Mindfulness is an essential element of what draws people to tango. I have had trouble through the years of knowing the difference between fun and mindful euphoria, and it has become clear as I have a regular meditative practice. Without the meditative, mindful part in tango, we may have a fun time but this fun will go by all too fast. Mindfulness brings a time-slowing euphoria.Read more
An excellent list of practices to keep in mind when dancing tango. The goal is always to make this a pleasurable experience for yourself and partner. Compiled by Ilona Milonguera with input from other instructors in the Toronto area and beyond.Read more
Guest blog Apr 6, 2016 01:21 PM By We get up on the dance floor and try to synchronize our bodies to the rhythm of the music. The toe taps, wrist flicks, and questionable twerking are transformed into a graceful physical performance. The brain is able to orchestrate these movements, signaling our joints when and how to move.
There are several neural mechanisms related to dance that can offer insight into the human brain and how it’s able to execute such coordinated behaviors.
The Brain In Motion
Such exquisite body movement is a marvel to witness in both a physical and psychological way. When we move, we employ neurons and body chemicals to control the muscles that affect the joints, movement, and balance. The nervous system activates groups of muscles, referred to as “motor modules,” which work together to achieve a wide range of motion.
Voluntary movements, like starting on the second beat in salsa dancing, originate in the motor cortex, which is involved in the planning, control, and execution of this movement. Signals from the motor cortex travel down the spinal cord’s 20 million nerve fibers to tell, for example, the wrist or the toe to respond in a certain way. Interestingly, the smaller the movement, the more devoted the motor cortex is to that particular motion. The somatosensory cortex, a mid-region of the brain responsible for motor control, also plays a role in eye-hand coordination.
Meanwhile, the basal ganglia, a group of brain cells, communicates with other brain regions to smoothly coordinate movement. It also moves the body accordingly in response to sensory information .
"We call them habits," Samira Shuruk, a professional dancer of 30 years, who is certified by the American Council on Exercise, told Medical Daily . "Both the basal ganglia and the cerebellum are key components in memory, habit, and movement. They both also are put to work in dance learning and execution."
The cerebellum integrates input from the brain and spinal cord into the planning of these fine and complex motor actions. And this process plays an important part in translating neural signals into actual dance floor moves.
Strengthening Muscle Memory
Dancing improves brain function on a variety of levels. For one, our muscle memory allows us to learn how to perform a dance without thinking about the steps. According to neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, this happens because “the movements become thoroughly mapped in the brain, creating a shorthand between thinking and doing,” he told The New York Times.
In other words, we memorize how to do things so efficiently that they require no conscious effort. In dance, this is done by constantly repeating movements, which are practiced to the point that they can be performed automatically.
Although muscle memory can’t really distinguish a correct movement from a wrong one, some research suggests the endorphins released after performing a successful move cause the brain to store it as the correct way of moving — a process that constantly rewires the brain’s neural pathways.
Dr. Becca Rodriguez, an osteopathic physician for the San Diego Ballet, The Academy of Performing Arts of San Diego, and The San Diego Symphony, believes we can stimulate muscle memory cells, called B cells, with any activity.
“These cells are activated with repetition of activity or motions and help our bodies to remember certain movements for choreography,” she told Medical Daily.
Boosting The Cerebellum
The shift from actively thinking about the dance moves to performing them intuitively causes a shift in brain activity from the cerebrum — the “thinking part” of the brain that controls voluntary movement — to the cerebellum, which controls equilibrium and balance, and coordinates movements signals produced in other parts of the brain. Altogether, this allows us to carry out the movements effortlessly. The cerebrum makes up less than 10 percent of the brain’s mass, but contains over 50 percent of the brain’s neurons.
A study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex found repeated spinning practice in ballerinasactually increases cerebellum size and decreases the sensation of dizziness. Dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. The fluid-filled chambers are able to sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. When we spin quickly and then stop, the fluid continues to move, which gives off the sensation that we’re still spinning.
Going back to muscle memory, whenever we hear music and immediately start dancing without thinking, we access our cerebellum, which understands how to move our muscles quickly. There’s proof of this when we start thinking about our dance moves; it gets in the way of our automatic thought processes, and we end up fumbling the moves.
Our brains are malleable, thanks to a mechanism known as neuroplasticity. While we’re not able to regenerate our limbs, we can build up our brains by forming new connections. Gray matter — where the majority of neural cells are held — can shrink and grow, leading neural connections to either copy and refine themselves or weaken and sever, respectively. Evidence suggests these changes can lead to changes in our abilities. Dancing integrates several brain functions involved in kinesthesia, following musical rhythm, and emotion, all of which boost our brain connectivity.
For example, the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, provides a plethora of evidence that suggests physical activity yields large cognitive gains, like greater volume of gray matter in the hippocampal region of the brain, which is important for memory. An increase in grey matter is associated with a younger brain, and overall better brain health.
