Health Benefits of Dancing

"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

So many dance students find that dancing greatly lifts their spirits; they often comment on the therapeutic value of Salsa classes!

For sure, listening to music makes people feel better--by activating endorphins. The same goes for physical exercise and socializing.  That makes dancing a recipe for improved well-being!

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....

It also helps special populations such as those with Parkinsons syndrome.   Music that has enabled Parkinson's sufferers who were unable to walk, to start taking steps again.   

Below are 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 cannot always be viewed free online.  So at the risk of adding a lot of words to this page, 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.