Musings on dance and the brain

I’m still (slowly) working on a post about Bellydance Trophies, but in the mean time, here are some thoughts which perhaps you will find interesting…

One of the first skills we begin to develop as dancers is called proprioception. This basically means knowing the position of your body, without having to look. This sounds like it should be easy, but actually most people’s proprioception isn’t great – I notice this a lot when I’m cycling, and I see people trying to signal that they are about to turn by raising one arm. They think that their arm is out to the side, but often it’s actually pointing somewhere completely different, usually down and to the back. In dance classes, this problem shows up when beginners are asked for the first time to raise their arms to their sides, or above their heads.

One of the first things we begin learning when we step into a dance class is to adjust the normal posture of our body so that what feels ‘normal’ and comfortable becomes closer to what is healthy, graceful and well aligned. And when we perform, we don’t have any way to see ourselves, so we have to be able to move confidently, knowing that what we think we’re doing matches what we’re actually doing.

Learning to dance, and practising dance movements, is actually rewiring your own nervous system. I think this is pretty cool. By comparing what we feel to what we see in the mirror, we are making a more detailed map of the body in the brain. As we refine our movements, we are building new neural connections to muscles that we weren’t previously able to consciously control. And as we practise a new movement or sequence of moves, by repeating it, we are creating pathways in the brain for those whole sequences of movement, which enable us to eventually repeat them without conscious effort.

The brain is massively complex, and movements, memories and ideas are often connected in our minds in surprising ways, so thinking of seemingly unrelated imagery can often lead to noticeable differences in dance movement. Finding roundabout ways to persuade your brain to communicate a certain message to your muscles can be an art in itself…

So, as we become better dancers, we are actually completely reshaping the relationship between mind and body. In a sense, we become a living work of art, or a musician and their instrument at the same time, as we fine-tune our body and our nervous system to move with skill and grace in harmony with our music. To conclude my ramblings, dance is not just a thing that you do, it is something that you become. Learning to dance will change you, for the better in my opinion!

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7 thoughts on “Musings on dance and the brain

  1. Very lovely summary! Learning things like this about dancing just makes me feel so much closer to what I do. It’s a wonderful junction of science and spirituality! And I appreciate the new vocabulary – proprioception – I’ll have to use that word now!

    • I’m happy that you found it enlightening 🙂 I also love learning about these things, dancing has opened up so many areas of interest that I’d never otherwise have encountered… I have found a lot of interesting ideas about the mind-body connection in dance from reading the works of Eric Franklin (I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of using his ideas and visualisations), and also enjoyed reading ‘Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain’ by Oliver Sacks recently, as there is a lot of overlap between musicians and dancers in areas like muscle memory.

  2. Very good post Rachel – I certainly had to completely rebuild the mind body connection after my lower limb loss. It’s amazing how the body and indeed the mind can adapt! Can you recommend any specific reading – that would be of interest to make further study of this train of thought?

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