Thursday, June 29, 2006

Dancing: Great for Your Body, Mind, and Soul

I've always been a dancing fool. From the time my mother taught me to do the box step around the living room when I was 10 or 11 until now, I've loved moving my body to music. The physical and spiritual meld together in a wonderful way in me when I dance. And now, I know that scientific studies show that dancing is good for my brain, too.

Recently, I've taken up Nia. I look forward to my Nia classes and go every chance I get, usually for an hour three times a week or more. Nia is a combination of several other physical disciplines: healing arts like yoga and Pilates, martial arts, and dance with the goal of using expressive movement that brings mind, body, and soul into play. This approach stands in sharp contrast to pounding, repetitive movements like jogging or riding stationary bikes. I feel highly motivated to continue Nia for several reasons. I really enjoy the variety of music (there are many different programs with different types of music and routines) and the sense of artistic expression I feel when I stretch my arms high above my head or glide gracefully across the room, all to the beat of a song I enjoy hearing. I work almost every part of my body with stretches, kicks, bends, and steps so that it really feels like I'm getting a good, overall workout. I sweat, meaning it's aerobic and good for my heart. Of course I know that my brain uses more oxygen than my heart so I now know that aerobic activity is good for all of me. That probably explains why I feel so energized and positive after Nia. I've also enjoyed getting to know the other women and men who come to the classes. We really have formed our own little community. We're supportive of each other and gradually, we're beginning to find out more about each other's lives, just little tidbits that we share in the few minutes before class or while we're racing for bottles of water in between routines or as we walk back to our cars. The warmth and good feeling are palpable. There's a connection with other people and there's more of a connection within me--the mind, body, soul thing again. I like it. It feels good.

But why is dancing so good for your brain? As I balance on one leg with my knee up to my chest and then move my knee out to a kick in time with the music, I think about all the mental skills I'm using: hand-eye coordination, balance, timing, rhythm, working and short-term memory, focused attention, language as I listen to the directions. I'm sure I've left out a few. Then we move on to particular steps we've learned as part of a routine: long-term memory, attention and focus, hand-eye coordination, visual-spatial skills (so I stay in the right space and don't knock the person next to me down), balance, rhythm, language and coding skills. Our Nia teachers often add a new step, different arm movements or an extra kick to a routine we already know--I can almost feel the new neural pathways twitching across my brain. They also lead a variety of different routines that match the whole spectrum of music, from jazz to rock 'n roll to contemporary. As researchers have pointed out, dancing to new tunes is what's good for your brain. Dancing the same old steps to the same old tune doesn't create anything, except boredom. I know I have to really concentrate when there's a new routine and different tunes to be able to pull it off, look coordinated, and enjoy myself. Even a dancing fool can build brain reserves.

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