Category Archives: dance

Get into the Groove!

The song plays, and your toe taps.  The sport crowd chants, and your body sways.  The band shreds, and your head bobs to the beat.  “You” don’t decide to tap, sway, or nod.  The movement happens, and you notice.  Why?  Research suggests these small, subconscious movements hold keys to your mental and physical health.

Dance research

In the past 10 years, research into the health benefits of dancing has exploded.  Reported benefits include not only physical outcomes (building strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance) [1]; but emotional (impacting mood, happiness, and resilience)[2] and cognitive (enhancing perception, memory, and concentration)[3] outcomes as well.  These benefits span human life, and appear across populations from healthy college students to patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and dementia.[4]

As evidence builds, researchers are asking how — How does dancing enhance our emotional, mental, and physical well-being?  What makes dancing effective?

Sensorimotor synchronization

One focus of this research is sensorimotor synchronization or entrainment:  dancing exercises a human’s instinctual ability to match a beat.

As Laura Cirelli at the TEMPOLab at the University of Toronto has found, humans not only respond to a beat within months of birth,[5] their ability to do so – their tempo flexibility – grows over time.  By age seven, a child can easily speed up and slow down, changing tempos within a 117 to 166 bpm range.[6]

Elements of synchronization

In learning any technique or tradition of dance, a person practices this capacity to synchronize, training it consciously to sense and respond to the rhythmic patterns of a given culture.

But what does sensorimotor synchronization (SMS) entail?  For one, SMS requires a readiness to be moved by sound waves that occur in rhythmic patterns.  In other words, the human auditory system is wired to notice spaced, repeating beats.  This capacity is not surprising, perhaps, given the regular rhythms of our own heart and lungs.  A fetus swims in the pulse of a mother’s heartbeat, before laying down neural pathways needed to sense it.

Second, humans not only perceive rhythmic sequences, as we hear them, our bodily selves mobilize a response that expresses itself in physical action.  We tap, sway, and nod.  Even if we try to suppress these outward actions, our heart rate, breathing, and even our brain waves align with rhythms we perceive — regardless of whether those rhythms come from a passing train, a partner’s pulse, or a favorite song.

Third, these movement responses are not simply reactions to what we hear.  Our tapping, nodding, and swaying anticipate the next beat in the sequence, so that our movements happen on or very close to the next beat.[7]  We tap, sway, or nod in time. We get into the “groove.”[8]  Said otherwise, the rhythms humans perceive stimulate us to act anew.

Finally, evidence is growing that as humans synchronize to a beat, our brains release cocktails of “happy chemicals” – endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and more.[9]  Propelled by a beat to move with it, humans feel more aware, alive, and resourceful, more able to push through fear and tolerate pain.  This effect, moreover, is distinct from – though may be enhanced by – the effects of physical exertion per se.

Evolutionary purpose of synchronization

Ever since Emile Durkheim’s account of “collective effervescence,” anthropologists and sociologists have explained the evolutionary purpose of sensorimotor synchronization in terms of social bonding.[10]  When humans move together in time, they share an experience of heightened joy.  They perceive themselves as part of the larger community that made this joy possible.  The distinction between self and other blurs.  Such experiences of melding, researchers suggest, primed humans to cooperate,[11] learn language,[12] and develop morals, religions, and cultures.[13]  Dancing (as well as music) may have helped bridge the gap between primates and humans.[14]

Yet, social-bonding explanations for the health benefits of dancing gloss over what may be even more fundamental: as humans exercise their capacity to synchronize, they get better at it.  A trained sensorimotor synchronization integrates subconscious and conscious processes.[15]

The implications are twofold. On the one hand, as humans dances, they grow more sensitive and responsive to the rhythms in and around them – even in moments when they are not actively dancing.  A heightened sensitivity to rhythm stays with us as we move through the day, boosting moods and cognitive abilities.

