Health & Body

Dancing Hones Your Body, But What Does It Do to Your Brain?

Does dancing lead to long-term changes in the brain? Photo by Thinkstock.

Dancing can be exhausting—on your body and brain. Neuroscientist Agnieszka Burzynska, from Colorado State University, understands this. "I did some modern dancing myself back in high school. I remember how hard it was to remember a sequence, and then our teacher would say, 'Now let's flip it to the other leg!'"

But does this mental work lead to long-term changes in the brain? In a recent study, Burzynska and her team looked at 40 female college students: half highly trained in modern dance, and half non-dancers. They had the subjects do various tasks—from watching dance videos to remembering the location of dots on a screen—and used scanners to look at their brain structure and activity. Here's what they found:


Dance-specific Smarts

Dancers' brains are better are at processing dance-related tasks—but not necessarily better at everyday cognitive performance, like memory or processing speed. In other words, just because you're a pro at catching onto choreography, "it doesn't mean it makes you smarter at school," says Burzynska. This is consistent with previous studies from other researchers. "If you train at something, you get better at it. That doesn't mean you will become more intelligent in general."

Competitors watching from the wings at Prix de Lausanne. Photo by Gregory Batardon, Courtesy Prix de Lausanne.

A Great Ability to Focus—on Dance

Dancers are, however, better at focusing on dance. When watching a performance, a dancer's brain hops into action, almost as if she were dancing the piece herself. Burzynska and team showed this performance-triggered "action observation network" is stronger in dancers than non-dancers. "This allows them to watch a choreography and engage in it and possibly remember it," she says. They're also better at telling themselves to pay close attention. "Dancers may indeed be better at telling this action observation network that, hey, we're observing dance, let's focus on it, let's do the work."

A Typical-sized Brain

Previous studies on people who perform activities like golf and juggling show their brains get bigger in relevant areas. But Burzynska and team found little difference between dancers and non-dancers. So do dancers use their brains less than golfers or jugglers? No, but their training is more multidimensional, meaning increases to brain size may be spread out among more regions. Or their brains may have grown once upon a time, then settled back down. "Our brains cannot keep growing," says Burzynska. "We have a limited skull."

Speedier Paths

The researchers also looked at how the brain cells are connected. They found some differences between dancers and non-dancers in the bundle of connections that carries information from the tops of our brains down to our bodies. Burzynska speculates the dancers' connections are thicker (but can't know for sure without cutting into the subjects' brains). "And the thicker they are, the faster they can conduct the signals. This of course can help for better motor performance, or better body coordination."

Boston Ballet dancers in rehearsal with William Forsythe. Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Different Connectivity—for Good or Bad

The researchers also compared the connections that form when people learn a physical skill. Burzynska says, "Sometimes dancers had stronger connectivity between some regions, and sometimes they had weaker connectivity between regions." Although she can't say exactly what this means, she highlights that stronger doesn't always mean better. "We just know that the brain adjusts to the needs."

An Optimistic Outlook

Overall, "what we observed were pretty subtle differences," Burzynska says. "But I wouldn't say it's not enough, or it's not big so it's not optimistic. Honestly, if the brain was very different, I think we would worry a bit."

That's because the brain, she says, is already well designed and must remain in balance. "If dancers had huge differences, and were outperforming at some functions, I'm afraid it could come at some other cost."

So while dancing won't make you a genius, it'll improve your brain exactly as much as it needs to make you a better dancer.

Show Comments ()
Dance in Pop Culture

The revival of everything '90s has been in full-swing for a while now—we saw Destiny's Child reunite at Coachella, Britney Spears is headed back on tour, and the Spice Girls miiight be performing at the Royal wedding next month. But Hollywood saved the best '90s moment for last, bringing *NSYNC back together to receive their official star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 30.

Because we love a good dance #TBT, we're reliving five of the boys' best dance moments.

"I Want You Back"

The band's first single from their self-titled debut album in 1998, "I Want You Back," was the start of their takeover (and their choreographed dance moves).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!

Health & Body
StockSnap

When I wrote about my struggle with depression, and eventual departure from dance because of it, I expected criticism. I was prepared to be challenged. But much to my relief, and horror, dancers from all over the world responded with support and stories of solidarity. The most critical response I saw was this one:

"Dance isn't for everyone."

This may as well be a mantra in the dance world. We have become entrenched in the Darwinian notion that the emotionally weak will be weeded out. There is no room for them anyway.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Name calling, physical intimidation and cyberbullying are all-too-common experiences among male dancers. Photo by Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash

Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.

"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "

Keep reading... Show less
What Wendy's Watching
Photo by Scott Shaw

Gina Gibney runs two enormous dance spaces in New York City: Together they contain 23 studios, five performance spaces, a gallery, a conference room, a media lab and more. Gibney is now probably the largest dance center in the country. It's not surprising that Dance Magazine named Gina Gibney one of the most influential people in dance today.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Maria Kochetkova blatantly breaks the not-eating-in-your-Serenade-costume rules with a personal pint backstage. Photo via Instagram

One of the biggest myths about ballet dancers is that they don't eat. While we all know that, yes, there are those who do struggle with body image issues and eating disorders, most healthy dancers love food—and eat plenty of it to fuel their busy schedules.

Luckily for us, they're not afraid to show it:

Keep reading... Show less
News
Acosta Danza in Jorge Crecis' Twelve. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy Sadler's Wells

What does a superstar like Carlos Acosta do after bidding farewell to his career in classical ballet? In Acosta's case, he returns to his native country, Cuba, to funnel his fame, connections and prodigious energies back into the dance scene that formed him. Because of its top-notch, state-supported training programs and popular embrace of the art of dance, Cuba is brimming with talented dancers. What it has been short on, until recently, are opportunities outside of the mainstream companies, as well as access to a more international repertoire. That is changing now, and, with the creation of Acosta Danza, launched in 2016, Acosta is determined to open the doors even wider to new ideas and audiences.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
University of Kentucky students travel to Arts Advocacy Day in DC each year. PC Dana Rogers Photography

There's so much more to the dance world than making and performing dances. Arts administrators do everything from raising money to managing companies to building new audiences. With the growing number of arts administration programs in colleges, dancers have an opportunity to position themselves for a multifaceted career on- or offstage—and to bring their unique perspective as artists to administrative work.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Photo via the Hammer Museum

While Solange was busy helping big sis Beyoncé give Coachella its best performances of all time, an equally compelling project was quietly circulating on Instagram:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
"There is a palpable sense of hope for the future." Photo by Devin Alberda via Instagram

New York City Ballet continues its first year without Peter Martins at the helm as our spring season opens tonight.

When he retired at the start of the new year, we plunged headfirst into unknown, murky waters. Who would the new director be? When would we know? Would we dancers get some say in the decision? Who would oversee the Balanchine ballets? Who would be in charge of casting? Would a new director bring along huge upheaval? Could some of us be out of a job?

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways