Ballroom Dancing Improves Brain Health

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New Study Links Ballroom Dancing to Brain Health

Reuters Health recently published new study results that confirm a direct link between ballroom dancing and the deceleration of decay in white brain matter.

Degeneration of white matter in the brain is one of the main causes of deterioration in cognitive function that occurs with age, such as the ability to quickly put together thoughts. Previous studies have linked physical exercise to vigorous cognitive functioning and overall brain health, but the new study sought to determine which exercise provides the most benefit.

The researchers recruited healthy participants aged 60-79 who were not regular exercisers. The participants were divided into groups, with each group engaging in a different activity: fast walking, fast walking while maintaining a balanced diet, stretching and balance, and dancing. The dancers met three times a week for an hour-long session during which they learned line dances of increasing levels of difficulty, including changing places and partners.

After six months, the brains of the participants were examined by MRI and compared to the baseline measurements recorded at the beginning of the study. While there was mild degeneration of white matter among all of the study participants, the dance group showed improvement in fornix activity. The fornix is a bundle of nerve fiber in the brain that is associated with memory and processing speed. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the cognitive effort required for learning ballroom dancing is beneficial to the brain.

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A Healthy Brain in the Dancing Body

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Can dance lessons protect our brains from the effects of aging? For some time, scientists have known that the white matter which connects the different parts of the brain becomes damaged and diminishes as we get older. The ability of the brain to quickly process data tends to slow down significantly with age. But are these changes irreversible?

A new study examined the neurological effects of learning line dancing, compared to other forms of physical activity, such as walking. The study confirmed that ballroom dancing is more effective in slowing down brain degeneration.

The researchers examined the brains and cognitive state of 174 healthy adults, aged 60-79 who did not exercise regularly. Study participants were divided into groups: walking, walking combined with a nutritional regiment, stretching and balance, and dancing. Participants engaged in their assigned activities for one hour, three times a week for half a year.

Dancing Is Better

The participants in the dance group learned increasingly complex choreographies of line dances, which included frequent exchanges of partners and locations. After six months, the researchers examined the study participants again and found that those who learned to dance showed improvement in the area of the brain associated with memory and processing speed.
It appears, therefore, that exercise and particularly social dance which involves many different cognitive functions can help maintain a healthy brain.

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The Physical and Cognitive Benefits of Dancing

dance to health

Anyone who has seen one of Rafi Eldor’s dance performances was inevitably impressed by the effort dancing requires. While the dancers often seem as if they are floating around the dance-floor, it is evident that in order to execute their moves they have to keep perfect balance, and exercise coordination and muscle strength. As such, the process of dancing requires many simultaneous efforts from the dancer, cognitive and physical. In other words, when a person dances, he or she exercise many of their body’s functions. This makes dancing a valuable physical training technique with numerous benefits for health and fitness.

Promoting Health and Fitnessballet dancer

Research points to the numerous health benefits that can be achieved through dancing, and one piece in particular, conducted by Professor Tim Watson and Dr. Andrew Garrett from the University of Hertfordshire, points to some intriguing findings. The researchers compared the fitness of the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet School with that of the members of the squad of the British National and International Swimmers, among them also Olympic swimmers. Fitness was measured according to ten parameters, including strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and more. The results were decisive. In seven out of ten tests the dancers scored higher, proving the efficiency of dancing in improving physical fitness. While this research is striking, some may argue that it applies only to professional ballet dancers. However, while it is true that the average dancer is not likely to be as strong and fit as an Olympic swimmer, even so-called amateur dancing has clear physical and cognitive benefits.

Dancing is, in the most general sense, a physical exercise. It is a fun way to do aerobic exercise, and the movement of the body in a coordinated way requires effort. This effort trains dancers’ muscles (including core, leg, back and arm muscles), and also the cardiovascular systems. For older people, the strengthening of the bones is crucial to reducing the risk of osteoporosis, which dancing is very effective in doing, according to the Arts Council of England. Furthermore, the benefits for coordination, agility, flexibility, and balance are beneficial for people of all ages and physical abilities.

How Does This Apply to Parkinson’s Patients?

Dance has specific benefits for Parkinson’s disease patients. For example, research published in the American Journal of Dance Therapy in December 2007, revealed the benefits of dancing Argentine Tango (a form of ballroom dancing). The research compared a group of Parkinson’s patients who practiced Argentine tango with a group of patients who exercised in a traditional strength\flexibility class. The results showed that after thirteen weeks of exercise, when both groups were tested for balance, falls, or gait, only the dancers showed improvement in all the parameters measured, including self-reported confidence in avoiding falls.

Dance – A Fun Way to Exercise

To summarize: dancing is a healthy, fun and sociable way to exercise. Even when compared to traditional forms of exercise (such as swimming or fitness classes), dancing still provides more benefits, and is becoming a conventional way of keeping in shape and maintaining good health. And to Parkinson’s patients, dancing is particularly beneficial!

