For centuries, dance manuals and other writings have lauded the health benefits of dancing, usually as physical exercise. More recently we've seen research on further health benefits of dancing, such as stress reduction and increased serotonin level, with its sense of well-being.
Then most recently we've heard of another benefit: Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one's mind can ward off Alzheimer's disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit. Dancing also increases cognitive acuity at all ages.
You may have heard about the New England Journal of Medicine report on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging. Here it is in a nutshell.
The 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
The study wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity. They discovered that some activities had a significant beneficial effect. Other activities had none.
They studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. And they studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.
One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind. There was one important exception: the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.
Reading - 35% reduced risk of dementia
Bicycling and swimming - 0%
Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week - 47%
Playing golf - 0%
Dancing frequently - 76%. That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.
Quoting Dr. Joseph Coyle, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who wrote an accompanying commentary: "The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use."
And from from the study itself, Dr. Katzman proposed these persons are more resistant to the effects of dementia as a result of having greater cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses. Like education, participation in some leisure activities lowers the risk of dementia by improving cognitive reserve.
Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed. If it doesn't need to, then it won't.
Aging and memory
When brain cells die and synapses weaken with aging, our nouns go first, like names of people, because there's only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information. If the single neural connection to that name fades, we lose access to it. So as we age, we learn to parallel process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks. (Or maybe we don't learn to do this, and just become a dimmer bulb.)
The key here is Dr. Katzman's emphasis on the complexity of our neuronal synapses. More is better. Do whatever you can to create new neural paths. The opposite of this is taking the same old well-worn path over and over again, with habitual patterns of thinking and living our lives.
When I was studying the creative process as a grad student at Stanford, I came across the perfect analogy to this:
The more stepping stones there are across the creek, the easier it is to cross in your own style.
The focus of that aphorism was creative thinking, to find as many alternative paths as possible to a creative solution. But as we age, parallel processing becomes more critical. Now it's no longer a matter of style, it's a matter of survival — getting across the creek at all. Randomly dying brain cells are like stepping stones being removed one by one. Those who had only one well-worn path of stones are completely blocked when some are removed. But those who spent their lives trying different mental routes each time, creating a myriad of possible paths, still have several paths left.
The Albert Einstein College of Medicine study shows that we need to keep as many of those paths active as we can, while also generating new paths, to maintain the complexity of our neuronal synapses.
We immediately ask two questions:
Why is dancing better than other activities for improving mental capabilities?
Does this mean all kinds of dancing, or is one kind of dancing better than another?
That's where this particular study falls short. It doesn't answer these questions as a stand-alone study. Fortunately, it isn't a stand-alone study. It's one of many studies, over decades, which have shown that we increase our mental capacity by exercising our cognitive processes. Intelligence: Use it or lose it. And it's the other studies which fill in the gaps in this one. Looking at all of these studies together lets us understand the bigger picture.
Some of this is discussed here (the page you may have just came from) which looks at intelligence in dancing. The essence of intelligence is making decisions. And the concluding advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style.
One way to do that is to learn something new. Not just dancing, but anything new. Don't worry about the probability that you'll never use it in the future. Take a class to challenge your mind. It will stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new pathways. Difficult and even frustrating classes are better for you, as they will create a greater need for new neural pathways.
Then take a dance class, which can be even better. Dancing integrates several brain functions at once, increasing your connectivity. Dancing simultaneously involves kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional processes.
What kind of dancing?
Let's go back to the study: Bicycling, swimming or playing golf - 0% reduced risk of dementia
But doesn't golf require rapid-fire decision-making? No, not if you're a long-time player. You made most of the decisions when you first started playing, years ago. Now the game is mostly refining your technique. It can be good physical exercise, but the study showed it led to no improvement in mental acuity.
Therefore do the kinds of dance where you must make as many split-second decisions as possible. That's key to maintaining true intelligence.
Does any kind of dancing lead to increased mental acuity? No, not all forms of dancing will produce this benefit. Not dancing which, like golf or swimming, mostly works on style or retracing the same memorized paths. The key is the decision-making. Remember (from this page), Jean Piaget suggested that intelligence is what we use when we don't already knowwhat to do.
