How Dance is Good for the Brain; MS and Dance Dance Revolution

A new study suggests that Dance Dance Revolution may be a helpful, not to mention, awesome tool for people with MS to help decrease cognitive and physical impairment.

From the article above:

“The video dancing game provides a good platform for our research because it addresses multiple issues that MS clinicians and patients face. We think our data will not only help doctors and therapists make good clinical recommendations, but provide an evidence based, in-home tool for patients that helps overcome access and cost issues associated with long term physical therapy,” says Anne Kloos, PhD, PT, NCS, associate clinical professor of health and rehabilitation sciences in the Ohio State College of Medicine.

I haven’t played it in about half a dozen years, but for a while in law school, I played a lot of DDR. I had a bit of an unfair advantage over my housemates at the time, having been a serious dancer for many years, but still, I was never anywhere near as good as this kid:

DDR is a lot of fun, and as a dancer and nerd, I think it’s interesting because in some ways, it’s dance-like, but it’s not really dance. It’s music-synchronized movement, like aerobics or many types of workout videos, but it’s not dance.

Dance is movement synchronized to music, sound, silence, and/or an idea, but elevated to art. You can draw and make art, but not all drawing is art. Writing, sewing, cooking, playing music, all kinds of things can be art, but aren’t always. I’ve seen people who can turn aerobics and DDR into art, too. Dance is what we call movement that is art. (Now that I think about it, I kind of wish we had different words for all kinds of activities when they’re elevated to the level of art.) Even if we’re not very good at dancing (we all know who we are), we still call what we do dance.

I see why DDR is useful for the purposes of this study. It’s much simpler, cognitively and physically, than any style of dance, and thus easier to study. But having done both, I can tell you that I can feel my brain working differently when I dance than when I play DDR. I’m willing to bet that dance is strengthens the connections in our brains much more effectively than DDR would.

I asked my dear friend and dance teacher, Nica Tran (www.verynica.com) about my theory. Nica teaches modern dance, belly dance, and yoga to children and adults of all ages. Some of her classes are in nursing homes, with elderly students.

She told me that the best thing people can do to prevent Alzheimer’s is to dance, because dance forces your brain to create and strengthen neurological connections in a way nothing else (not even DDR) does.

Of course, MS and Alzheimer’s don’t have much in common, and this isn’t to analogize the two. But. We’ve known for a while that using your brain regularly, in different ways (crossword puzzles, etc.) can make your brain more resilient and resistant to Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life. I haven’t seen much research into this sort of neurological resilience and MS, but I think this DDR study is the beginning.

“When people dance, not only do the right and left brain talk to each other, but we create even more connections,” Nica said. “When you go to a fitness class, it’s good for you, but your brain is turned off. In dance,” she added, “your brain is on. You have to be able to do something on the right, and the left, and in retrograde [backwards], and to different rhythms, faster and slower. You need to be able to memorize movement.”

When I dance with my friends in our dance troupe, and when I take Nica’s classes, I can feel my brain working, but in a wholly different way from the way thinking feels at work or school. Listening closely to music, using your body to respond and interpret music, to remember the last bits and predict the next bits, and to attend to where you are in space relative to the dancers around you, are just the beginning of the simultaneous tasks your brain needs to do to be able to dance.

Nica also pointed out that the Hindus say dance is the highest form of meditation. Which we also should all be doing.

So, dance. Go take a class, go to a club, learn a new style. Folk dance, classical dance, partner dances, line dances, dubstep, whatever. Your brain will thank you. For a long time.

[Yes, actually, throwing in "dubstep" was just an excuse for me to end with my new favorite video. You're welcome.]

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2 thoughts on “How Dance is Good for the Brain; MS and Dance Dance Revolution

  1. I’ve never stopped to consider the benefits of dancing on the brain over another form of exercize. This makes so much sense.

    Also, I love this: “Dance is movement synchronized to music, sound, silence, and/or an idea, but elevated to art.”

    And I love that dancer in the dubstep video.

    • thank you! i think his name is marquese scott. he just blows my mind, and i could watch him all day. i made up the part about art- i know that playing ddr isn’t dance, and neither is aerobics (usually) but when i try to figure out why, i’m left with having to describe the nature of art. so that must be what it is, i guess.

      i had never really thought about dance and the brain either, but then when nica told me about how good it is for her older students and the connection to alzheimer’s, it all made so much sense. and, as you know, learning choreography is completely different from learning anything else.

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