Dancing is fundamental to being human. We know this because there is no wallflower culture, no part of the world where rhythm is ignored. We also know this because we tap our toes to songs we hate. We can’t help it. Our subcortical brain regions converse, bypass higher auditory areas, and make us shimmy to “Happy” whether we respect Pharrell’s whole deal or not.
But dancing is good for more than just public displays of simulated coitus and regret. It’s linked to a whole bunch of physical, social, and mental benefits. It is basically a super fun (if you’re doing it right) vitamin. There’s a reason Channing Tatum seems so damn content.
Anthropologists consider dance to be a “multi-faceted phenomenon”, an invisible, underlying system within us. While forms of dance differ across cultures, the best way to know if what you’re looking at is dancing is to feel like it’s dancing. It’s a you-know-it-when you-see-it sort of thing. Dancing with other people is connected to emotional competence, self-esteem, and healthy levels of trust. Don’t trust the researchers? Just ask a dancer.
Tayler Beth Anderson has been dancing all her life, both socially and professionally. She’s a really good dancer — so much so that she’s paid to sing and dance at Hong Kong Disneyland. She’s adamant that many of the dancers she knows, from people who just show up for one night of blues or people making a professional go at it, often use dance as an outlet for emotions.
“Dance is the one time my constantly running mind goes quiet and I can just lose myself in dance with a partner without expectation,” says Anderson. “It’s fun and a form of escape for me. I know a lot of people who have turned to dance for help and healing.”
A bulk of research is dedicated to the emotional benefits of dance. In a study conducted in Poland, mood was assessed before and after dance activity among competitive and recreational dancers. While the competitive dancers were admittedly just as stressed as any athlete practicing their thing, the recreational dancers reported higher energy, less tension, and a better, more creative mood than before. A different study, this one in Greece, found that women who recently had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer experienced an increase in life satisfaction and a decrease in depressive symptoms when they participated in dance therapy, compared to a control group.
Dance has proven to aid those with Parkinson’s disease as well: In a ten-week dance program those with the movement disorder experienced an overall reduction in mood disturbance and a reduction in anger. Those who indicated depression before the study experienced a decrease in fatigue. Sometimes these health benefits were observed just ten minutes after the dancing began.
Researchers have been able to link music-induced movement to the Big Five personality traits. Openness and agreeableness are related to dancers who seem more effortless — aka President of Being Smooth, Barack Obama. Extroverted and conscientious people dance faster, neurotic people are jerkier and have more “accelerated movement.” These personality-movement linked indications aren’t just helpful as fun-facts; they play a crucial role in you getting a mate.
A team of researchers from Northumbria University and the University of Göttingen had 53 women rate the dance quality and try to determine the personality of 48 dancing men. A biomechanical assessment of the male dancers showed that the “good” ones were characterized by the movements particular to the head, neck, trunk, and “speed of the right knee.” The majority of the women felt they could accurately tell the personality of the men by the way they danced, and were much more into the men who were risk-takers on the dance floor.
“Dance is an adaptive behavioral pattern that communicates beauty, health, strength, and sexual attractiveness,” wrote Professor Joel Wade on the topic of attraction-via-dance in his 2015 paper in the Human Ethology Bulletin. “Men and women described as dancers receive higher ratings than men and women described as non-dancers.”
I don’t need to feel happy and healthy, you say, I’m okay being single. Fine, fine — but do you want to keep your brain kicking well into your later years? Well, I hope you dance. Researchers have consistently found that besides having better motor skills and balance, senior citizen dancers outdo non-dancers in regards to cognitive performance.
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, 469 subjects older than 75 were tracked for twenty years and evaluated for signs of dementia. The subjects were studied while they participated in either six cognitive-focused activities or eleven physical-focused activities — things like reading, crossword puzzles, and golf. Dancing was the only physical activity that proved to be associated with a lower risk of dementia, and had the greatest influence on mental activity compared to any of the other activities. You can think of dancing as a super-battery for your brain — it integrates kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional brain functions all at once, which increase your neural connectivity.
“If you can’t take classes or go out dancing four times a week, then dance as much as you can,” recommends Stanford researcher Richard Power. “It’s essential to start building your cognitive reserve now. Someday you’ll need as many of those stepping stones across the creek as possible.”