We wish that 25 years ago the Albert Einstein College of Medicine thought of doing side-by-side comparisons of different kinds of dancing, to find out which was better. But we can figure it out by looking at who they studied: senior citizens 75 and older, beginning in 1980. Those who danced in that particular population were former Roaring Twenties dancers (back in 1980) and then former Swing Era dancers (today), so the kind of dancing most of them continued to do in retirement was what they began when they were young: freestyle social dancing -- basic foxtrot, swing, waltz and maybe some Latin.
I've been watching senior citizens dance all of my life, from my parents (who met at a Tommy Dorsey dance), to retirement communities, to the Roseland Ballroom in New York. I almost never see memorized sequences or patterns on the dance floor. I mostly see easygoing, fairly simple social dancing — freestyle lead and follow. But freestyle social dancing isn't that simple! It requires a lot of split-second decision-making, in both the lead and follow roles.
I need to digress here: I want to point out that I'm not demonizing memorized sequence dancing or style-focused pattern-based ballroom dancing. I sometimes enjoy sequence dances myself, and there are stress-reduction benefits of any kind of dancing, cardiovascular benefits of physical exercise, and even further benefits of feeling connected to a community of dancers. So all dancing is good.
But when it comes to preserving mental acuity, then some forms are significantly better than others. When we talk of intelligence (use it or lose it) then the more decision-making we can bring into our dancing, the better.
Who benefits more, women or men?
In social dancing, the follow role automatically gains a benefit, by making hundreds of split-second decisions as to what to do next. As I mentioned on this page, women don't "follow", they interpret the signals their partners are giving them, and this requires intelligence and decision-making, which is active, not passive. This benefit is greatly enhanced by dancing with different partners, not always with the same fellow. With different dance partners, you have to adjust much more and be aware of more variables. This is great for staying smarter longer.
But men, you can also match her degree of decision-making if you choose to do so. (1) Really notice your partner and what works best for her. Notice what is comfortable for her, where she is already going, which moves are successful with her and what aren't, and constantly adapt your dancing to these observations. That's rapid-fire split-second decision making. (2) Don't lead the same old patterns the same way each time. Challenge yourself to try new things. Make more decisions more often. Intelligence: use it or lose it.
And men, the huge side-benefit is that your partners will have much morefun dancing with you when you are attentive to their dancing and constantly adjusting for their comfort and continuity of motion.
Finally, remember that this study made another suggestion: do it often. Seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week. If you can't take classes or go out dancing four times a week, then dance as much as you can. More is better.
And do it now, the sooner the better. It's essential to start building your cognitive reserve now. Some day you'll need as many of those stepping stones across the creek as possible. Don't wait — start building them now.
For those who love it, ballroom dancing beats a dull workout on the treadmill. And now, cardiologists are also realizing just how powerful the dance workouts can be.
Italian researchers have found that just 21 minutes of dancing, three times a week, can match the cardiovascular benefits from working out on a treadmill or bicycle.
Instructor Chris Thompson says ballroom dance techniques work because they automatically emphasize good health.
"It's not only aerobic, it's [also] isometric," he says. "One of the most important things we stress is posture, posture, posture."
Thompson says the movement — which helps the arms, legs and torso — is also an instant stress reliever.
"You cannot maintain a clench when your shoulders are pressed down," he says. "Your arms are extended so it's a very freeing [and] open feeling. It makes you breath a little deeper and it gets the blood flowing."
The study finding is music to the ears of 61-year-old ballroom fanatic Bob Silva.
"I don't like to exercise," he says. "I hate it. But if I'm dancing, I don't care how tired I am. When I hear the music and see the women, I can just push myself and it feels wonderful."
After two years of dancing at the Dance Factory in Arlington, Va., Silva realized that his hobby was also improving his health. He lost weight that he wasn't able to lose before, and was able to cut his blood pressure medications in half.
One of Silva's younger dance partners, Anne Marie Lund, also found that dancing improved her once-sedentary lifestyle.
"I didn't have any physical endurance," she says. "I could barely make it though one song. And if I couldn't, I'd apologize to my partner and sit down and wait until I could get up again."
Lund says the dance studio has almost become her second home. It's that much fun, she says.
