“My brain can’t think of all these body parts at one time! I need to get rid of my arms,” I complained. My dance teacher, Ashley Perretta, made that here-we-go-again face, and said “One-two-three, one-two-three, rock-step.” Based on our history together, I knew I wouldn’t get any sympathy until the song finished. So I took a breath and forced my feet into motion. “One-two-three.”
I dance the Lindy Hop, a fast-paced, athletic form of swing that originated in Harlem in the 1920s. I’ve taken lessons for years, and still, I’m not very good. At least that’s my take. So why do I continue? Despite my endless complaining, it’s fun. Lindy requires big movements, speed, physical stamina, and coordination. The music, the movement, the challenge—nothing else stimulates me like dancing Lindy does.
Sometimes during a lesson, however, I convince myself that I am simply not smart (or young) enough to keep going. When my brain focuses on my feet (one-two-three), my arms turn into toy-soldier rods of steel. When my arms find that sweet spot that offers enough resistance to feel my partner’s lead without pushing him or her over, my feet go on strike.
And all this is exactly what keeps me swinging. My brain needs the workout. In addition, no other practice has ever taught me more about living in the moment than dancing has. Let your mind wander for a split second and, I promise, you will miss a step…or worse. Once a partner attempted to spin me; at the exact moment I heard someone shouting outside. Boom! I landed on my butt. Talk about an incentive for staying present.
The fact that dancing is good for cardiovascular health and weight loss is commonly understood, but my own experience made me wonder if the brain workout I seem to go through is unique. Do other people experience this payoff? I went in search of answers, and what I learned truly surprised me.
Research shows that dancing activates our brain’s memory, focus, and attention centers. Frequent dancing tops activities like bicycling, swimming, golfing, and even the highly touted solving of crossword puzzles for decreasing the chance of developing dementia. Because dancing, especially partner dancing, requires moment-by-moment decision making, it improves neural plasticity as the brain continually rewires its pathways.
Step aside crossword puzzles. There’s a new brain boss in town!
This brings me to another aspect of dancing that I both value and struggle with—the partner. I suffer from fairly profound social phobia, and the idea of blowing a step or missing a turn in front of another person makes me pray for spontaneous combustion.
Remember what I said about only being able to focus on one thing at a time? If my partner speaks to me, all those previously moving limbs stop and wait for my brain to return. To avoid this, I have literally ordered partners not to talk to me until the end of the song. Thankfully, most swing dancers are really nice and don’t leave me standing on the dance floor.
Clearly, my relationship to the Lindy Hop is complex. I love it and fight it every time I take to the floor. I asked Perretta why she dances. Without missing a beat, she said, “That’s how I process life.” Whether happy, sad, or angry, she moves her body to music, making everything somehow better. She teaches dance hoping to pass this gift on to others.
Though my own experience as a dancer is complicated, I know what she means. I keep going because in every area of my life, I see growth that I attribute to dancing. I wear the same size I wore in high school. I’m physically healthier than many people my age. My social phobia is alive and well, but it hasn’t won. And topping the list is the fact that in every picture of me dancing, I’m smiling.
So, let’s go! 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Rock. Step.
- Powers, Richard, “Use It or Lose It: Dancing makes you smarter, longer,” retrieved from https://socialdance.stanford.edu/syllabi/smarter.htm.
To contact Ashley Perretta: firstname.lastname@example.org.