You can’t dance in a CT scanner, so we do not know with 100 per cent accuracy what happens in the brain when we dance.
Why would you want to know what happens in the brain when we dance? Well, because scientists are pretty sure that should someone manage a Macarena in that porthole-shaped space that provides a window into the inner workings of the body, the resultant image would be of interest to teachers. Dancing, they believe, could improve our ability to learn. They just can’t conclusively prove it.
That proof could be important. Dance is not usually taken seriously enough in schools. Entries to dance GCSE remain stubbornly lower than other arts subjects such as music and drama (see graphic, page 38) and it is not viewed with the same respect as core subjects, or even many non-core subjects.
If scientists could prove that dance has broad-ranging benefits across the curriculum, its status in schools could be turned around.
The thing is, however, what we know already about the brain and the impact of dance upon it should arguably be enough to do that already.
Even the simplest of dance steps require complicated mental coordination, with all sorts of calculations relating to auditory and visual processing, spatial awareness and proprioception (which is the body’s ability to sense joint movement), balance, intention and timing all taking place in the brain’s sensorimotor system.
One study that got its subjects to attempt a kind of lying-down dancing in a CT scanner demonstrated that a huge number of brain areas were active, in complex interactions, and not just those usually associated with movement (see bit.ly/DanceScan).
Just imagine what the scan would look like if someone was able to do a salsa in there.
Of course, as neuroscientist Dr Emily Cross, of Bangor University, says “pretty much everything will change the brain”. The real question is whether dance does this better than other activities, or has specific knock-on effects of interest to schools.
The research is promising. In a recent study at Bangor, young adults watched dance sequences, listened to soundtracks and then took part in the dance themselves. Their brains were scanned after each activity.
“We had this really beautiful set of data that shows the brain engagement ramps up progressively the more sensory cues you give someone when they’re learning,” says Cross. Dancing was much more stimulating to the brain than either watching or listening.
But does that equate to better learning? There are plenty of studies looking at interventions where, after a vigorous bout of dancing or a term-long dance course, subjects were given practical tests on memory recall, attention, creative thinking and levels of stress and self-esteem, with strong results in each of these areas.
“In the past, people have said: ‘How can moving your body change the way you think and solve problems?’” says dance psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt, who is based at the University of Hertfordshire (see bit.ly/PeterLovatt). “But we’re seeing more and more that it does.”
It is widely accepted that exercise in general increases the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, essential for the creation of neurons and the health of existing neurons. Exercise, therefore, can boost memory and, some have argued, creativity, reasoning and learning, too.
The extra that dance gives us, suggests the research, is that it is cognitively as well as physically challenging: learning a dance routine will have a far greater impact on your mental agility than a run around the school field.
“Dance has four elements,” explains Lovatt. “A cognitive element – when you’re dancing, you have spatial awareness issues, a memory load issue, there’s a whole lot of cognitive stuff going on. Often, there’s a social element: you’re part of a shared movement, even if you’re not touching or talking [with other dancers].
“There’s a physical element – you’re raising your heart rate. And the fourth element is the emotional aspect. We know that when people dance it changes them emotionally, they report an improvement in mood, a reduction in anger, in tension and in fatigue.”
As lovely as all this may sound, you may be failing to see how this should impact schools. Should teachers now be planning ambitious cross-curricular schemes of work: foxtrot French, Gangnam geography? Not exactly.
Good creative dance lessons are much more than copying the nae nae, or whatever other YouTube dance craze is hot this week (watch here: bit.ly/WhipNae). They can encompass embodying abstract concepts, thematic topics or empathetic acting tasks; they can be used to enhance other subjects, as energising breaks, or to focus on dance alone.
At the youngest age, one study of children aged 3-5, judged at-risk (all eligible for free school meals, the majority not first language English) found dramatic improvements in social competence and behaviour when the children took part in an eight-week creative dance programme of two 35-minute sessions a week (see references, page 38).
Their sessions explored concepts such as different body parts, shapes, directions, pathways (zigzag, straight), force (sharp, smooth) and flow (free, bonded), as well as storytelling through movement.
They began by having the pupils copy the teacher and then allowed them to create their own movements in an environment where they were encouraged to try new things and told they could not lose or fail.
Meanwhile, a study of Chicago first-graders (age 6-7) found that children who learnt to physically represent sounds and letters with their bodies made above-average improvements in their reading (see references, below left).
Another study looked at students learning Chinese characters and whether embodying the characters helped students to remember them. Interestingly, some of the students showed a significant improvement, whereas for others there was no positive impact.
Finally, one of Lovatt’s academic studies found that learning a set 15-minute dance routine helped subjects score higher on tests of convergent thinking, that is, answering questions where there is only one correct answer. The subjects were markedly quicker at finding the answers after the dance session.
But what if you’re not looking for an existing answer, but rather one that hasn’t been thought of yet? Then you need to boost your divergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with a variety of different solutions to a problem. Or creativity, in other words.
For this, you need improvisation. A 2015 study found that primary children who took part in a 10-minute dance exercise (where they explored as many spontaneous ways of moving a particular body part as they could) scored higher in subsequent tests of creative thinking than a control group (see references, below left).
“When we get people doing just five minutes of improvised movement we see it has an immediate effect on thinking and problem solving,” says Lovatt. “What I would recommend is microimprovisation. So during the teaching of a physics class, to get the young people to do some small pieces of improvisation while they’re learning.
“You could pepper it throughout the sessions. You could do it with your hands, arms, feet, even when you’re sitting down. It doesn’t have to be representing the learning in any way.”
Turning a lesson on centripetal force into a piece of dance sounds as if it would be memorable. And for teachers who are shy about moving their own bodies, why not ask a student to lead it?
Short interventions seem to have immediate effects but others have tested longer-term projects. Studies showing positive effects on self-esteem tend to be longer courses or extra-curricular projects, with confidence growing as skills accrue and social bonds form (see references, below left).
And any dance session should be fun. Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden-and-build” hypothesis about positive emotions argues that cognitive changes come about when we have an improvement in mood. In simple terms, we learn more effectively when we’re enjoying ourselves.
For many teachers, “fun” is not likely to be the word they would use to describe busting a move in front of Year 9 during the last period on a Wednesday. Yet the evidence that dance can have a positive impact on learning, on selfesteem and on confidence levels is compelling: however schools do it, clearly bringing a bit of boogie into the classroom is beneficial.
Lindsay Winship is a freelance writer
The Effects of a Creative Dance and Movement Program on the Social Competence of Head Start Preschoolers, Yovanka B. Lobo and Adam Winsler (2006)
The Impact of Whirlwind’s Basic Reading Through Dance Program on First Grade Students’ Basic Reading Skills, Dale Rose, bit.ly/BasicReadingThroughDance
Creativity and improvisation study, bit.ly/CreativityandImprovisation
Short intervention studies: bit.ly/ShortIntervention1; bit.ly/Shortintervention2