Come Dance With Me

Body and Brain Connections

By Veronica Hackethal

Ask most dance teachers, and they will tell you that dance ignites an internal fire in those susceptible to it. Dance is a form of communication that enables self-expression and encourages social connection when other forms of communication fail. As a transformative experience, dance has been linked to health and healing throughout history and across cultures. Shamans use dance and trancelike states to promote healing and recovery. Ancient Greek physicians recognized the importance of dance for improving physical health, promoting academic achievement, and encouraging social interaction. This ancient knowledge has extended into the present day. Various forms of dance are currently used in many different settings to promote health and wellbeing, including medical and mental health facilities, schools, and community centers. How are we using dance today to promote health and wellbeing?

The Wisdom of Experience: Dance Teachers

During more than 35 years of teaching ballet in New York City studios like Steps on Broadway, Ballet Arts at City Center, and Broadway Dance Center, Dawn Hillen has seen it all. A former principal dancer with the American Festival Ballet, Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theatre, Classical Ballet Theater in Maryland, and Contemporary Ballet Theater in New York City, she has taught all age levels, from preschoolers to people over age 65, and has coached teenagers for dance competitions. She has guest taught throughout the country, and has also pursued training in leadership and personal development.

Hillen emphasized that dance, especially ballet, teaches discipline and enhances personal well-being. “If you can do ballet, you can do anything. It’s like a positive channeling of the energy of how to create yourself,” she said. “I don’t know how to measure the impact of the sheer joy of it. The absolute joy in the moments of flying through the air are so deeply uplifting that you can’t help but feel better. And in feeling better, you feel better about yourself.”

In response to criticisms that ballet encourages a relentless pursuit of perfection, especially in teenage girls, that can damage the ego, Hillen took pains to emphasize the value of good teaching: “It’s critical for the teacher to be positive, to come at it with love and joy. If the teacher only focuses on correcting to perfection, then sometimes it’s actually detrimental. Equally important is where the student is emotionally [when] coming into ballet. If she comes in with a shaky internal structure, she’s going to need a really loving teacher. I think if we stop teaching competitively and support the individuality, we can build better dancers. It’s always people who are uniquely themselves who become the best at what they do.”

Hillen described how dance teaches life lessons to young people. “In my opinion ballet prepares you to meet and pass any obstacle. Every day, you have to mentally and physically conquer yourself. If you look at what girls do after dance, a number of them do really super things. They know how to put their negative ego in check and pursue what they’re after. They know how to show up every day, whether they like it or not. Dancers can take directions. After awhile, because they can take directions, they may also know how to give directions.”

She went on to explain how dance training during the formative years can lay the groundwork for future success. “First of all, ballet gives teenagers a place to be so that they don’t get involved in other things that are less healthy,” Hillen said. “Being able to set out to accomplish something and, within an hour and a half actually do it, is tremendously beneficial for teens. There is immediate gratification in terms of the sense of personal accomplishment.”

Hillen also believes that dance training is important in molding the developing brain. “The way the music goes into teenagers’ brains as the brain is still forming, the way they need to coordinate with it, and with each other, builds a brain that is more complex than the brain of someone who doesn’t have to meet all those challenges,” she explained. “I think it sets the individual apart later in life, because they can handle so many things.”

This Is Your Brain on Dance

Only recently has science tried to analyze how dance benefits the brain and brings such joy. One theory holds that, like most exercise, dance releases a cascade of feel-good chemicals in the brain. Dancing induces the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers that increase pain tolerance and boost mood. Endorphins are responsible for the euphoria experienced during a “runner’s high” and have a similar effect on the body during dancing.

Dancing increases the brain levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that smooth out negative emotions. Norepinephrine also helps increase attention and mental focus. Dancing also increases the brain levels of serotonin and norepinephrine,
two neurotransmitters that smooth out negative emotions. Norepinephrine
also helps increase attention and mental focus. In addition, moving to music while we dance activates the brain’s pleasure circuits. Dancing can even induce the production of proteins that increase the growth of new neurons in the brain. Dancing also helps lay down new synapses, or connections, between neurons. Both processes can increase neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change and adapt to new environments, behaviors, and even recover from injury.

Dancing activates both sides of the brain, a process that promotes brain integration and improves learning. Many regions of the brain are required to remember, plan, and produce the coordinated movements that enable us to dance to music and rhythm. The cerebral cortex, the largest area of the brain, makes us human:  it enables us to experience emotions, plan our movements and behavior, and engage in complex thinking. A region of the cerebral cortex called the motor cortex plays a major role in planning, control, and execution of voluntary movement. The motor cortex has at least five areas that are important for dancers. The posterior parietal cortex interprets and helps plan movements in response to multiple sensory inputs, like vision and hearing. The premotor cortex integrates sensory and spatial input to plan and guide movement. The supplementary motor area plans complex movements, especially sequential movement and coordination of both sides of the body. The premotor and supplementary motor cortex communicate with the primary motor cortex, which in turn produces nerve signals that travel down the spinal cord and tell the muscles how to execute movement.

