Just Dance: The Physical and Mental Benefits of Dancing

“Kick, ball, change!” exclaimed my grandpa enthusiastically, as he shuffled across the hardwood floor, showing my family his newest dance moves. At the ripe old age of 76, my grandpa was a far cry from the typical tutu-wearing beginner’s tap dancer. Nevertheless, two tap dance lessons later, there he was, proudly tapping and spinning his way across the family room.
 
Initially my grandpa started dancing to fill the free time he had between golfing, tennis, book club, bingo, and whatever else retirees do. Little did he know this new pastime was actually improving his mental and physical health. While on the surface dancing may just seem like a way to lift your spirits and shake off a little stress, letting loose on the dance floor is actually a great exercise for your body and mind.
 
Dance is a total workout for mind and body, as it helps improve your fitness, flexibility, motor skills, mental capacity, memory, and coordination.  But what exactly are the benefits from each pop, lock, and drop at Finny’s, or the dance classes you've taken since you were 5 years old? Taking a cue from my grandpa, I enrolled in a beginner’s ballet class through Notre Dame RecSports.  In this experience I learned firsthand the physical and mental benefits of dance as well as its challenges.  Or, in other words, I now understand the term "dancing fool." 
 
 
My Experience with Dance
 
As a long distance runner and lifetime athlete, I did not expect that much of a challenge from dance. However, in my first ballet class, I learned firsthand the physicality and strength dance requires. As the teacher, a tiny, older woman who hopped and leaped instead of walking, demonstrated each of these basic moves, I tried and failed miserably to imitate her graceful movements.  After the first few minutes of plies and rond de jambes, my glutes began to burn as if I'd been doing squats for days. I was already making a fool of myself, just trying to learn the foundations.
However, the fun really began when my teacher turned on the music and guided the class through basic arm movements (the majority of terms I believe were in French). After the first count of “one, two, three” I knew I was done for. As I hopelessly began flailing my arms and legs, trying to move both in time with the music, but looking more like I was drowning than dancing.
I learned two valuable lessons. First, the term "dancing fool" is an extremley accurate title for the those who are pioneering the humbling art of ballet. And second, dancing requires an incredible amount of coordination and concentration.
 
Physical Benefits
 
If you have ever been enrolled in dance classes, spent an evening tearing up the dance floor, or looked at a professional dancer, then you probably understand that dancing is physically demanding. Dancing itself requires strength and coordination, and the ability to sustain this coordination over long periods of time.
 
Dance styles like hip hop, jazz, and tap dance, raise your heart rate, and work your lungs, which in turn improves overall cardiovascular health. In addition, raising your heart rate improves circulation throughout the body and brain! While it may seem obvious that fast pace dance classes like hip hop, tango, and zumba are incredibly beneficial when it comes to cardio and burning calories, dancing can also be a great way to strengthen muscles. 
 
Take ballet as an example. While ballerinas' leaps and pirouettes across he stage may seem effortless, the sport itself is far from so. A 1975 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine suggests ballet is more physically demanding than football.  While this statement is sure to spark debate, it’s not the first interaction of the two sports. Many football players, like the Steve Mclendon, Lynn Swan, and Herschel Walker practiced ballet to stay in shape and gain a competitive edge in football. While they may not have practiced pirouettes and plies to get the lead role in Swan Lake or the Nutcracker, these gridiron swans reported the flexibility and strength they got from ballet translated to major benefits on the football field.
 
In an interview, Mclendon compared taking a ballet class to playing an entire football game. What other non-contact sports can you think of that will leave you feeling like you have been repeatedly tackled by 300 lb linemen for an hour? Part of the reason ballet is so physically exhausting is that ballet works key core and glute muscles that are difficult to reach through normal exercise and are often underused. In addition to strengthening these core and glute muscles, ballet also is a great way to strengthen your ankles and knees, small muscles that can make a huge difference, especially in sports that require running. 
 
 
 
 
Mental Benefits
Dancing is not only good for your physical health, but also works as an exercise for your brain. So, if your trying to find an excuse to justify your decision to forgo those extra hours of studying and head to Feve, look no further than the mental benefits of dance. Studies have shown that dancing builds grey matter in your brain, preserves motor skills, increases cognitive activity, and overtime, decreases the risk of dementia. One study done by the New England Journal of Medicine compared 500 senior citizens, looking at their physical and cognitive activities, as well as the likelihood of developing dementia. After 5 years, results showed that the risk of dementia in those who had reported frequently dancing, had been reduced by 76%. While it may be early for us to start thinking about the risks of dementia, the science behind this prevention involves the same brain stimulation which can improve cognition, motor skills, and memory, areas that we, as studious college students are always seeking to improve.
 
Whether in a formal classroom setting, or in a relaxed social scene, dancing stimulates brain activity. Research has proven that this stimulation from dancing engages the same areas of the brain that are also required for basic sensorimotor activities, such as vision, hearing, and touch. These Neural systems that are involved in dance, create a unique and complex combination related to the patterns of bipedal motion, metric entertainment, and musical rhythms.
In other words, each time we dance, we stimulate and combine the areas of the brain involved with motion, music and rhythm. By requiring the individual to think about a physical response to music, dancing stimulates these areas, improving brain functions like coordination and memory. Areas of the brain such as the parietal lobe, which controls movement, and recognition, and the frontal lobe which controls reasoning and decision making, are all exercised each time a some goes through a dance routine, or makes puts together a sequence of dance moves. By engaging these parts of the brain, we promote neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to grow.
Think of your brain like a muscle, that needs to be exercised. Dancing, in forcing us to think on our feet, exercises this muscle and promotes growth and development. So every time you kick up your heels, you’re essentially taking your brain for a mental jog. The same rules apply to dance as other exercise, the more you do it, the stronger and healthier you become. 
 
 
As human beings, we are all born with an innate sense of dance and rhythm. While this sense of rhythm and beat may certainly be stronger in some than in others, we all have some trace of coordination and dance moves. While for some people dancing comes more easily than walking, and others flee it like the plague, there is no denying that over time, dancing, no matter how bad, can help us to improve other areas of our lives.
So even if you’re your hips don’t move like Shakira’s or your moon walk looks like you’ve been struck with a sudden leg cramp and a crippling case of indigestion, next time you get the opportunity, I hope you dance. Seize the opportunity to exercise your mind body and soul. And hey, even if you repeatedly make and absolute fool out of yourself on the dance floor, practice makes perfect…or at least improvement.   
 
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