Recently there have been a lot of studies showing that dancing has many health benefits, some of them expected (fitness, health, confidence…), and some of them inexpected (this study, for example, found that tango dancing is more efficient than mindfulness meditation to reduce stress levels)
My trip down the dance/science rabbit-hole led me to wonder about tango’s impact on our brain. I wanted to understand how dancing, and tango dancing in particular changes our brain.
As dancers, we know about the many physical and mental health benefits that tango dancing offers.
But beyond that: could tango dancing make us smarter?
The answer seems to be yes….
1. There is proof that dancing makes you more intelligent
A famous study published in the New Englands Journal of Medicine looked into the effect of recreational activities on mental acuity.
It is a 21-year study of senior citizens led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City that tested if participation in physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
They studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. And they studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, walking for exercise, and dancing…
The only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia
What they found was that dancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia. Other physical activities impacted health in general (for example avoiding cardiovascular disease) but the focus of this study was on the mind: none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia.
Furthermore, of all the activities studied, cognitive and physical, dancing was the one the had the greatest risk reduction
- Reading – 35% reduced risk of dementia
- Bicycling and swimming – 0%
- Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week – 47%
- Playing golf – 0%
- Dancing frequently – 76%. That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.
2. Dancing, making decisions, and being smarter
Richard Powers, from Stanford University’s dance division, defines intelligence as per Swiss Philosopher Jean Piaget’s definition: Intelligence is “what we use when we don’t already know what to do.”
According to Powers’ “the essence of intelligence is making decisions.” Dancing “requires split-second, rapid-fire decision making,” which makes us use “several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.”
Basically, when we take decisions by doing new physical or mental activities, our brain creates new neurological pathways. Because so many decisions are involved in dancing, it will ultimately help strengthen our muscle memory and the communication between multiple different neural systems.
3. Improvised dancing is best for creating new neural pathways
Not all dancing has the same power: it is improvised dancing, rather than choreographed dancing, that has the highest impact on the brain.
According to Powers again: “Freestyle dancing requires constant split-second, rapid-fire decision making, which is the key to maintaining intelligence because it forces your brain to regularly rewire its neural pathways, giving you greater cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses.”
4. How Tango makes us smarter
I wouldn’t call tango freestyle per say. It is based on a technique that is precise and challenging. Furthermore, because we are constantly listening to our partner we can not really ‘go freestyle’, the way we would do if we were dancing alone in our living room with no-one watching.
But it is an improvised dance. There are no set movements in tango: it is never choreographed. The dancing depends on the music, but mostly on our partner’s feelings and skills, and on the space available with the couples dancing around us.
So with the space available constantly changing, and so much depending on your partner (which by definition you can not anticipate!) tango dancers do need to make constant split-second, rapid-fire decisions – both leaders and followers… which create new neural pathways.
That is why a tango class or a milonga can feel both physically and intellectually challenging at the beginning. It might also be the reason why we look so serious when we are dancing: there is some serious stuff happening…. New Neural Pathways connecting now!
So there you have it… another reason to dance Tango. You are allowed to use it as an excuse to leave work early and go to class… You are welcome!
Pablo & Anne