In many shamanic societies, people who complain of being disheartened...or depressed would be asked, 'When did you stop dancing?' …This is because dancing is a universal healing salve." - Gabrielle Roth

All dancers know the feeling.....  The elation that comes from moving to music in rhythm, the relaxation that results from concentrating on the beat and forgetting one's cares. Check out Barb’s article below on the link between dance & health, and the research behind it!!

BARB’S PERSONAL STORY and supporting research

I was raised with a strong emphasis on academic success—taught to be scientific and to believe in hard data.  So when I had a “mystical healing experience,” it rocked my world.  

It happened when I was in college at the University of Chicago.   There were lots of extra-curricular "foreign folk dance" classes on campus and I loved to dance, so I took them all!  One day a folk dance teacher announced that auditions would be held for a top notch, performing Balkan dance troupe.  I was very excited and signed up to audition.  But the night before the audition I got really sick with a sore throat, runny nose, coughing and sneezing.  The auditions were held only once every other year, so I went anyway.

It was a grueling experience.  We danced for several hours straight, learning long, complex moves that were done in synchrony by all the dancers, holding hands in a line.  When you danced correctly, you moved in unison with the group.  Mistakes put you out of synch with everyone else. I was so laser-focused on the dance steps, I barely noticed the time passing. 

Hours later, I left the audition sweaty and exhausted, and as I walked outside into the cold Chicago winter, I realized my sore throat was completely gone.  My nose wasn’t running, and I wasn’t sneezing.  I was totally back to normal. And the illness did not return.  For decades, I thought of this as my life’s one mystical experience.  

The next week I got word that I did not pass the audition.  I was disappointed but continued taking many folk dance classes throughout college and always loved them! 

Now, as a full time dance teacher, I better understand what happened to me that day.  The fact is that I have come to my Salsa class many times with a sore foot, strained knee, or just feeling worn out.  But during and after class I feel astonishingly better. Nothing hurts and I have loads of energy.  

As many readers know, I teach Salsa Rueda (formal name: “Rueda de Casino”), a group form of Salsa where the whole class dances together in synchrony.   I always feel better when I leave class. But this is not magic; there’s plenty of science to explain it. 

We have long known that exercise, listening to favorite music, and socializing all lift people’s mood and improve well-being.  And there is also research on the additional benefits of being part of a group that is moving in synchrony---which happens in both Rueda and folk dancing.

For example, a study was done in which scientists set up a “silent disco.” Volunteers learned moves and then danced them in groups.  Each volunteer wore headphones through which music and verbal instructions could be heard.  One group of volunteers were taught dance steps that they all did in synchrony on the disco floor.  In another group, each participant learned the moves but then did them in a different order. So they weren’t moving in synch when they danced together on the floor.  In the final group, not only did the participants do the dance moves in a different order but they also heard different music through their headphones.  So the last group did not move in synch, or even in the same rhythm. 

The researchers found that the participants in the first group, who danced in synchrony, had much higher pain tolerance after dancing.  Pain tolerance, commonly considered a proxy for endorphin release, was measured by squeezing a blood pressure cuff before and after dancing.  The group that danced in synchrony was able to withstand significantly more pain after dancing, than the other two groups.

And in addition to that, the group that danced in synchrony had increased feelings of closeness and community with the others in their group.  The non-synchronous groups didn’t show the same level of social bonding.  

Another interesting finding was that the effect was stronger when the synchronous movements required more exertion.  So dancing faster for example had more impact than dancing slow.

These findings don’t surprise me a bit. I’ve seen "up close and personal" the tremendous benefits that synchronized group dancing confers on people—bonding them to one another, building community, and improving mood and health.   

In Rueda dancing, people dance in a circular formation with many partner exchanges. So it feels like the whole group is really dancing together and the experience is exhilarating!  

When I began teaching Rueda, I saw many of my students become fast friends and hang out together outside of class. At the end of every week the gang had a ritual.  Text messages flew, as they decided where the best venue was to meet-up and go out.

I have to admit, I thought I had just lucked into a fabulous group of people who were both good dancers and had great community spirit.  But when I visited other Rueda groups, I realized my gang wasn’t unusual.  In fact, every Rueda group I’ve seen develops remarkably warm connections.  

