Recently, a physical therapist/Nia instructor in Ashland, Rachael Resch, posted an article from Dr. Oz - 5 Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp on her facebook page, and I re-posted it to mine because it included 'taking a dance class'. A conversation that followed inspired me to write about one of the amazing (and possibly little-known) benefits of dance. Most of us are familiar with the fitness benefits of dance such as: physical conditioning, improving range of motion and balance, the use of music and rhythm energize our work-outs, and the fun factor of dancing with others. I would like to look at how dance helps to keep the brain sharp.
Numerous studies have confirmed that exercise stimulates the brain. And it does not take a Ph.D. to observe that when we are in an energy slump, such as mid-afternoon fatigue, a brisk walk can make the whole world look brighter, providing us with a new burst of creative energy. Sports that involve quick reactions and problem-solving stimulate the brain and nervous system differently than walking. Most sports are unilateral - we swing a bat, a tennis racket, or a golf club using our dominate side. Even some martial arts promote unilateral movement, we can only kick with one leg at a time. The natural walk involves swinging the left arm and right leg simultaneously. Infants learn to creep and crawl using a similar cross-body movement - a cross-crawl. In applied kinesiology, we learn that we can balance and energize our bodies (and nervous systems) by practicing the cross-crawl, or the cross-body movement of the natural walk.
All physical activity burns calories, and if we go on a long hike or bike ride we will eventually feel tired. And, conversely, if we are experiencing fatigue (which tends to be mental), a walk (especially in a beautiful natural setting) can be just the thing to get those mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional juices flowing again.
So, if we can renew and energize the body and mind by walking, why dance? Besides giving us opportunities to practice the cross-body movement of the natural walk, dance also gives us the opportunity to move across the mid-line of the body (example, the right foot reaches across the body to the left side). In teaching the Nia technique for a number of years, I have observed that some individuals have a hesitation when it comes to doing a cross-body step. I can almost see the thought bubbles over their heads: "Not a normal function!" "This does not compute!" The hesitation each time a person starts a cross body movement says to me that new neural pathways need to grow in order for this movement to become natural. (This is true for any movement that feels unnatural.) I always reassure students that if they stick with it, that hesitation will resolve. Practice, repetition of the new movement creates more communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (new neural pathways form across the corpus callosum). Our brains grow to accommodate new skills!
Unfortunately, we experience an uncomfortable lag time before a new skill becomes an natural part of our movement vocabulary. Sometimes people begin to label themselves, "I'm clumsy," "I have no rhythm," or label the activity, "this is hard", or to preserve the ego, "the teacher is an idiot!" Telling ourselves stories about the experience of discomfort around learning something new adds a layer of emotional baggage to what is essentially the nervous system working out a new way of perceiving, communicating, and directing movement. When people believe the stories they tell themselves, they tend to give up before the new connections are fully functional.
Experiencing some emotional or mental discomfort means that you are pushing your edge. You are growing! Yay! Growth happens, not only in physical skill and conditioning, your brain creates new connections, your confidence improves, and your experience of who you are as a mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual being expands. So, keep on dancing! And if you are not dancing, check out my classes!