On the other hand, as this awareness develops, so does our capacity to discern whether or not synchronizing with a particular rhythm will enhance our health and well-being.  Not all beats are life-enabling.  As autocrats throughout history know, humans are vulnerable to being seduced to commit atrocious acts by speech and music, by parades and displays — that is, by rhythmic movement.

By training our capacity to synchronize, dancing provides us with a way to beneficially engage and enjoy what we are born ready to do. 

Conclusion

Dancing is not a technology of the past beyond which humans have evolved.  Dancing remains a vital practice for generating joy, motivating action, building physical strength and agility, and above all, cultivating awareness of how we are always sensing and responding to rhythm.

So next time you feel the impulse to tap, sway, or nod, do yourself a favor.

Get into the groove.


Also published on Psychology Today as: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-a-body-knows/202301/why-dancing-is-good-for-you


[1] Fong Yan A, Cobley S, Chan C, Pappas E, Nicholson LL, Ward RE, Murdoch RE, Gu Y, Trevor BL, Vassallo AJ, Wewege MA, Hiller CE. The Effectiveness of Dance Interventions on Physical Health Outcomes Compared to Other Forms of Physical Activity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2018 Apr;48(4):933-951. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0853-5. PMID: 29270864.

[2] Vankova, Hana; Iva Holmerova; Katerina Machacova; Ladislav Volicer; Petr Veleta; Alexander Martin Celko (2014), The Effect of Dance on Depressive Symptoms in Nursing Home Residents, Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, Volume 15, Issue 8, 2014, Pages 582-587, ISSN 1525-8610, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jamda.2014.04.013.

[3] Verghese, Joe M.D., Richard B. Lipton, M.D., et al. Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. N Engl J Med 2003; 348:2508-2516 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa022252

[4] Hwang PW, Braun KL. The Effectiveness of Dance Interventions to Improve Older Adults’ Health: A Systematic Literature Review. Altern Ther Health Med. 2015 Sep-Oct;21(5):64-70. PMID: 26393993 Free PMC article. Review.

[5] Zentner M, Eerola T. Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Mar 30;107(13):5768-73. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1000121107. Epub 2010 Mar 15. PMID: 20231438; PMCID: PMC2851927.

[6] Kragness, H. E., Anderson, L., Chow, E., Schmuckler, M., & Cirelli, L. K. (2022). Effects of groove on children’s motor responses. Developmental Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13249

[7] Aschersleben. (2002). Temporal Control of Movements in Sensorimotor Synchronization. Brain and Cognition, 48(1), 66–79. https://doi.org/10.1006/brcg.2001.1304

[8] Janata, P., Tomic, S. T., & Haberman, J. M. (2012). Sensorimotor Coupling in Music and the Psychology of the Groove. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 141(1), 54–75. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024208

[9] Tarr, Bronwyn. Let’s Dance: Sychronized movement helps us tolerate pain and foster friendship. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/lets-dance-synchronised-movement-helps-us-tolerate-pain-and-foster-friendship-49835

[10] McNeill W.H. (1995). Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in human history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[11] Wiltermuth, & Heath, C. (2009). Synchrony and Cooperation. Psychological Science, 20(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x

[12] Kragness, H. E., Anderson, L., Chow, E., Schmuckler, M., & Cirelli, L. K. (2022). Effects of groove on children’s motor responses. Developmental Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13249

[13] Tarr B, Launay J, Dunbar RI. Music and social bonding: “self-other” merging and neurohormonal mechanisms. Front Psychol. 2014 Sep 30;5:1096. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01096. PMID: 25324805; PMCID: PMC4179700.

[14] Dunbar RI. Bridging the bonding gap: the transition from primates to humans. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Jul 5;367(1597):1837-46. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0217. PMID: 22641822; PMCID: PMC3367699.

[15] Repp BH. Sensorimotor synchronization: a review of the tapping literature. Psychon Bull Rev. 2005 Dec;12(6):969-92. doi: 10.3758/bf03206433. PMID: 16615317.