A few years ago I was on a business trip that took me to Jerusalem. Walking across a plaza, I saw a group of ultra-orthodox Jews noisily demonstrating in front of a Sbarro pizza restaurant. “Pizza?“, I wondered. I thought it was Kosher, especially in Jerusalem. So I approached an elderly demonstrator who looked like the leader of the group and asked him what it was all about. He responded, “See the young boys and girls sitting together?” “Yeah,” I said, “so what’s wrong with that? They are just having a pizza after school.” “Aha!” he retorted, “eating together can lead to sex, and this, God forbid, can lead to dancing!” I couldn’t help myself from bursting out laughing. Obviously, he had gotten the order of things wrong.


So, was the elderly Rabbi on to something?

Dance and song were one of the earliest forms of communication, and may have co-evolved with language. Indeed, researchers have found evidence that the processing of music and language do indeed depend on some of the same brain systems. One brain system, based in the temporal lobes, helps humans memorize information in both language and music—for example, words and meanings in language and familiar melodies in music. The other system, based in the frontal lobes, helps us unconsciously learn and use the rules that underlie both language and music, such as the rules of syntax in sentences and the rules of harmony in music. These are not just friendly neighbors occupying the same brain regions. A large body of behavioral and neurobiological findings suggest that they actually interact: The musical experience does modulate speech processing, and other data, largely on pitch processing. This suggests that linguistic experience, in particular learning a tone language, modulates music processing.

To say that music is an integral part of dancing is to state the obvious. The bible has many passages that contain “song and dance”; so do some rituals of the ancient Greeks. But the record for being ancient belongs to flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory that were discovered in a cave in southern Germany. Carbon dating showed that the flutes were between 42,000 and 43,000 years old.

Musical instruments may have been used in dancing for recreation or for religious ritual, experts say. Indeed, in the Bhimbeka rock shelters in India that dates back to 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, there are rock paintings that feature depictions of communal dances, birds, musical instruments, mothers and children, pregnant women, men carrying dead animals, drinking, and burials. In northwestern Bulgaria, the Magura cave contains 8-10,000-year-old paintings of dancing women, dancing and hunting men, disguised men, a large variety of animals, suns, stars, instruments of labor, and plants. So, here we have compelling evidence that since pre-historic times music and dancing were not something exotic or rare—they were part of daily life.


How come dance and music are so functionally intertwined?

Did you notice that, without consciously intending to, you tap your toes when a band is playing a rousing march? Did you watch the audience in a concert swaying to the tune of a familiar song? This is because music activates the auditory cortex, which sends neural projections to the pre-motor and motor areas. What’s even more fascinating is that when we watch a band marching, we are marching with them in our brain. This is why the motor areas are activated.

Yesterday, I watched the famous Bolshoi ballet of Moscow giving an astounding performance of Don Quixote at my local movie theater. In my mind’s eye, I was performing with them on the stage (…I wish). This was not just daydreaming. It was my brain mirroring the action on the stage and neurally participating in the action.


What is dance good for?

The answer to why we dance—and even why some people are better dancers than others—can be found in evolution. A study published in the Public Library of Science’s genetics journal in 2006 suggested that long ago, the ability to dance was actually connected to the ability to survive.

According to the study, dancing was a way for our prehistoric ancestors to bond and communicate, particularly, during tough times. As a result, scientists believe that early humans who were coordinated and rhythmic could have had an evolutionary advantage.

Researchers in Hungary looked at what motivates people to dance. Their sample comprised of 447 salsa and/or ballroom dancers (68% female; mean age 32.8 years) who completed an online survey. They identified 8 motivational factors: Fitness, Mood Enhancement, Intimacy, Socializing, Trance, Mastery, Self-confidence, and Escapism. So what was the strongest motivational factor? For both males and females, it was mood enhancement.

What could be the physiological common denominator that would account for all these wonderful effects?


Why dancing leads to bonding

An article in Scientific American Mind (“Why Dancing Leads to Bonding”) describes an experiment conducted by the University of Oxford psychologist and dancer Bronwyn Tarr and her colleagues. They asked teenagers from Brazilian high schools to dance to fast, 130-beat-per-minute electronic music in groups of three. The students were instructed to dance either in or out of sync with one another and with either high or low levels of physical exertion.

Participants said they felt closer to their dance partners than to others in their classes after dancing the same steps at the same time than they did when doing different moves, no matter the level of exertion. Those who exerted themselves more also felt closer to their group, regardless of whether they had danced in sync.

Synchrony and exertion each raised the dancers’ pain tolerance, as measured by a tight blood pressure cuff. According to the study, pain tolerance was the highest when the students were both in sync and had high energy. The authors speculate that the high pain tolerance may be explained by the high levels of endorphins that synchronicity and exertion of the dance can bring.

Let me add from my own experience. Years ago, during my tenure at UCSF, I had a monthly clinic devoted to the local artists. I never ceased to be amazed at the parade of SF Ballet dancers coming in with bone fractures, plantar fasciitis, inflamed tendons, even torn tendons, but they were all continuing to dance! They claimed that while dancing they felt no pain. They described something akin to “runner’s high.”

Endorphins [and the endogenous opioid system (EOS) in general] are involved in social bonding across primate species. They are associated with a number of human social behaviors (e.g., laughter, synchronized sports), as well as musical activities (e.g., singing and dancing). Is it any wonder then that music and dance, like language, are forms of communication that are deeply embedded in our brains. They make us feel happy and serve as a glue to our social bonding.

Do you think that old Rabbi knew all these things when he railed against those boys and girls having pizza and maybe, God forbid, dancing later?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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