Lobes of the cerebrumThe basal ganglia are two areas that lie below the motor cortex in the brain and play important roles in regulation and relay of information necessary for voluntary movement. The basal ganglia also play a role in cognitive and emotional functions. Damage to the basal ganglia contributes to many of the symptoms of movement disorders, like Parkinson’s and Huntington disease. The basal ganglia are also part of the limbic system, which contains the brain’s pleasure center. An area of the basal ganglia called the thalamus is a somatosensory relay center that contains neurons directly connected to the hippocampus, which can turn on the brain’s pleasure center.  The hippocampus also plays an important role in memory and spatial navigation. Two other areas of the basal ganglia called the caudate and putamen are important for learning, memory, and regulating movements.

Other brain areas also play important roles in dancing. The cerebellum is the bun-like area at the back of the brain and plays a role in fine-tuning movement, coordination, and balance. The primary somatosensory cortex receives and interprets sensory information from all over the body. This area is depictedby the cortical homunculus, which isbasically a drawing that shows which areas of the brain are dedicated to different body parts. In these types of drawings, depictions of body parts look cartoonish, and heavily used body parts are drawn much larger than infrequently used ones. When one body part is used a lot, such as the hand of a pianist, or the foot of a ballet dancer, new neural connections sprout. The area of the brain dedicated to the heavily used body part expands in proportion to the increased innervation. In the case of a dancer, the corresponding representation in the cortical homunculus would be a very large foot. In “The Neural Basis of Human Dance,” published in 2006 in the journal Cerebral Cortex, Brown and colleagues did PET scans of the brains of dancers while they executed tango steps on a footboard. Overall, the researchers found a great deal of coordination among different brain areas, and a trend for right-brain dominance. Though there is much overlap in function between the two sides of the brain, as well as variation between individuals, the general thinking goes that the left side handles analytical functions, while the right side handles artistic ability. The researchers were able to pinpoint different regions of the brain that were activated by different aspects of dance. Here’s the breakdown of what they found:

An area of the cerebellum called the anterior vermis was like the metronome of the brain. This region was involved in entrainment, which refers to movement to external timekeepers, like music. Spatial navigation of the leg was connected to activation of many brain regions: the primary motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, and parts of the cerebellum. Movement to a regular rhythm, called meter, was associated with activation of parts of the basal ganglia, especially both sides of the putamen. Movement to the melody and harmony of the music was handled by the superior temporal gyrus and the superior temporal pole, parts of the brain dedicated to hearing. Visuo-spatial planning , which enables a dancer to plan and maneuver through space, was connected to the precuneus, which lies between the somatosensory cortex and the part of the brain that interprets visual stimuli. The precuneus may also be involved in memory and aspects of consciousness, such as self-reflection.

The take-home message is that dancing gives the brain a workout and boosts brain power. Studies of professional dancers have found that dance develops areas of the brain involved in motor control, spatial imagery processing, sensory integration, memory, mental focus, and cognition. The take-home message is that dancing gives the brain a workout and
boosts brain power. Studies of professional dancers have found that dance develops areas of the brain involved in motor control, spatial imagery processing, sensory integration, memory, mental focus, and cognition. In 2004, the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium convened cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities across North America to discuss the connections between arts training and improved cognitive performance. After three years of further research, the consortium’s culminating 2008 report “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” reached the same conclusion as many dance teachers. “An interest in a performing art,” they wrote, “leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance, and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.”

Dance and Medicine

Observations about the physical and psychological benefits of dance led to the creation of dance movement therapy (DMT), a field of rehabilitation medicine, in the 1940s. As a therapeutic modality, DMT enables people to work through psychological experiences that may be too difficult to express verbally. DMT has been used to improve cognitive, emotional, and social integration for people suffering from a variety of psychiatric disorders, including autism, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and depression. DMT also improves physical symptoms and general well-being for people with neurological and medical illness. People with Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and a variety of movement disorders can all benefit from DMT.

Scientific studies have born this out. A study published in 2003 in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine has subsequently become popular in the dance community. This study found that engaging in ballroom dancing at least twice a week decreased the risk of developing dementia among a group of people aged 75 years and over. A study published in Psychological Reports in 2012, found that the cognitive benefits of dance may apply even when participants are not actively engaged in dancing. This study found that elderly nursing home residents with depression and cognitive impairment experienced improved depressive symptoms and enhanced memory simply by observing live dance accompanied by music.

