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Shall We Dance?

Gene Kelly was “singing in the rain” but his joy was evident in his dancing, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. No matter that it was raining and he was getting soaked. Watching him glide through the streets made it seem like the sun was shining bright because of the warm feelings every graceful step evoked. Yes, dance is so much more than just movement; dance is emotion and energy.

Alameda Post - Gene Kelly Singing in the Rain

So, it should come as no surprise that dance is good for the brain. Yes, that’s right. Dance is not simply good for your physical health, it is a boost for your mental health as well! As much as I love to dance and wish everyone would try it, I would not make this stuff up. Because the science backs up the benefits of dance to the brain, it is now being used to treat people with Parkinson’s Disease, a neurological movement disorder. According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, nearly one million people in the United States are living with Parkinson’s and that number expected to grow.

“There’s no question, anecdotally at least, that music has a very stimulating effect on physical activity,” says Daniel Tarsy, MD, an HMS professor of neurology and director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). “And I think that applies to dance, as well.” (Dancing and the Brain, Scott Edwards)

In 2003, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine conducted a study which discovered that dance can decidedly improve brain health. The studies observed several types of leisure activities and the effect those activities have on the risk of dementia in the elderly. Of the eleven physical activities, ONLY dancing was shown to reduce the participants’ risk of dementia. This was surprising to me, as swimming, tennis and golf were among the activities studied. Not knocking those activities, just sharing the science in relation to lowering dementia risk. I must admit, this tidbit did have me dancing in my seat!

Studies using PET imaging show that the region of the brain that is stimulated by dance affects both, control of and coordination the brain’s sensory and motor circuits. Below, watch a fascinatingly beautiful video of 1960’s New York Ballet Prima Ballerina, Marta C. Gonzales, who has Alzheimer’s. (Before you click play, be warned that it may bring tears to your eyes as it did mine!)

The American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias published results of a study by the University of Otago in New Zealand. “[Alzheimer patients] responded to the music greatly and showed enthusiasm in moving to the music regardless of their physical limitation. Positive responses such as memory recalling, spontaneous dancing and joking with each other were observed in every session.”

“These observations have certainly reversed the stereotypical understanding of this group of people being passive and immobile. The music stimulates their responses much better than verbal instructions,” reported lead author Ting Choo.

Alameda Post - dancing
The author’s daughter, Makenzie Kan, dances in a stage production. Photo Denise Lum

Other studies show that dance reduces stress levels and may help battle depression due to the release of serotonin. Even dances emoting pain or sadness are described by the choreographers as therapy, a way to cope with those feelings. Additionally, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins are released leading you to a better mood. I certainly admit that when I’ve had a tough day, I am easier to deal with after “dancing it out” through a couple of Zumba classes, my favorite form of cardio exercise. My hubby and three kids will tell you; they support my teaching Zumba because they know that it doesn’t just benefit me, it protects them!

Imagine my delight when I found a small study done by North Dakota’s Minot State University [PDF] in which part of the study examined the effects of Zumba on an elderly female population. Participation was twice weekly and the study showed that cognitive improvement occurred in a relatively short period of time. “Processing speed, cognitive flexibility and visual memory all improved.”

So, the next time it rains, I’ll meet you under the lamp post!

Contributing writer Denise Lum is a Health and Fitness Coach raising her family in Alameda. Contact her via [email protected] or Her writing is collected at

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