Dancing Through Life
Updated: 5 days ago
This morning, several inches of snow blanketed the ground. We were ordered to stay home. I had planned on going to the gym; it was a leg day. Those plans were nixed. Yesterday, a friend from Cape Verde sent me a short video clip of her dance/exercise routine. She was dancing to rhythms from Angola. Inspired, I decided to dance instead.
I started the day with 20 minutes of breath work and an hour of meditation. Sitting for extended periods of time, even in meditation, is not good for the body. Sitting raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Sitting stresses the muscles of the back, neck, and spine. It’s worse if we slouch. Moving throughout the day does the body good.
This is why yogis practice asanas and walking meditation. Some mystics, like the whirling dervishes, dance their way to ecstasy. In the Hindu tradition, gods and goddesses are said to dance as a way of expressing the dynamic energy of life. Many styles of Indian classical dance—Bharata Natayam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathakali, Kathak, Mohini Attam, and Manipuri—are meditations of sorts. Postures, known as karanas, require intense concentration and are considered vehicles to the Self.
I dance for more mundane reasons: to improve elasticity and mobility, to strengthen fascial tissue, to improve cardiovascular and respiratory health, and for fun.
If I had gone to the gym, I would have done several sets of squats, front squats, leg curls, calve raises, and deadlifts. Most of these exercises are performed along the sagittal plane, that is, up and down.
When we dance, however, we move along multiple planes of motion- side to side (frontal plane) and up and down (sagittal plane). We also twist and rotate, spin and pivot (transverse plane). Moving along multiple planes of motion is better for the body than moving along a single plane. The functional movements of dance strengthen the body's structural fasciae. Fascia refers to connective tissues. These bands hold the body together, connecting muscle to muscle (aponeurosis), bone to bone (ligaments), and muscle to bone (tendons). Fascia is elastic and supple. It helps the body absorb and distribute force. When I dance, I move every body part and every joint along multiple planes of motion with mindfulness. I am fully present.
When we dance, all fascial tissue needs to be elastic, resilient and strong enough to accommodate dynamic, multi-directional movement. Fascia adapts when exposed to movements that cover all planes of motion. Training on machines or free weights doesn’t offer the same stimuli to create adaptations in the fascia.
When I'm working out, I don't dance like I'm at da club. I practice mild breath holding. Short breath holds simulate the effects of high-altitude training by inducing both a hypoxic (lack of oxygen) and hypercapnic (high carbon dioxide) response. These two effects lower sensitivity to carbon dioxide, increase endurance, reduce the discomfort and fatigue from lactic acid build-up, increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, improve breathing economy, and improve VO2 max (McKeown, 2015).
I also give the vestibular system a workout. Within the inner ear are two organs, the utricle and saccule, which help us maintain balance. They use small stones and a viscous fluid to stimulate hair cells to detect motion and orientation. This is the vestibular system. When I throw myself off balance, I force the vestibular system to re-orient. If we are not intentional, we lose our ability to balance as we age. Balance training sends robust information to the brain about the relationship between the visual world and the vestibular system. It also forces the body to correct. These micro-movements strengthen the kinetic chain from the feet, up the legs, to the core muscles, and the rest of the body. The vestibular system is also wired to the limbic system, which is involved in processing emotion. It could trigger the rush you feel when you're on a roller coaster or in a Tesla rocketing from 0-60 in 2.7 seconds. It triggers the nausea and dizziness you may feel after spinning in circles. Interestingly, children love this sort of play: roller coasters, carousels, spinning. The older we get, however, the less we enjoy these kinds of movements.
When I dance, I'm giving the brain a workout. The brain houses a map of the body's orientation, helping direct movement through space. Another region, the cerebellum, synchronizes (or entrains) body rhythms to music. In an instant, the brain makes calculations related to balance, spatial awareness, intention, and timing in the brain's sensorimotor region. The posterior parietal cortex translates visual information into motor commands, sending motor-to-motion signals to the premotor cortex and supplementary motor areas. The putamen is involved in metric motion, and the superior parietal lobule gives spatial guidance to our leg movements.
Dancers have thicker gray matter than controls in the superior and middle temporal gyri and precentral gyrus. They also have greater white-matter diffusivity in the corpus callosum, corticospinal tract, and superior longitudinal fasciculus. Long-term dance training is associated with brain plasticity in both gray- and white-matter regions associated with motor and auditory functions. In studies where dance was used as therapy or as an intervention, participants showed significant improvements in several aspects of brain function involving cognition and sensorimotor performance. In one study, researchers found that dancing led to larger volume increases in more brain areas, including the cingulate cortex, insula, corpus callosum and sensorimotor cortex compared to conventional fitness activities. Only dancing was associated with an increase in plasma BDNF levels (Rehfeld, 2018). BDNF is a molecule that plays a key role in plastic changes related to learning and memory.
Dancing significantly increases levels of osteocalcin. Osteocalcin is a versatile hormone secreted by the bones. It regulates whole body metabolism, reproduction, and cognition. Indeed, studies suggest that osteocalcin acts as an anti-geronic hormone that could prevent age-related cognitive decline (Obri, 2018). By contrast, an absence of osteocalcin resulted in profound deficits in both spatial learning and memory. Increased anxiety was also associated with a decrease in osteocalcin.
Dance is athletic and artistic. It is emotive. In Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free, Caroline Williams writes that light, expansive, repetitive, and rhythmic movements like those seen in the Jewish dance Hava Nagila can affect mood, promoting happiness. Indeed, dancers often express emotions through the body.
Dancing can be therapeutic. The acute care unit of brain and spinal cord injury at Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital uses dance to help patients recovering from central nervous system injury. In a meta-analysis of 44 studies, researchers found that the elderly "showed significant improvements in several aspects of brain function involving cognition and sensorimotor performance" following post-dance interventions (Kshtriya, 2015).
Dancing is highly social. When we study other dancers, mirror neurons, linked to empathy, are activated. Brain activity associated with observing and imagining movements was detected in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal lobule and was related to how much experience participants had with the dance steps and how highly they rated their ability to perform them.
Dance connects me to others. One way to connect to culture is through dance and one of my goals for the year is to learn 50 dances from around the world from azonto to zouk. That will be fun!