On an individual level, many of my students have told me about dance experiences that remind me of my own…  I’ve been told that the Rueda class has helped some students alleviate depression, as surely as a medical intervention.  I’ve also been told that becoming part of the Rueda group made the difference in feeling at home in the area, after moving from out of town.  Countless people have told me it’s the brightest time in their week. And I literally know of two east coast colleagues, who don’t know each other, who both named their dance studios “Dance Therapy Studio!”

I also want to address here why research on the benefits of synchronous movement is particularly important today…..

Research has shown that people have become lonelier and more socially isolated (i.e. fewer social connections) over the last several decades.  Loneliness is a subjective state of feeling. Social connection is more objective and encompasses matters such as how many people one talks to in a day, whether one lives alone or with others, etc.

This trend toward being more alone was described by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam in his seminal book, "Bowling Alone,” published in 2000.  Putnam said that bowling leagues, Elks Lodges, neighborhood card games, PTA participation and even regular family dinners, had all declined since the 1970s.  In addition to joining fewer clubs and organizations, people were less connected to neighbors and had fewer friends and confidantes than a few decades ago.  And people reported having less trust in strangers.

Bowling Alone was published some years ago, but the issue of social connection is still important today.  A May 2018 Cigna Insurance Company survey of 20,000 adults found that roughly half viewed themselves as lonely according to the UCLA Loneliness Scale.  Surprisingly,  younger generations were harder hit than the elderly.   There has been some thought that the use of devices creates more superficial relationships than face to face interactions, though there isn’t widespread agreement on this.

In any case, loneliness and isolation are also correlated with significant health risks. On average, it has been reported that people who say they feel lonely have a 26 percent increased risk of death compared to those who are not lonely. Those who live alone have a 32 percent increased risk of death, and those who are socially isolated have a 29 percent increased risk of death.

In the Harvard Business Review, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy quantified these risks by saying that loneliness and weak social connections are factors “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.” 

A meta-study published in 2016 found similar results. A meta-study is a “study of studies.” The large sample size of a meta-study makes it powerful. Researchers examined 23 separate studies that involved 181,000 adults.  Among this group, 4,628 heart-related events (e.g. heart attacks, angina attacks, etc) and approximately 3,000 strokes were recorded. The data showed that loneliness/social isolation was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart or angina attacks and a 32% increased risk of a stroke.  The authors cautioned that the correlation that was found does not necessarily imply causation. The causal relationship could go in the other direction, or there could be a third factor involved. More studies may help unravel these relationships.   But the results do legitimize the public health concerns about the importance of social contacts.

CNN reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta has suggested that society start viewing loneliness as another chronic disease that requires long term treatment strategies. The mechanism by which social isolation is bad for health may be that lonely people feel chronically threatened and vulnerable, unleashing an ongoing "fight or flight" response.  As a result, the stress hormone cortisol would become chronically high, and that is connected to cardiovascular disease, stroke and hypertension. Stress also elevates levels of a protein in the body called fibrinogen, which prepares for possible injury or blood loss. But too much fibrinogen raises blood pressure and causes fatty deposits in the arteries which can lead eventually to heart attacks and stroke.  

The reality is that even if an individual is not particularly disconnected or lonely, all lives have some component of these feelings.  The UCLA Loneliness Scale recognizes that some level of loneliness is part of normal life experience. This suggests that participating in synchronous movement activities is a good way to boost well-being for people in general.

The take-away message here is that synchronous group movement like group dancing is a powerful tool for improving well-being.

Don't like to dance?  
No problem.  
Studies have shown that rowing in synchrony elevates pain threshold compared to rowing alone.   Walking in step with others, choral singing, and synchronized swimming---all have been found to enhance social bonding. Even small movements like tapping your fingers in time with someone else makes you feel more trusting of them than if you tapped out of time!!  

So join a band or better yet a marching band, a church choir, or take walks with friends and step in unison, or take a Rueda class!! These are all great ways to enhance social connection and well-being!   

References: (by Dr. Sanjay Gupta)  

Additional articles on dance, music and health:

1.  Dancing for Health: Conquering and Preventing Stress by Judith Lynne Hanna, AltaMira Press, a Division of Rowman and Littlefield Publishers; 2006 (Book listing from Hanna’s website)

2.   “Dancing Helps Boys With ADHD.”  Research project by Barbro Renck of Karlstad University and Erna Gronlund of the University College of Dance in Stockhom, June 8, 2006, and reported in The American Journal of Dance Therapy. 

