensively in the work with elderly patients, with psychotic and schizophrenic patients, people with eating disorders, prison inmates dealing with violence and addiction issues, children and adults with different kinds of developmental disabilities, children with behavioral and relational problems, child survivors of war and torture and also with children in regular education. Dance Therapy has also been used to reduce stress and anxiety associated with chronic diseases and cancer. Because it uses non-verbal interaction it is suggested that this treatment is especially efficient for patients whose capacity to engage in a strictly verbal therapy is limited [2].

According to Dana Foundation, "Sustained training in music, dance or other arts strengthens the brain's attention system, which in turn may improve cognition more generally. Evidence for such cognitive transfer is accumulating.

A study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that activities such as playing musical instruments, reading, playing board games and dancing were said to be associated with a reduced risk of dementia [3].

A researcher sought to determine if ballroom dance had any effect on the cognitive abilities of healthy adults. The results of the research showed significant improvements in reasoning, visual processing, working memory and psycho-social variables on the sleep pattern index among the older adults in the community. The research concluded that dance was indeed a useful physical activity that aided in mitigating stress, anxiety and boosted social well being [4].

Dance has also been established as a therapeutic form of body movement aiding in the treatment of Parkinson's disease, overweight children and patients with serious mental illness [5].

A pilot research study sought to determine if dance had a positive effect on breast cancer survivors and the results were surprisingly positive. The results showed that the breast-cancer-specific quality-of-life measure improved significantly through dance [6].

Just Get Up And Dance

We know that dancing makes us happy, makes us feel good. Being in a happy state is good for our overall health. There is really no reason for us not to dance more often. Just get up and dance. Yes, even you, with those two left feet!

  1. Chanda, Mona Lisa, and Daniel J. Levitin. "The neurochemistry of music." Trends in cognitive sciences 17.4 (2013): 179-193.
  2. Kweh, Birgit. "Dance as therapy: An investigation of available evidence in the field of Dance/Movement Therapy, and plausible mechanisms behind potential effects." (2011).
  3. How Arts Training Improves Attention and Cognition. The Dana Foundation, September 14, 2009.
  4. Verghese, Joe, et al. "Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly." New England Journal of Medicine 348.25 (2003): 2508-2516.
  5. Alves, Heloisa. Dancing and the aging brain: the effects of a 4-month ballroom dance intervention on the cognition of healthy older adults. Diss. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013.
  6. Sandel, Susan L., et al. "Dance and Movement Program Improves Quality‐of‐Life Measures in Breast Cancer Survivors." Cancer nursing 28.4 (2005): 301-309.