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Dance and the Brain

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

by Kreena Nagda

St. Xavier's College (Autonomous),

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India


Dance and Neuroscience appear as two completely different fields however they intersect in intricate ways. Have you ever thought about it?! Dance is a form of art and a rudimentary form of human expression evolved alongside music which involves moving rhythmically to music following a set of sequence of steps. People often associate dance as a mood stimulating activity which uplifts an individual’s mood but it turns out that there is a scientific clarification behind those mood-boosting moves. Sounds interesting right?! Well, let’s dive deep into it!!


Dance is usually considered as a “pleasure double play”. Music stimulates brain reward centers and dance activates sensory and motor circuits. It can be sometimes an unconscious entertainment- the process that causes us to absent-mindedly tap our feet to a beat which reflects our instincts for dance. It occurs when certain subcortical brain regions bypass higher auditory areas and converse. It demands specialized mental skills, it necessitates calculation relating to spatial awareness, balance, intention, and timing. Our brain aids in directing our movements through space enabling us to pace our actions to music. Perceiving and synchronizing to a chunk of dance is an outstanding skill in humans.

Dancers mustn’t solely possess physical ability to express movements but require a high level of cognitive skills for the execution of simple and complex choreography steps on the different types of music. What is surprising is that how does the brain try to make sense of movements just as the way we make sense of words that have inherent meanings and how does a dancer learn complex designed choreographies which conveys a message, intention, and stories they want to express through their movements, arousing mental and emotional reaction in the audience.

The regions embody the 1. motor cortex, 2. somatosensory cortex, 3. basal ganglia, and 4. cerebellum. The planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements are done by the motor cortex. The somatosensory cortex, situated within the mid-region of the brain, is accountable for the motor control and also plays a job in eye-hand coordination. The basal ganglia, a group of structures deep within the brain, work with other brain regions to smoothly coordinate movement, while the cerebellum integrates input from the brain and spinal cord and helps in the planning of motor actions. Cerebellum also collects optimum auditory and somatosensory information which influences the cortical motor system responsible for synchronization and execution of a movement with the auditory rhythm.


Action observation network means activation of identical sets of neurons in an individual who is simply witnessing another person performing a movement like the one engaged in the action or the expression of some emotion or behavior. Dance observation has been influenced by studies of the “mirror neuron system” this network supports the observation of stimulation of other’s actions.

Neuroimaging studies of action observation in dance have shown that (1) dancers show activation of the action observation and simulation networks, particularly the premotor cortex, when observing dance, likely because their motor representation of an observed movement is enhanced; (2) variations concerning functions in the action observation system of dancers are related to the degree of dance training; (3) short-term dance training is correlated with brain functional plasticity in non-dancers.


Kinesthetic ability is the conscious perception of movement and body. Somatic sensitivity obtained by dance movement therapists as part of their training allows them to make use of somatic information in a sophisticated manner to advance the health of the other. A study of the neurophysiology of empathy revealed that parallel sets of neurons are activated in both the observer and the observed when the observed is engaged in the action or expression of emotion and/or behavior.


Pain, stress, anxiety often go hand in hand with depression. Dance could help lessen mental fluctuations even before the onset of full depression. Dance based movement can be used as a part of holistic treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, dementia, autism, and mood disorder. It has therapeutic intervention for various clinical groups ranging from a developmental disorder like Down syndrome, a neurological disorder like schizophrenia and mood disorder along with neuromotor disorder like Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Along with these dance helps reduce stress, increases the level of the feel-good hormone - serotonin, develops new neural connections, helps in long-term memory, and spatial recognition. Dance is an excellent aerobic exercise that enhances strength and flexibility, increases cardiovascular functioning, and it proves to be an enjoyable and socially engaging activity.


The main focus of the review was to understand the correlation between the dance and neuroscience and to understand the various studies carried out in this field using various tools such as fMRI, EEG Studies were presented on how dance has an impact on the brain (psychological effects) and which areas are mainly involved in the process. Action observation network and kinesthetic empathy involve new areas for further research. Studying the neuroscience of dance will provide an insight into the interactions between the arts and the brain.


1. Falisha J. Karpati,1,2 Chiara Giacosa,1,3 Nicholas E.V. Foster,1,4 Virginia B. Penhune,1,3 and Krista L. Hyde1,2,4, Dance and the brain: a review, ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, Issue: The Neurosciences and Music V, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. ISSN 0077-8923.

2. Brown, S., & Parsons, L. (2008). THE NEUROSCIENCE OF Dance. Scientific American, 299(1), 78-83. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from

3. Federman Dita, August 2011, Kinesthetic ability and the development of empathy in Dance Movement Therapy, Journal of Applied Arts and Health 2(2):137-154DOI: 10.1386/jaah.2.2.137_1

4.Leisman G., Aviv V. (2020) A Neuroscience of Dance: Potential for Therapeutics in Neurology. In Colombo B. (eds) Brain and Art. Springer, Cham.

5. Image source:

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