Non Sequitur Fridays

The Psychological Superpowers of Dance

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistian's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Elise Ramsay is community manager at Wistia. Her last Non Sequitur was about Comic-Con.

"Dance is a prime means of human expression that may have originated in rudimentary form as early as 1.8 million years ago, when the bipedal anatomy of Homo ergaster enabled full body movements that enhanced the capacity for gestural communication and body language (Mithen, 2005). Dance therefore has the potential to be not only beautiful in the esthetic sense, but also bountiful in what it reveals about cognition, action, and human interaction." - Peter E. Keller

TL;DR: Dancing is the best way to both internalize and release emotion, and I think you should get your groove on (or back) ASAP. But that's easy for me to say: I've always been a dancer.

I actually don't remember ever not dancing. It has always been the less boring version of walking, for me. My long history with dance has been, at times, tumultuous—it was my original career into which I poured literal blood, sweat, and tears (in reverse order)—and I'm currently trying to find a way to include it in my life without it being my profession. Lately, I've taken to renting out a big empty studio for an hour or two, jacking up the sound system, and trying not to judge myself.

Why do I do this? My studies in psychology have given evidence for what I've known all along: dancing isn't just fun, it has some secret magical powers. Here are a handful:

It helps you work through things

On rough days, flailing around can be surprisingly therapeutic. Even if you don't go into the studio with something in the back of your mind, you often leave better equipped to untangle a variety of challenges. There's a certain violence to flinging yourself around a room this way, and by the end I'm often bruised and exhausted. If you let the beat bounce around your joints, it tends to collect some worries and nonsense and discard them on its way out.

It might just improve your emotional intelligence

Dance's relationship to emotion is no joke, and recent research is even making the argument that experience with dance enhances one's ability to accurately perceive the emotions of others.

The way you move your body means something—it's a powerful and timeless form of nonverbal communication, and one that other humans pick up on from an early age. Around 4-5 years old, kids can accurately detect emotions and report their intensity when watching adults dance. That's a good sign of healthy development, too; impairment in emotional perception makes interactions with other humans incredibly difficult, and as such, is a common feature of disorders such as autism and Asperger's. Could exposure to and experience with dance actually increase your recognition and understanding of other people's emotions? It's a theory.

It hones your mind-body connection

There's an incredible and constant flow of communication between our brain and our muscles whenever we move. This happens in both directions. It's been a long time since my last neurobiology class, but here’s how I understand it:

Stimuli in nerve endings send information through sensory neurons up the spinal cord to the brain, which determines the appropriate response and sends an action potential back through motor neurons to the muscle, telling it to fire. That's when you snatch your hand back from the hot stove. These communications are happening instantly, all the time. I know. We are amazing.

That's well and good for boring, everyday life functions, but just think about how that must work for emotional, controlled movement like dance. Imagine the sensory information the brain gets when you jump as high as you can at the instant you hear the crescendo of the music. Air rushing past your skin, vibrations hitting your eardrums, toes pushing off the ground at launch, all bundled to create a memory of that experience in all its emotion and physicality.

Activating this mind-body connection has some serious benefits beyond the momentary satisfaction of executing a great jump. Research has shown that dance therapy can change a person's affect and reduce anxiety and depression. Another study reported that regular ballroom dancing was correlated with stopping the decline of cognitive, perceptual, and motor abilities in the elderly. Research in this field is just getting started—there's a lot we have yet to learn.

Dance teaches you to experience music in a whole new way

There's nothing like a song that vibrates your bones, slaps you awake, or brings you to your knees. The best dancing songs are heavy in your chest, like hot whiskey or heartbreak. When you dance, you can manipulate a song however you like. I love stretching a beat to its limit before it snaps back, or taking the undercurrent (not the melody) for a ride. See, if you have music in your body, every note is a muscle you selectively flex. You syncopate, you play with the middle layer, you stop moving entirely. You have to push the music and respect it at the same time. It's a neuromuscular high.

I geek out over the fact that what I've felt since I started performing at age 5 is now gaining traction in psychological research. It's pretty amazing that dance can both help me feel more deeply and give me the ability to make others feel something. When I'm onstage, I have you in the palm of my hand. I can crush you, I can surprise you, I can make you lose time. I can make you feel what I want you to feel. That's the closest thing to a superpower that I have.

Have I convinced you? Are you tapping your feet right now? What's your favorite song to dance to lately?

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