The Social Benefits of Dance

dancing couple

Dancing is a great way to meet new people, all of whom are eager to see new faces on the dance floor. Ballroom dancing, with its different forms in particular, offers an extremely friendly environment, where everyone is encouraged to join in the dancing. Seeing others overcome shyness and awkwardness by dancing is a great ice-breaker, and creates a much more at-ease feeling among the group. The one on one dances such as the Waltz or the Latin styles are known for creating and strengthening bonds between the participating partners. This is because when dancing, each person has to be aware of the other’s movements, abilities, and intentions, which encourages a kind of silent and intuitive communication. dancing couple

As for Parkinson’s disease patients, social and physical worlds have a tendency to shrink as the condition progresses, to the point where social isolation becomes a burden. The first benefit of dancing, then, is that it gets you out of the house and into the social sphere. To take the first step in a room filled with people, all of whom came to dance, be together and have fun, is already a great achievement. Indeed, a very important aspect of life with Parkinson’s which dance improves is lack of confidence. Parkinson’s patients often report feeling socially awkward because they feel their symptoms draw attention and they become extremely self-conscious about appearing in public. Not only does dancing provide a supporting environment in which to overcome physical difficulties and limitations while having fun, it also helps a person regain his or her self-confidence. Dancing works on posture, gait, balance, elegance, and much more. All of these and the improvement from class to class help dancers regain the sense of familiarity and confidence in their body, and consequently to feel more at ease in public. And as for feeling awkward among the dancing group itself: the sweeping music and the need to concentrate on the dance moves simply do not leave any room for one to be self-conscious, but still just enough to enjoy the moment.

Furthermore, the physical contact that is made while dancing is also significant, particularly for Parkinson’s patients. The sense of alienation and lack of control over one’s body is common to many people, but is extreme in those who live with the degenerative condition. Such people might become increasingly uncomfortable with their body and consequently withdraw emotionally from others. However, the physical touch that is experienced when dancing helps one overcome inhibitions, relax, and potentially even connect the two dancing partners on an emotional level. Moreover, turning physical exercise into such an enjoyable and sociable experience helps reduce stress and tension, which can often exacerbate Parkinson’s symptoms. Once the physical activity turns into a social one, it soon puts a smile on the participant’s face, and helps make life with Parkinson’s just a little bit easier.

Taking the First Step

two dancers on the floor

Considering that dancing is fun and mentally and physically healthy, it is not surprising that its popularity is increasing every year. The more awareness there is of the benefits of dancing, the more likely it is to grow as a trend, and the fact that this activity can help deal with things like the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is testimony to its great power. There are many people, however, who would like to try out dancing but do not know where to start, or are afraid to take the initial step — quite literally. There can be something frightening about expressing oneself physically through movement. It is a practice which requires some measure of courage and outgoingness, because for those who are not used to it there is often a sense that they will be judged for their supposedly poor dance skills: it is not rare to find a group of people at a wedding or a party who “just don’t dance”. Enjoy the benefits of dancing requires that initial leap of faith, and professional help or group support can often help in doing so.

How to Begin

So what are the ways in which one can take the first step towards the dance-floor? Online lessons and beginners’ classes are two good places to start.

Online Lessons

Online dance lessons could be the perfect solution for those who are anxious or embarrassed about dancing socially. There are numerous free and paid websites where you can learn to dance from the comfort and convenience of your own home. This obviously does not require as much courage as doing so in public and, importantly, the vast amount of content available through the web offers an endless variety of different types of dance, helping you to discover the styles you connect to the most.However, it is important to remember that online lessons do not quite provide the same benefits social dancing offers. As we learn from Rafi Eldor’s story, and many other Parkinson’s disease patients who have confronted their condition through dancing, one of the therapeutic effects of this activity is its social environment. The excitement and intimacy of real life interaction is simply missing when one dances alone in their living room.

two dancers on the floor

Beginners’ Classes- A Supportive Environment

There is good incentive to go out there and be brave, but one does not have to be brave alone. There are many schools which offer beginners’ group lessons, ensuring that upon venturing out to explore dancing one is joined by like-minded people who probably also feel uncomfortable about dancing to some degree. The empathy and support one gets from the group is important for overcoming the initial fears of social dancing, and you could also take a friend or a spouse with you for extra fun. There are many single people who attend beginners’ classes though, and it is actually a great place to meet new make friends. This can be especially beneficial for people dealing with Parkinson’s disease, as it offers the kind of social interaction that is missing in many patients’ daily lives. However, social interaction and human contact is something missing from many people’s lives in the modern world. Going to a dance class can offer this and more, within a safe, supportive and fun environment that eliminates the initial fears some may associate with dancing.

Types of Ballroom Dances

Ballroom Dances

Ballroom dancing refers to a form of dance in which couples move in accordance with patterned dancing steps. It is comprised of two major categories, namely Western and Latin style. The Western style is perhaps the more traditional form of ballroom dancing. It refers to a flowing form in which the couple is constantly moving in a circular fashion around the dance floor. The Latin style refers to a more rhythm-oriented form of dance, in which the couple’s placing is rather fixed and their moves are more energetic and sharp. Each of these forms is further divided into several sub-categories.

