Dance, Dance, Revolutionize Your Brain

As a dancer and a neuroscience enthusiast, I am interested in how the two disciplines overlap.  From my early childhood years through high school I focused on competitive Irish Dance, making the leap over to contemporary dance in college. As I transitioned, I noticed that my repetitive, muscle memory-focused dance background did not prepare me for learning new choreography.  Dancers with contemporary dance experience can learn new choreography (even with movements they have never encountered before) extremely quickly.

The professional contemporary dancers I have talked to describe dance and choreography as a language- yet it is a language with no set rules. My question is, what is happening in the brain that allows for this fast learning process? I have seen dancers learn several minute long strings of rapid choreography simply by watching another person dance the sequence twice. That is some crazy fast learning! Mirror neurons, neurons that fire when one executes an action as well as when one watches someone else do the same action, must have something to do with it.  Can mirror neurons be exercised and therefore work more effectively in dancers who use them frequently? Or do dancers have more plastic brains?  Exercise has been linked to greater neural plasticity, but I exercise regularly and still can’t learn choreography at the same rate.  Or perhaps this has to do with the connectome.  Maybe there is a critical period for learning dance like there is a critical period for acquiring language. I wonder if dancers’ ability to learn quickly is cross discipline, or if their short-term movement memory is much greater than their long-term movement memory.  There are SO MANY unanswered questions.

While dancers have been the subject of some studies, including those for mirror neurons, I believe that the dancer’s brain should be looked at more closely for research on topics such as plasticity and memory storage.

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4 thoughts on “Dance, Dance, Revolutionize Your Brain

  1. For some reason this reminds me of the wax analogy. Maybe your wax has hardened with so many years of competitive Irish dance training. If you were to learning Irish dance routines, you would have them down in no time because your wax has been established. Now you are just working on your contemporary dance routine but your Irish dancing wax is getting in the way rather than helping. The process of learning contemporary dance routines may be slower because the fact that it is a type of dance results in your braining thinking “Hey, dancing! Let’s do Irish dancing because we’ve done it for so many years!” But really you are doing something different and your brain needs to tell itself “Hey, calm down. This is different. Don’t interrupt. We need to make a new wax. It’s not all about you anymore, Irish dancing wax.”

    I wonder if what I said makes sense to anyone else besides me . . .

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  2. The dancers’ description of choreography as a language which you mentioned in the beginning of this post makes me very interested in your “critical period for learning dance” concept. It would be an interesting thing to study. It would then make sense to also look at a potential critical period in learning music which is arguably a language of its own as well.

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  3. It’s an interesting thing that you bring up in reference to dancing and the ability for dancers to memorize and then execute a series of movements within only minutes of seeing it. Having done dance for a while in high school I totally understand and can relate to this astonishing act. It takes me several times seeing a sequence of movements and even at times, a very slow breakdown, in order to get anything down and even longer to make look as clean and as tight as anything the other dancers can do. I think it would be interesting to read about the way in which someone would investigate and figure out if this phenomenon is solely just do to mirror neurons and/or plasticity and to read their finding. And Czarina, it does make sense.

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  4. Because a professional dancer is able to learn such complex routines in such a short amount of time suggests that mirror neurons can be exercised. Due to a professional’s constant exposure in learning new routines, it is almost certain that the brain has found a way to adapt, maybe this is through years of working such neurons. This topic is very relevant in other performance arts as well. If being able to work mirror neurons was possible, a musician may have an upper hand at learning new music in a flash! This can also be shown in athletes, especially multi sport athletes. It is said that it is bad to specialize in a single sport too soon because playing many sports allows you to develop skills that can help out in all the other sports that you play. If these mirror neurons can be worked, it would allow for specialization earlier, and thus increased performance in athletics.

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