The International Square Dance Magazine

Mike Seastrom

I was recently given an article written by Scott Edwards, Harvard Medical School (HMS) Correspondent that really got my attention. Many of us have been aware for years that there are positive health benefits to dancing and movement, but this was an up-to-date version with a little different slant.

The header at the top of the article said, “Researchers see potential role for dance in treating neurodegenerative disorders and recently began to investigate the complex mental coordination that dance requires”.

The article went on to ask, “How many of those who ballroom dance, foxtrot, break dance, square dance or line dance realize that they are doing something positive for their brains?” Daniel Tarsy, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and director of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center states that, “There’s no question that music has a very stimulating effect on physical activity and I think that applies to dance as well.”

Scientists gave little attention to the neurological effects of dance until recently, when researchers began to investigate the complex mental coordination that dance requires. In a 2008 article in “Scientific American”, a Columbia University neuroscientist said that synchronizing music and movement constitutes a “pleasure double play”. Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.

Much of the research on the physical activity associated with dance echoes findings on exercise, showing benefits that range from memory improvement to strengthened neural connections.

A 2003 study by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and reported in the “New England Journal of Medicine” showed that dance can improve brain health. The study investigated the effect leisure activities had on the risk of dementia in the elderly. The researchers looked at the impact of 11 different types of physical activity, including cycling, golf, swimming, and tennis, but found that only dancing lowered participants’ risk of dementia. The combination of mental effort and social interaction made the difference.

This article really touches a nerve with so many of us due to the personal experiences we are having or have had with family, friends, and co-workers suffering physical, emotional, mental, and health related problems. This information makes me very happy that I have danced for so many years, but also makes me want to shout it loud, and get this information in all of our recruiting and marketing material. This is powerful stuff!

In a small 2012 study, researchers at North Dakota’s Minot State University found that the dance program known as Zumba improves mood and cognitive skills, such as visual recognition and decision making. Other studies have shown that dance helps reduce stress, increases levels of the “feel-good hormone” serotonin, and helps develop new neural connections, especially in the regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and special recognition. Dance has also been found to be therapeutic for patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Research continues to evaluate other forms of exercise that can have clinical benefits for patients with chronic health conditions and improve balance, mental function, and physical well being. Dance is one of those activities being studied, and I believe that square dancing and round dancing will be one of those activities with the greatest number of benefits for its’ participants.

I would strongly encourage those callers, cuers, and dance leaders involved in the promotion of our dance to consider using statements in their promotional campaigns such as, “Improve memory and balance”, “feel better physically and have more energy”, and “lower your risk for dementia”. These are “hot buttons” for many people and being able to give them more than a few reasons to join and learn to dance our dance will have a major impact on our activity.

There is one very important element to consider when recruiting new dancers that needs to be kept in mind. Dancing just once a week is not an effective way to stay physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy if that’s the only physical activity a person gets. Those attempting to join a new dancer program that are not able to walk 100 to 124 steps a minute for 5 to10 minutes will find it very difficult to have the stamina to learn to dance.

Dancing is a fabulous addition to a regular course of activity that can include briskly walking, swimming, Tai chi, and lots of other forms of exercise. Our dance just has the added benefits of social interaction, mental processing into motor action, moving rhythmically to music, and just plain being fun.

So as you talk to your friends, family, co-workers, and others you come into contact with about learning to dance, be on the look out for those who are already working on their health and longevity. They will be the dancers in our future that will not only enjoy all the health benefits we have to offer, but they will stay in our activity for years. They in turn will bring in their health-minded friends, who will bring in their health minded friends and on and on. I’m feeling healthy just thinking about all this! Spread the word! 

Fun set to music!