Western style ballroom dancing includes primarily the Waltz, the Foxtrot, the Tango, and the Quickstep:

• The Waltz is arguably the most familiar form of ballroom, originating as a folk dance. It is characterized by flowing, swaying movements, and a rise and fall pattern. The dancers circle the dance floor in a counter-clock wise movement.
• The Foxtrot became extremely popular in the 20th century, partially thanks to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who incorporated it into their films. In its smooth and round-the-dance-floor movements it is similar to the Waltz, although it incorporates quicker steps and more flexibility.
• The Quickstep is an even faster version of the Foxtrot. Although it is considered highly energetic and quite difficult to master, the Foxtrot remains an elegant and flowing form of ballroom dancing.
• The Tango is a passionate, sensual form of ballroom dancing. Some forms of Tango are dramatic, including sharp body and head movements, whereas others tend to be more subtle. The Tango originated in South America around the late 19th century.

Ballroom Dances

Latin style ballroom dances include mainly the Swing, the Rumba, the Cha Cha, the Mambo and Salsa:

• Swing is the fastest form of dance within the Latin category. It incorporates many kicks, knee-bending and lifting, swirls and other fast leg movements. The swing is unique in two respects: firstly, the couple is not required to hold each other or to be as close to each other as in other dances. Secondly, the accompanying music can vary in style from rock n’roll to Boogie-woogie, as long as it stays true to its lively, upbeat rhythm.
• The Cha Cha is a vigorous, flirtatious, energetic dance. It requires free hip motion, and small, quick steps. Cha Cha is danced to the sounds of happy, lively music — which is usually (but not necessarily) Cuban.
• The Mambo is a close relative of the Cha Cha, because of its high energy level and fun, lively spirit. It is characterized by backward and forward steps and distinctive, often sensual hip movements. Mambo music varies widely in rhythm and instruments, which usually include bells.
• The Rumba is mostly identified by the coy, teasing movements of the female dancer, and the seductive, advancing motions of the male dancer. It is the slowest form of dance within the Latin style. Its music originated in Africa, but today it includes country, rock, blues, and other popular music styles.
• Salsa is a late form of Latin dance, primarily influenced by the Cha Cha and the Mambo. While most forms of Latin style focus on hip movements, the Salsa incorporates more above-the-waist technique.

The many forms of ballroom dancing go beyond the list above. But despite their diverse nature, the dances are unified by one dominant characteristic – they are all partner dances. None of the forms can be danced alone or in an unsynchronized manner.

What Is Ballroom Dancing?

ballroom

‘Ballroom’ is a category of dancing which includes roughly a dozen types dance within it. In general, what unites these dance forms under the ballroom umbrella is that they are performed in a large hall, by several couples who follow similar routines and steps. This genre is defined by its classical overtones, with Waltz arguably being the most famous type of ballroom dance.

History

ballroom

Ballroom dancing- became popular among the social elites in the sixteenth century

Ballroom dancing became popular among the social elites in the sixteenth century, but got its contemporary form in the early twentieth century. Two factors made it popular also among the wider population. Firstly, the music that accompanied ballroom dancing had changed: while in its early days the accompanying tunes were primarily classical, in the twentieth century more popular and accessible music, including jazz, entered the ballroom. Secondly, high-profile Hollywood actors such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers frequently included ballroom dance sequences in their films, thus popularizing this form of dance.

Contemporary Styles

These days, ballroom dancing is divided into two separate categories: international ballroom and international Latin, which includes more Latin-based music and dress. However, the genre as a whole is anything but unified and undiversified. Ballroom includes many different dances, ranging from the classical Waltz to the fast-paced Latin Cha-Cha and the intense Tango.

Despite its current accessibility to anyone who would like to take part, ballroom dancing also has a professional branch which includes competitions and tournaments. Although yet to be performed in the Olympic Games, professional ballroom competitions are numerous and require a high-level of skill and practice.

Dance as Community and Individual Therapy

ballroom_dancers

Ballroom includes many different dances

The design of ballroom dancing is possibly what makes it so popular among people in so many different parts of the world. From the outset, it was more than simply a dance activity: although it is seemingly performed by separate couples, the dancing happens simultaneously by several different couples who move around each other, adhering to the same music and dance rules. This synchronicity transforms ballroom dancing into an effective social experience, which brings people and communities closer together with through the force of music and movement. It is a shared experience, which incorporates both intimacy between a single couple and the feeling of a vibrant community.

The merits of this activity have not gone unnoticed by medical practitioners. Nowadays, ballroom dancing is also very popular as a therapeutic tool for people suffering from conditions such as Parkinson’s disease — because of its social appeal, together with its low physical impact and the need to practice control over one’s body. It may be learned quite easily by anybody, and does not have any limitations in terms of age, weight, or strength. However, despite its seemingly low entry requirements, ballroom dancing grants the dancer a lot of strength and cognitive development. That’s why nowadays more and more Parkinson’s patients around the world complement their conventional treatment with regular ballroom sessions at medical dance institutions, which allow them to benefit from the practice of controlled physical movements while having fun.