3.  “The Mental Health Benefits of Music” by Darlene Oakley, August 18, 2010.,0

4.  “Shall We Dance?  An Exploration of the Perceived Benefits of Dancing on Well-Being” by Cynthia Quiroga Murcia, Gunter Kreutz, Stephen Clift, and Stephan Bongard; Arts and Health, Volume 2, Issue 2, Sept. 2010, pages 149-163.
Abstract at:

5.  “The Art of Healing: Visual and Performing Arts Take on a Bigger Role in Patient Recovery” by Beth Baker, Washington Post, August 17, 2004 Page HE01.  

6.  “Friends for Life: An Emerging Biology of Emotional Healing,” by Daniel Goleman;  New York Times, October 10, 2006.

7. Socializing Appears to Delay Memory Problems” by Tara Parker-Pope.  Reported in the New York Times Health Section, March 1, 2011. 

8.  "Dancing Away an Anxious Mind: A Memoir About Overcoming Panic Disorder" by Robert Rand. Copyright 2004 by University of Wisconsin Press.

9. "Dance Away Stress and Depression" by Christy Matta, MA, As reported in Psychology Today.  Link at:

10. "Hospitals Find That Alternative Therapies Are a Good Way to Attract Paying Patients," Washington Post Health Section, Nov. 15, 2011.  Link: This article discusses how hospitals increasingly offer art/music therapy to inpatients not only because it can be effective treatment and it helps attract patients to that hospital.

11.  "Brain Rules: Twelve Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School," by John Medina, Pear Press (P.O. Box 70525; Seattle, WA), Copyright 2008.  Professor Medina, is a developmental molecular biologist at the U. of Washington School of Medicine and the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.  He explains how the brain functions at a molecular level and applies the results to how human beings can most effectively work, learn, and function.   His first rule is that exercise improves brain power. "To improve your thinking skills, move.”  

He also says that "on mental tests, exercisers outperform couch potatoes on long term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, and fluid-intelligence tests.”  AND, if "couch potatoes" start an aerobic exercise program, their cognivitve abilities improve. In fact, "couch potatoes" who are fidgetty, actually do a little better on mental skills than "couch potatoes" who don't fidget!  

12.  "Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination," by Robert Jourdain,  Avon Books, copyright 1997.  The book discusses the impact of music on the mind.  Its final chapter on "ecstasy" begins with findings of how helpful music can be in restoring Parkinsons patients to normal movement.  He also discusses how music generally increases feelings of well being in people.  

13.  "Music and Neuroscience:  What Happens to Your Brain Under the Influence of Music," by Alasdair Wilkins, io9--We come from the future, Sunday Jan. 6, 2013.  Here is the link:

14.  "The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain: The Neuroscience of Making the Most of Your Mature Mind" by Judith Horstman, published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, copyright 2012 by John Wiley and Sons and Scientific American, copyright 2012. This exceedingly readable book of just 200 pages, reads like a summary of many of the other articles in this list.  Although the title makes it sound like a book about aging, it is really more of a book about how adults can get the greatest health and well being from their brains.  There is a great emphasis on exercise. Dance and particularly partnership dancing is specifically mentioned as a healthful activity.  

15.  "This Women Was About To Go In For Surgery. What She Did Moments Before Was Awesome" by Lori Leibovich, Huffington Post; 11.06.13.  The video shows the joy that dancing can bring, even in the face of a serious illness.

16.  This video about using movement as therapy.

17. This article summarizes very interesting research.  Among the findings is that groups of people moving together get a boost in pain tolerance.  But movement that isn’t synchronous for a group of people does not have this effect.

This last article suggests that mood is elevated by walking for 5 minutes every hour if one normally sits at a desk the entire workday.

19.  Research shows dancing boosts both happiness and cognitive skills.

20.  This article is about the benefits of doing activities in synchrony with other people.  Dance and rowing are mentioned but the emphasis in this article is on singing!

21.  This is a classic study that is often cited which was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.  It is a research finding that confirms the benefit of dancing on health and cognition as compared with other activities.