Dance and Youth

Other studies have shown links between dance and improved symptoms of depression, anxiety, self-confidence, and self-esteem in youth. The results of a randomized clinical trial by Duberg and colleagues, published in 2013 in JAMA Pediatrics, looked at adolescent girls living in a medium-sized Swedish city who received eight months of twice weekly creative movement dance classes. Results of the study showed that the girls who received dance classes showed a decline in their stress levels and depressive symptoms. The control group received free movie passes and did not show any improvement.

Several participatory research projects in England have reported similar associations between dance and improved psychological well-being in youth. The first phase of the NRG Youth Dance and Health Project took place in Hampshire in 2005-2006. This project found that after eight weeks of creative dance classes, youth aged 11-14 years showed improvements in self-esteem and intrinsic motivation (the internal drive to engage in an activity). The second phase of this project, NRG2, took place in West Sussex from 2009-2010. This phase looked at youth aged 11-13 years who participated in weekly creative dance or weekly PE classes for ten weeks. NRG2 found that girls who participated in the dance classes felt significantly more competent and more related to their peers than other girls in the project.

The Go Dance research project is similar and took place in 2011 in the Eastern region of England. The project offered six months of dance classes to adolescents in disadvantaged areas. The researchers found that perceptions of pressure and tension were decreased among boys who participated in the dance project. Male participants and their teachers noted increased focus at school, and connected this improvement to participation in dance workshops.

Dance and Academic Performance

The potential for dance to improve certain types of thought processes, and by extension, academic performance, has been studied by Dr. Peter Lovatt at the Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire. A former professional dancer who is also known as “Doctor Dance,” Dr. Lovatt has shown that different types of dance improve different types of thinking processes. Improvised dance, like tango and ballroom, can improve divergent thinking, which is the type used in creating multiple solutions for a given problem. Divergent thinking is used in creative thought processes. Structured dance, like ballet, improves convergent thinking, which is the type used in finding a single answer for a problem. Convergent thinking comes in handy when solving math and science problems. Lovatt and fellow researchers tested out this theory on a group of people with Parkinson’s disease, whose creative thinking often declines during the course of the disease. The researchers found that engaging in improvised dance improved the group’s divergent thinking skills.

With the mounting evidence about how dance benefits the mind and body, it would seem logical to offer dance early in life, when the brain is still forming. One of the most obvious locations for providing dance education would be at school, especially pre-K-elementary grades. That used be the case, until cuts in educational funding led to the sacrifice of many school arts programs. Since then, community organizations have had to fill the void that cuts in government funding have created.

Photo: Eduardo Patino, courtesy National Dance Institute

Photo: Eduardo Patino, courtesy National Dance Institute

One of the earliest dance outreach programs was created by Jacques d’Amboise, former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet. In his autobiography I Was a Dancer, d’Amboise remembers himself as “a wild, untamed youth who learned nobility through art.” D’Amboise grew up in Washington Heights, a rough area of New York City. He founded the National Dance Institute (NDI) in 1976 in order to provide free dance classes to New York City public school children. His goal in founding the NDI was to teach, inspire, and motivate city public school children like his former “wild” self. D’Amboise estimates that in the organization’s 37 year existence, more than two million children have been affected by it. He writes, “Once the children see that we are having a class of precision, order, and respect, they are relieved. It’s the beginning of dance. You cannot have a successful dance class without good manners, without respect. Dance can teach those things.”

I spoke over the phone with dancers, dance teachers, and directors of community dance programs throughout the country. They all agreed: Dancing builds discipline, teaches life skills, promotes self-confidence, and improves focus at school.

To read Part 2 for more real-life examples of how dance enhances cognitive skills, reduces stress and improves quality of life among children and adults, visit here.


Veronica HackethalVeronica Hackethal is a dance, travel, and health writer based in New York City. She is a contributing writer to The Dance Enthusiast. Her writing has also appeared on Best Travel Writing, Literary Traveler, Transitions Abroad, Matador, and Inner Body. Awards for her writing include Silver Prize in Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards, Bronze Prize in Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards, and finalist in Transition Abroad’s Narrative Travel Writing Contest. Veronica began training in classical ballet at age six and danced into her teens. She took an extended hiatus from dance to attend Harvard University (A.B.), Oxford University (M.Sc.), and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (M.D.). She returned to ballet five years ago. Veronica is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Medical Terminology, with publication by Alpha/Penguin projected for Summer 2013. She is also the recipient of a 2013 American Society of Journalists and Authors scholarship. 


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