Dance Away Brain Disease
Dancing can ward off brain diseases and increase mental acuity at all ages. Participating in dancing or similarly engaging activities can dramatically reduce the occurrence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found freestyle dancing, which requires rapid-fire decision making, is essential to keeping a sharp mind because it forces the brain to regularly rewire its neural pathways, especially in regions involving executive function — mental skills to help us get things done — long-term memory, and spatial recognition — using reasoning skills to decipher objects in 3D and draw conclusions from them based on limited information.
“All of the actions listed above are due to increased blood flow, neural response when we listen to music, the psycho-social response we have when we interact with other people and the muscle-tendon junction response for stimulation of strength/balance in the human body,” said Rodriguez.
Perhaps we can dance the night away to better brain health, even in old age.
Guest blog from Oxygen Tango In my own exploration of tango, I have found the practice of yoga to be a mindful form of “cross-training” that enhances and supports my dancing. A regular practice on the sticky mat might help fill in the gaps in your tango education when questions about posture, balance, and alignment come up. Below are three specific ways that yoga can make your dancing stronger. As always, these points are only suggestions. Always follow your own body's wisdom in choosing the form of conditioning that is right for you.
1. Better Balance – A large percentage of yoga instruction is intended to help you get grounded. The lunges and other standing poses that often serve as warm-ups emphasize deliberate foot placement, weight distribution, and connection to your core, all building blocks of strong balance in tango dancing as well. Yoga alignment cues throughout the class help line up your joints for safer and more fluid movement. With regular practice, you can carry this stability and fluidity off the mat and into your tango dancing.
2. Spinal Flexibility – The majority of us spend a large portion of each day sitting at a computer, but for tango, we need to move! Too much sitting can result in excess compression in and around the spine, and a feeling of stiffness once we finally dance at the end of the day. In a typical yoga class, nearly every pose will mobilize and lengthen the spine in some way, helping us reclaim our natural flexibility and preparing us for smoother and safer ochos, turns, and boleos. Followers typically find themselves in more extreme tango "twists," but the ability to rotate the spine easily and effortlessly is equally important for leaders, who often use this movement to signal directions throughout a dance.
3. Body Awareness – Like tango, yoga is about connection. When we dance tango, we connect leader and follower, dancer and music, couple and community. In a yoga class, we often begin by connecting breath with movement. This breath-movement relationship cues the mind to track what we are doing physically on a sensory level, resulting in greater conscious awareness of our actions. This body awareness not only helps us to know our own limits and prevent injury, but it also hones our improvisational skills. With a clearer awareness of our own body, we can size our tango steps more precisely, stretch just the right amount to create a comfortable embrace while still remaining free and grounded, and adjust to minute navigational shifts on an unpredictable dance floor.
- improves coordination, balance, and posture
- increases muscle tone and flexibility
- reduces stress and anxiety
- improves cardiac health
- lowers blood pressure
- improves memory, focus, and multi-tasking
- enables creative and emotional expression
- builds greater ease in social situations
- imparts that dancer’s aura: standing tall, radiating confidence
- is increasingly used as therapy in a wide variety of applications: such as, physical therapy, couples therapy and therapy for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients
Dance naturally promotes health; we all notice the improved posture, circulation, balance, and muscle tone that dancing brings us. But the growing practice of Argentine Tango has led medical researchers to discover added health benefits specifically linked to this particular dance practice.
Parkinson patients, for example, responded better to tango than to standard physiotherapy (Hackney, ME., 2009). In fact, The Fundación Tango Argentino (Argentine Tango Foundation) in Buenos Aires offers free tango classes to peoples with Parkinson’s.
Dr. Federico Trossero was inspired to investigate the clinical application of tango when he noticed that headaches disappeared after dancing tango. Since then, research has shown tango useful in lowering blood pressure and improving circulation, (Peidro, R., 2007); as well as improving cardiac health, and fighting arteriosclerosis. Researchers at McGill found that practicing tango improved balance and coordination in aging patients (McKinley, P., 2005), while studies at Washington University (Finch, J., 2013) showed tango helping balance more than comparable exercises. Research even hints that tango could reduce memory loss for those sufferig from Alzheimer’s (Hackney, ME., 2009).
Mental health can also improve with tango. To begin with, some of the physical changes just listed can reduce anxiety and stress. Tango is now being included as a helpful therapy by practitioners treating social phobia, depression, and even schizophrenia. (Trossero, F., 2006). The dance has also been found helpful for those suffering from trauma and a wide variety of relational problems, and there is growing interest in the use of Tango as couples therapy.
All this has led to the creation of a yearly global Tango Therapy conference in Argentina on the wide-ranging therapeutic uses of tango.
Tango is a metaphor for life and a great vehicle for practicing many life lessons and relationship skills, such as learning how to carry your own weight without depending on another – while at the same time, staying connected. It is about staying centered and present in your own self, listening with your whole body to another’s whole body, and then moving together in harmonious partnership.Read more