News & blog British Science Festival: 7 ways dancing can improve your life Written by Hannah John We all know that dancing is great for building strength and stamina, but for those of us who wouldn’t call ourselves ‘dancers,’ the prospect of attending a dance class can be terrifying. In her talk Dance is the Best Medicine at the British Science Festival, ballet dancer-turned-neuroscientist Dr Julia Christensen revealed the many health benefits you can reap from a dance class, regardless of your technique, skill or experience level. Here are 7 reasons why she believes everyone should consider giving it a go… Reduced cortisol Cortisol is a natural stress hormone, also known as the ‘fight or flight hormone.’ It is an essential part of the way the body deals with stressful situations, but an excess of it can lead to many health problems such as high blood pressure, anxiety and depression. Dance has been scientifically proven to reduce levels of cortisol caused by chronic stress. It also causes the brain to release dopamine – a natural mood booster, and endorphins – a natural painkiller. So, although it may seem counter intuitive, this kind of exercise may help you relax! Social touch Many types of dance require you to be physically closer to people than you would usually be in an everyday interaction. Your dance partner or group enter your personal bubble, known academically as your ‘peri-personal’ space. This form of close contact (when it is consensual and with partners you are comfortable with) releases a chemical called oxytocin. This hormone makes us feel sociable and helps us bond with the people around us. We are innately social animals, with much in common with our primate ancestors. Our need for physical social contact is not dissimilar to the way in which monkeys use grooming to connect with and comfort each other. In today’s reserved society, we are considerably lacking in intimate, platonic interactions. Christensen says we need at least 8 hugs a day to feel human. Or, alternatively, 4 hugs and a dance class. Mindfulness When learning a new routine or remembering steps, there is little space in your brain for anything else. Christensen used the Billy Elliot scene where Billy is learning how to ‘spot’ as an example of this. In order to master the technique, he needed to summon perfect concentration and be completely focused and present in the moment. There is no room for negative rumination when so many other areas of the brain are being activated. This type of instinctive mindfulness is extremely beneficial to general mental health (and is also an alternative to purist meditation for those of us who struggle to sit still). Therapeutic potential Impressive links have been made between dance and reduced symptoms of some common diseases. For example, some health authorities are starting to prescribe Argentine Tango for those suffering from Parkinson’s. This may seem a strange treatment for a disease known foremost as a movement disorder. But as many existing exercises used to treat those with the condition involve walking backwards, stepping over objects and turning, it perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising. All these exercises are incorporated into the Tango and benefit from the added physical support of a partner. Increased empathy An important aspect of learning or practising a dance routine is watching and replicating the movement of others. In partner dancing a level of synchronisation is sometimes achieved where neither person is sure who is leading the movement (a bizarre phenomenon demonstrated when Christensen placed us into pairs and asked us to complete a simple mirroring exercise.) It is unsurprising that this almost telepathic level of communication has been shown to improve levels of empathy and emotional recognition. Group cohesion You may recognise some dance exercises from office team building sessions or theatre warm-ups – places where huge value is placed on the unity of a group. Studies have shown that dance enhances one’s creative thinking and problem-solving skills. In other words, you want a dancer in your next group project. Smile therapy No matter what technical level you are at, it is almost impossible to take part in a dance class without smiling. Not only because (for all the reasons stated above) is it usually an enjoyable experience, but because there is always going to be a certain level of awkwardness and humour that comes with getting to grips with a routine first time around. Smiling stimulates our brain’s reward mechanisms in a way few other things do. It releases all the feel-good chemicals like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. The effect of this winning hormone combination has even been likened to the feeling of getting a good night’s sleep, surely a strong incentive in today’s culture of perpetual sleep deficiency!