Can Dancing Change Our Brains?

Can dancing the tango improve the way your brain functions? A non-profit organization in New York has shown the answer is “Yes.” Dance for PD® works with people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Because Parkinson’s is a disorder of the brain, and the structure of the brain constantly changes, some people wondered if something as simple as dance could change the brain of Parkinson’s patients.

They asked the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn to create a program for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The program began in 2001, and now, almost a decade and a half later, the results are in. Scientific evidence bears out the subjective experience of the participants and their caregivers.

A number of studies published in the first few months of 2015 examine the topic of dance therapy for Parkinson’s. Here are some of the salient results:

1. Japanese researchers Hiroko Hashimoto et al studied 46 patients diagnosed with mild to moderate Parkinson’s. They determined that dance improved motor function, cognitive function, and mental symptoms.
2. Both Canadian and Swedish researchers investigated the use of tango lessons to improve motor and non-motor functions of Parkinson’s patients. They say the Argentine tango can improve balance and functional mobility, and they are calling on larger studies to test benefits on cognition and fatigue.
3. A literature review published in May 2015 in the journal Maturitus concluded that dance can cause “substantial and wide-ranging benefits” in people with Parkinson’s, and to the older population in general.

Overall, the studies show that dance can improve motor function, cognitive function, mental symptoms and the quality of life in general, both for people with and without Parkinson’s. Dance is such an effective approach to neurological disorders for the following reasons, according to an article by Dr. Ruth Buczynski:

1. Dance develops flexibility and instills confidence.
2. Dance is first and foremost a stimulating mental activity that connects mind to body
3. Dance breaks isolation.
4. Dance invokes imagery in the service of graceful movement.
5. Dance focuses attention on eyes, ears and touch as tools to assist in movement and balance
6. Dance increases awareness of where all parts of the body are in space.
7. Dance tells stories.
8. Dance sparks creativity.
9. The basis of dance is rhythm.
10. The essence of dance is joy.

Dr. Buczynski says the most important factors from the list above are creativity, the interruption of isolation, and the connection of mind to body.