22.  This article is about research showing that there were improvements in the white matter of subjects’ brains after they took 6 months of social dance classes. The research was done with 174 healthy people in their 60s and 70s. Other physical activities that were tested did not show this improvement. The article cannot always be viewed free online.  So below is a copy of the key points in the article.   Printed: April 4, 2017 NY Times Page D4

Walk, Stretch or Dance? Dancing May Be Best for the Brain


Could learning to dance the minuet or fandango help to protect our brains from aging?

A new study that compared the neurological effects of country dancing with those of walking and other activities suggests that there may be something unique about learning a social dance. The demands it places on the mind and body could make it unusually potent at slowing some of the changes inside our skulls that seem otherwise inevitable with aging.

Neuroscientists and those in middle age or beyond know that brains alter and slow as we grow older. Processing speed, which is a measure of how rapidly our brains can absorb, assess and respond to new information, seems to be particularly hard hit. Most people who are older than about 40 perform worse on tests of processing speed than those who are younger, with the effects accelerating as the decades pass.

Scientists suspect that this decline is due in large part to a concomitant fraying of our brain’s white matter, which is its wiring. White matter consists of specialized cells and their offshoots that pass messages between neurons and from one part of the brain to another. In young brains, these messages whip from neuron to neuron with boggling speed. But in older people, brain scans show, the white matter can be skimpier and less efficient. Messages stutter and slow.

Whether this age-related decline in white matter is inexorable, however, or might instead be changeable has been unclear.

So for the new study, which was published this month in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana and other schools decided to look at the effects of several different types of exercise on the wiring and the function of older people’s brains.

They began by recruiting 174 healthy people in their 60s and 70s with no signs of cognitive impairment. Most were sedentary, although some occasionally exercised.

Then they invited the men and women to a university lab for tests of their aerobic fitness and mental capacities, including processing speed and a brain scan with a sophisticated M.R.I. machine.

Finally, the researchers randomly divided the volunteers into several groups. One began a supervised program of brisk walking for an hour three times a week. Another started a regimen of supervised gentle stretching and balance training three times a week.

The last group was assigned to learn to dance. These men and women showed up to a studio three times a week for an hour and practiced increasingly intricate country-dance choreography, with the group shaping itself into fluid lines and squares and each person moving from partner to partner.

After six months, the volunteers returned to the lab to repeat the tests and the brain scans from the study’s start.

The differences now proved to be both promising and worrisome.

By and large, everyone’s brain showed some signs of what the scientists termed “degeneration” of the white matter. The changes were subtle, involving slight thinning of the size and number of connections between neurons.

But the effects were surprisingly widespread throughout people’s brains, given that only six months had elapsed since the first scans, said Agnieszka Burzynska, the study’s lead author and a professor of human development and neuroscience at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. (She was previously a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois.)

The degeneration was especially noticeable in the oldest volunteers and those who had been the most sedentary before joining the study.

However, one group showed an actual improvement in the health of some of the white matter in their brains, compared to six months before. The dancers now had denser white matter in their fornix, a part of the brain involved with processing speed and memory.

It seems likely that the cognitive demands of the dancing, which required people to learn and master new choreography throughout the six months of the study, affected the biochemistry of the brain tissue in the fornix, Dr. Burzynska said, prompting increases in the thickness and quantity of the wiring there.

Interestingly, none of the changes in the volunteers’ white matter were obviously reflected in their cognitive performance. Almost everyone performed better now on thinking tests than at the study’s start, including tests of their processing speed, even if their white matter was skimpier.

These results indicate that there could be a time lag between when the brain changes structurally and when we start having trouble thinking and remembering, Dr. Burzynska said.

But, more encouraging, she said, they also suggest that engaging in “any activities involving moving and socializing,” as each of these group programs did, might perk up mental abilities in aging brains.

“The message is that we should try not to be sedentary,” she said. “The people who came into our study already exercising showed the least decline” in white matter health, she points out, and those who took up dancing showed white-matter gains.

Of course, this study was relatively short-term. Dr. Burzynska hopes in the future to study the brains of people engaging in different types of exercise over the course of several years.

But for now, she says the data provide another rationale for moving — and perhaps also learning to contra dance and sashay.