"I can't believe I fell into this just by accident," says Lund. "It's changed my life. That's a big statement. I was heading towards a lot of weight-related health problems, and I've turned that around."
Not everyone who tries ballroom dancing falls in love with it. But those who do find that exercise becomes a form of play.
As America's second oldest franchise organization, Arthur Murray International, Inc. is known around the world as a prominent entertainment company with franchises located throughout the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Africa and Australia.
With the beginning of a new millennium, social dancing is again a significant part of popular culture for all generations. Today, the Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studios continue a tradition of more than 93 years in teaching the world to dance.
The history of the Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studios began in 1912 with a man named Arthur Murray, an American symbol of entrepreneurial success and social dancing. Murray was among the first to use advertising techniques considered cutting edge at the time. His concept of selling dance lessons by mail, one step at a time, took the use of direct mail to a new level.
Murray's creative use of print advertising attracted national attention, as did his business acumen. In March of 1920, using students from Georgia Tech, Murray arranged to have music transmitted to a group of his dance students a few miles away. This was the world's first radio broadcast of live dance music for dancing.
Prior to World War II, Arthur Murray teachers were a regular part of every first-class steamship cruise and during the Thirties, the studios introduced such dances to the public as the "Lambeth Walk" and "The Big Apple." In fact it was "The Big Apple" that launched Mr. Murray's one studio into the largest chain of dance schools.
In 1942 singer Betty Hutton with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra recorded the big hit song "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In A Hurry" for the movie "The Fleet's In" and by 1946 there were 72 Arthur Murray Dance Studios across America.
Arthur Murray was the first to realize the growing popularity of the Latin dances in America during the 1950's. Many conventions were held in Cuba during that time to give Arthur Murray dance trainers first-hand knowledge of the hot new Latin styles and moves that were in vogue and becoming popular.
In July 1950, Mr. Murray purchased five fifteen minute television spots on CBS and persuaded his wife Kathryn to do the teaching. Before the third show, Arthur bought a half-hour summer series on ABC. The show was called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party." By May 1952, the Murray's had televised almost 100 programs. Their TV ratings climbed and in the summer of 1952 they signed with their first sponsor, General Foods. Millions of viewers all over the United States fell in love with the show and flocked to the Arthur Murray Studios throughout the country. This highly popular show ran for twelve years on national television.
When Arthur and Kathryn Murray retired in 1964, a group of franchisees purchased the company and brought a fresh new spirit and leadership to it. Under its new leadership, the Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studios have kept pace with the rapidly changing "youth culture" and continue today to flourish as the world's largest dance instruction organization.
Arthur Murray dance teachers can be found not only in the studios, but on the movies sets in Hollywood; backstage on Broadway; and in partnership with major entertainers to promote the music that the world dances to. Whenever a movie involves dance, it's a good bet that AMII has been involved in some way, shape or form. Such movies as Dirty Dancing, Dirty Dancing II, Dance with Me, Beauty and the Beast, Flash Dance, An American President, True Lies, Saturday Night Fever and Scent of a Woman are some of the films which have used Arthur Murray instructors to either teach a dance to the stars and/or dance in the film.
The Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studio's name appears regularly in major national magazines that include Vogue, Martha Stewart Wedding, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, Woman's Day and more. Wherever advertisers want to reach consumers with a message of romance, intimacy or just plain fun, you'll see dancing, from the Gap's now famous Khaki Swing commercials to dancing M&M's and gas pumps.
Arthur Murray International's commitment to dance goes even further, with senior management heavily involved in the world of professional and amateur competitive dance, known as Dance Sport. Many of Arthur Murray's officials have contributed to bringing competitive ballroom to the forefront as an Olympic Sport.
All Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studios are independently owned and operated by individuals who started as dance instructors and worked their way up to the executive level. By the time they are qualified to purchase a franchise, they have experienced every phase of studio operations, from teaching and supervising to marketing and managing. It is possible for an ambitious person to advance to a top executive job and become eligible to be a franchisee within just a few years.
Building from within has kept the studio system strong, with franchisees that are committed to the Spirit of Excellence which is the hallmark of the entire Arthur Murray system. Currently there are approximately 250 Arthur Murray Franchised Dance Studios worldwide.