Have you ever wondered what happens to your mind while dancing? Is it possible to unleash thoughts through movement and rhythm alone? Such is the case in the art of dance where gestures shape ideas that evoke a sense of meaningful thought to everyday life, and surprisingly this has well been overlooked by most of us. We use gestures everyday, some we are aware of and some we are not . A lot of us see or find ourselves engaged in the unconscious tapping of the feet to music , for example . Would that still be considered a working of the mind , like a non verbal thought?. What about when we take on the role of a silent ob- server , watching a dance performance for instance ? Does the brain of the observer undergo the same developments as the dancer himself? If indeed it were so, dance could then be used as a tool for promoting emotional, cognitive and a holistic integration of individuals.
I wish to communicate this idea and hope to increase the use of such a gifted expression in our daily lives especially as a means to assist those who are mentally and emotionally chal- lenged , seen detrimental to their well being. Especially the major challenges of adult health and well being , which are loss of physical and cognitive function , to name a few : depression, dementia , stroke, loss of balance etc.
Much can be gained from understanding that the mind is merely the function of the brain . So what happens to the mind ,when you dance? Firstly, it is important to know how a dancer understands certain movement sequences, and how the brain processes the meaning of dance. According to Freeman 2006, who defines the brain as “A collection of specialised cells (neurons) in the head that regulates behaviour as well as sensory and motor functions.”, parts of the brain are involved in sensory perception. Commonly recognised as sensory systems are those for vision, auditory (hearing), somatic sensation (touch), gustatory (taste), olfaction (smell) and vestibular (balance/movement) .
In 1998, Elliot said “Dance uniquely combines thinking, feeling, sensing and doing. It has strong effects on physiological and psychological well-being, combining the benefits of physical exercise with heightened sensory awareness, cognitive function, creativity interpersonal contact and emotional expression- a potential cocktail”(pg,253).
In short, senses convert the signal from one form of energy to another form of energy ,from the physical world to the realm of the mind where we interpret the information, creating how we organise , identify, and interpret sensory information in order to represent and under- stand our environment.
So, how does one construct meaning in dance?
With regard to dance been viewed as psychotherapeutic in nature or a healing tool (Levy,2005) we can identify how we connect ourself to our environment ,expressed as an act of movement solely based on as an outcome of the meaning we give to how we feel , formed by our thought patterns .
Dance helps to shape interaction patterns in purposeful ways by storing information based on how we organise, identify and interpret such information as outcomes of sensory learning processes (use of the five senses) as representations of dance movements in long term memory (LTM). Ah! the memory! Through the process of learning or rehearsal we make meaning out of movement , as seen in repetitive dance sequences. The more we rehearse the gesture we begin to unfold new meaning to it. Simultaneously, the LTM can store much larger quan- tities of information for potentially unlimited duration (sometimes a whole life span). Its capacity is immeasurably large. Smyth and Pendleton (1994) showed that professional ballet dancers recorded longer memory spans than those of non-dancers for both ballet and non- sense movements. The ability to simulate a dance sequence--or tennis serve or golf swing-in the mind is not simply visual, but kinesthetic as well (Brown, S. & Parsons,L.M, 2008) , suggesting that we mentally rehearse what we see-a practice that might help us learn and understand new movements. When children create dances they participate in decision making and learn co-operation. They learn how to observe and develop in to informed creators, participants and spectators. Another aspect as mentioned earlier “The vestibular system , the system that aids all of our senses, regulates our balance and relationship to gravity. It is fully important for the developing of a fully functional brain and body”(Oliver, W & Hearn, C. P ., 2008) as seen in the case of two children with downs syndrome (Gilbert, A.G ,1992 ,2007). Speaking of balance as important for older adults, studies revealed better balance skills in adult dancers compared to younger and less experienced dancers (Bruyneel, Mesure, Paré, & Bertrand, 2010).
Secondly, based on the idea that there is an effect on those who watch a dancer, what changes occur in the brain when one views a dance performance or a dancer at work. Much can be gained from examining a number of basic findings in such areas of dance that can contribute to our understanding of the complex processes required to coordinate the brain and body in highly- skilled action performance and perception.
Like when someone who observes a dancer? Is there any change to the brain when we observe movement? Cruse and Schilling state that “ Observing a dance is activating the same nerve circuits i would use to dance myself-I am dancing along in my head: perceiving is a way of reenacting the watched dance”(Bläsing. B., Puttke. M., Schack. T.,2010). The mechanisms stimulated by watching movement in general have been widely studied in the human and non-human primate brain (for a review, see Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2010). The organisation, identification and interpretation of another person's body in motion is greatly influenced by top-down and bottom-up processes between the actor and observer( Blake & Shiffrar, 2007). Dancers and choreographers apply this principle in their art, deliberately creating, modifying and shaping internal and external messages of the moving body ( Stevens & McKechnie, 2005). Studies have corroborated that dance conveys information about emotional states (Chichella and Bianchini, 2004, Dittrich et al., 1996 and Sawada et al., 2003) and the dancer's physical condition (Brown et al., 2005) to the observer.
