By Wanda Deschamps October 25, 2021
Dancing is the Best Medicine: The Science of How Moving to a Beat Is Good for Body, Brain, and Soul, Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang, Greystone, October 26, 2021, 328 pp., $24.70
Have you been doing your dancing in ballrooms or at raves, clubs, and parties?
If so, Dancing Is the Best Medicine will open your mind to new ways of thinking. Julia F. Christensen and Dong-Seon Chang – two neuroscientists and competitive dancers – have co-authored a book they describe as “The Science of How Moving to a Beat Is Good for Body, Brain and Soul.”
Dance, as it turns out, has a lot to do with science.
And Dancing is the Best Medicine answers the questions “What happens in our brains when we dance, and why does it make us so happy? Can dance increase our health and well-being? Make us smarter? Help us make new friends?”
Christensen and Chang met at an annual conference in Greece focused on ‘the human social brain’ and numerous recollections of that period serve as a basis for the content.
Written in a fun and informative way, Christensen and Chang, both PhDs, assert the health benefits of dance and link it to positive effects for those with a range of conditions and diseases. It includes a series of personal anecdotes from the authors’ own personal health challenges, from the perspective of a four-year-old autistic boy, and a woman with cancer.
“… the nerve cells in our brain responsible for listening and controlling movements are linked. Sounds from our environment enter our ears and travel as nerve impulses for movement straight into our legs.”
They explore the connections between dance and science from biology to psychology to neurology. Its anthropological and historical dimensions are studied from evolutionto cultural and art.
“Prehistoric humans danced in times of mourning and in times of joy; they danced to conjure rain, to appease the gods, and to stoke their rage towards their enemies. We can see how important dancing was to our ancestors when we look at their rock paintings – Stone Age graffiti, if you like. Four topics are regularly represented: animal and hunting scenes, family and property depictions, sexual behaviors – and dancing.”
The authors say dance was a means of exerting control over the mysteries of their everyday lives … to give themselves a sense of control, and the feeling that they were able to do something to secure their tribe’s survival for early Indigenous peoples.
The fundamental point is that dancing is good for you—any day.
“Dancing trains our motor skills, self-perception, and memory, and it enhances our freedom, our creativity, our emotions, and our community. It strengthens our cardiovascular system and our immune system, improves our posture, and keeps us nimble and flexible….”
Approximately 300 pages in nine chapters, the book’s form is mainly a combination of narrative and analysis with some instruction.
Chapter 3, Group Dance – The Social Benefit of Dancing declares that “Our academic debates today focus on the ‘social brain.’ We talk about cooperation and social interaction, and about what happens in our brains in the process. Humans are without a doubt the most social of all creatures. On our way to the bar and dance floor, we are still discussing what it is that enables us to negotiate, to compromise, and hence to collaborate.”
This serves as a nice intro to the section Dancing for The Feeling of Community,
“No one likes to be alone. Most of us know this from personal experience, but countless studies have also demonstrated how much we treasure or community. To be happy, we need other people, and we feel comfortable and secure when we belong to a group.”
And there is a logistical extension to dance.
“Today, science shows that moving in synchrony to music or to a particular rhythm was very important for the evolution and development of human societies. Dancing strengthened the social bonds within a group and gave people a feeling of identity and belonging that distinguished their group from other clans or tribes.”
From tribal group dances in Africa to debutante balls in the United States, dance builds internal generational integration and group cohesion.
Although, the authors convincingly argue that dancing can be for anyone, the primary audience for the book may be scientists, health and wellness professionals who specialize in movement, dancers, dance instructors and choreographers, even yogis and yoga instructors. But it has a wider appeal—from dancers at all levels to anyone who wishes to improve their overall health and wellness. I could not help but keep think of the joy put out into the world by Yukon Bhangra dancing sensation, Gurdeep Pandher.
And consider finishing Dancing is the Best Medicine in time for 2022’s International Dance Day on April 29, the anniversary of the birth of Jean-Georges Noverre, the creator of modern ballet. The intention of International Dance Day is to “allow for the celebration of dance as a universal language. From Australia’s Aboriginal people to the Inuit of the Far North – regardless of culture, religion, politics, or ethnicity, dance is a global phenomenon.”
In a polarized world that is suffering from injustice and environmental degradation, and our yearning for activity that can unify and revitalize us, an increased focus on dance offers an opening to foster greater inclusion and access.
Dancing is the Best Medicine certainly syncs with the rhythm of that goal.
(Wanda Deschamps is founder and principal of Liberty Co, a consultancy working to increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce.)
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