Evidence from these studies suggests that when observing action, we internally simulate the observed movement using similar brain regions used to execute the movement with our own body. The network of regions shown to be active during movement execution, observa- tion, and imagery has been described as the human mirror system (Grèzes & Decety, 2001). This draws attention to patients suffering from stroke. Would a stroke patient respond as well to a dance class as someone living with Parkinson's disease? It's unclear. further research in such area could well be useful to better our insight. Researchers suspect that a better under- standing of brain cell growth also referred to as brain plasticity may help answer that ques- tion.
THE PLASTICITY OF THE BRAIN (brain cell growth), allows it to heal and rewire after an injury, and exercise may play a role in that, says Chen Daofen Chen, Ph.D., program director for sensorimotor integration at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.“With stroke patients, it's a use it or lose it factor. Through repeated thought patterns over and over, patients create a new map in their heads—not exactly rewiring the neurons, but theoretically “reprogramming” the brain to find alternate pathways to successful movement. So when Parkinson's patients experience a general slowing of movement (bradykinesia), this new pathway can get them back into step—literally.
Another aspect of repetition and learning in dance could lead us to believe that a dancer must maintain focus and attention in this learning process. Such evidence suggests that the use of dance improved the attention spans along with the ability to accept corrections and peers assessment in child and adolescent youth offenders (Burkhardt. J. & Rhodes .J ,2012). Dance can therefore be used to improve the attention span in attention deficit disordered children with limited attention span.
Finally at this point, we can then look into if and whether such a tool can be useful in treating mental and emotional thought patterns across a lifespan. The American Dance Therapy Association defines dance/movement therapy (DMT) as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual (American Dance Therapy Association, 2009). Given that the physical showcase in dance and the silence of emotion within the dancer may have strong connections to the way certain parts of the brain are involved, dance could be used as a healing tool to promote mental health and wellbeing across a lifespan or various stages of life, be it the young or the old . In the matter of examining depression, low self esteem ,poor body image in children and young obese people, dance was seen as an excellent way to improve mood and enhance feel- ings of wellbeing (Kim & Kim2007). The notion that dance has strong links between senses and thoughts and creating feelings, it has shown to prove successful in the uplifting of mood , reducing stress ,anxiety and depression providing opportunity for both the young and old to have fun without the element of competition.(Allender et al, 2006).
At my class presentation the students agreed that the element of competition created a sense of anxiety and stress which resulted to most , the idea for non participation in univer- sity team sports. Evidence has also shown for children and adolescents with cancer , the use of dance created positive feeling that helped cope with negative thought patterns associated with cancer.(Cohen & Walco 1999).
All these factors contribute to the idea that there exists a relation in mental imagery and action and that dance could have well been used to express thought amongst different cultures where language posed a barrier. In such cases, from a medical perspective there can be a growing frustration when thought cannot be freely expressed. Indeed, dance is the gestural language. There is a strong relation between dance as a language of communication of thought. When working with people with dementia , Richard Coaten states “where language and cognition are failing, much still remains that is accessible to move and dance...Dancers are able to offer oppor- tunities for creative expression, movement,dance and celebration of all that still remains” (Coaten, 2011).
Much can be gained form understanding unconscious movement to music. It is consid- ered an unconscious expression of the mind. for the brain to process such movement, Brown and Parson define this unawareness of movement or Unconscious entrainment :as the process that causes us to absent-mindedly tap our feet to a beat-reflects our instinct for dance.(Brown & par- sons, 2008). Berthoz and Petit define this as “unconscious sensing” , e.g., our “know [ing] where our hand is without having to watch it constantly” .
In conclusion, dance is a universal form of human expression that has been cultivated into various forms and functions (Hanna, 1979). All these factors contribute to further develop- ments in the field of science using dance as a means to study the working of the mind. With the evolution of human societies, the characteristics of dance and dancers have changed over time (Daprati, Iosa, & Haggard, 2009). Further I ask in what way the studies on dance con- tributes to advancements in knowledge of human emotion and behaviour.
Currently, there is growing research conducted on the mental aspects of dance and its prac- tise on mental health care. Therefore , allowing for dance to be incorporated into the mental health system as a non conventional therapy . In practise the ‘arts on prescription model’ (U.K) (Burkandt ,J & Rhodes,J 2012) and also ‘ arts in healthcare’ bringing the healing tool of dance into hospital life has called for more research on the therapeutic use of art (At- wood 2003).
In New Zealand, Dance could well be prescribed by the the doctor for treating many of the conditions mentioned early on , incorporating it within the existing system of green prescription for example. Performing Arts in NZ is widespread and multicultural and much can be done to include special populations to actively participate in health promotion. Take Pasifika , for in- stance, where equal opportunity can be provided to mentally disabled populations, where the use of traditional dance promote social and cultural cohesion. More understanding can prompt questions to provoke new ideas and approaches in cognitive science and that ultimate- ly have mutually beneficial outcomes.
Future research could throw more light on studying the mind through dance for health and well- being.
BY SIONA FERNANDES