The benefits of belly dance go beyond the physical. Women’s attitudes, self-esteem and confidence increase. Women begin to accept their bodies and take more interest in its function and well being. The feminine emerges. Sensuality is embraced. It is a dance of empowerment, celebrating the strength of womanhood.
In recent years, neuroscientists have studied the relationship between the body, the brain and the mind. They have found that exercise increases the level of saratonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. The result is a calm, more positively energized and confident demeanor.
is a neurotransmitter in the brain that influences mood, anxiety, impulsiveness, learning and self-esteem.
is a neurotransmitter in the brain that influences attention, alertness and attention. Focus and comprehension as well as memorization are important in dance.
is a neurotransmitter that influences movement, motivation, movement, cognition, pleasure and addiction.
Incorporating dance as exercise engages the brain, influencing memory, attention span, concentration and the ability to learn. Because Middle Eastern dance involves coordination and a variety of movements, it challenges the brain as well as the body.
In his book, Spark, noted author and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, John J. Ratey, M.D., states, “Studies of dancers, for example, show that moving to an irregular rhythm versus a regular one improves brain plasticity. Because the skills involved in these activities are unnatural forms of movement, they serve as activity-dependent learning of the sort that made Hebb’s rats smarter and that Greeough showed made synapses bushier.
Any motor skill more complicated than walking has to be learned, and thus challenges the brain. At first you’re awkward and flail a little bit, but then as the circuits linking the cerebellum, basil ganglia and prefrontal cortex get humming, your movements become more precise With the repetition, you’re also creating thicker myelin around the nerve fibers, which improves the quality and the speed of the signals and, in turn, the circuit’s efficiency.”
Neuroscientists have conducted PET scan studies of amateur and professional dancers to research the “complicated mental coordination required to execute the most basic dance steps.” The New York Times published an article on this study in its May 27, 2007 edition. The article states that dancers first learn the choreography to the point where the movements become automatic. Once this occurs, the dancer can embellish the performance. Though dancers call is “muscle memory,” neuroscientists conclude “that the movements become thoroughly mapped in the brain, creating a shorthand between thinking and doing.” Daniel Glaser a neuroscientist who works at the Welcome Trust, a philanthropic organization devoted to health care based in London is quoted, “Of course you need a body to dance. But as dancers transition from conscious awareness of a newly acquired routine to the automatic performance of it, the brain is not doing any less work.”
Dance is also fun. If you are participating in an activity that is fun, you will stick with it, be committed to it. Exercise needn’t be a chore or a dread. Boredom doesn’t set in. Belly dance offers a variety of movements, incorporating props like veils, zills (finger cymbals), canes, swords and other enhancements. Dance is also a social activity. Interaction with others creates a comfort level and acceptance. Instead of exercise, the atmosphere is more like that of a party, or in Arabic, a hafla.
After all, in Arabic and Muslim cultures, women dance for women. Grandmothers hand down movements to their daughters and granddaughters. It is a form of female bonding. Women often don coin hip scarves and dance in a circle, prodding one another to solo in the circle while others clap and Zhagareet, trill. Line dances are danced at weddings and receptions. Even men dance together for joy and brotherhood.
Dance reduces stress. Dancing puts you in control. Through dance, one can escape the outside stresses of life, focus and explore creative expression. This builds confidence, puts you at ease and overcomes fear. Learning a new skill often brings on new confidence. Belly dancing can change your outlook on life. The positive is embraced. In an August 18, 2008 article, AARP mentions dance an important factor in keeping your brain in good shape. They state, “Ballroom dance like the stars. Dancing is a brain-power activity. How so? Learning new moves activates brain motor centers that form new neural connections. Dancing also calms the brain’s stress response.”
A new alternative therapy is being incorporated into mental health treatment, Dance Movement Therapy. The connection between body movement and emotion is being used to treat emotional problems, including anxiety, depressions, anorexia and bulimia. Belly dance is a popular form of dance being utilized in this new field. Individuals and groups are benefiting.
Dr. Joe Verghese
Areas of Research: Effects of disease and aging on gait and cognition in older adults. Influence of cognitively stimulating activities on reducing risk of dementia and mobility loss, cognitive control of mobility, and global health. Dr. Verghese graduated from St. Johns Medical College, Bangalore, India in 1989. He did his postgraduate training in Internal Medicine and Neurology in United Kingdom. He completed his Neurology residency at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY in 1998. He did his fellowship training in Neurophysiology as well as Aging & Dementia in 1999 at the same institution. He received a Master of Science degree in Clinical Research Methods with Distinction in 2001. Dr Verghese is board-Certified in Neurology. |
It’s not just purely physical
The New England Journal of Medicine, June 19, 2003 summarized the landmark Einstein Aging Study conducted by Joe Verghese, M.D. and colleagues found that dancing helps prevent dementia. Over a 21-year period, subjects participated in eleven recreational activities to determine the mind-stimulating effects. Mental activities ranged from reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards to playing musical instruments. Physical activities were playing tennis, golfing, swimming, cycling, walking, doing housework and dancing. Some activities had significant beneficial effects (reading and doing crossword puzzles) while others had none (cycling, swimming and golf). The only physical activity that protected against dementia was dancing. Dancing, done frequently, offered a 76% reduction in dementia. Verghese said, “Dance in many ways is a complex activity. It’s not just purely physical.”
Not all forms of dance, though, offer the same benefit. Dance that requires more decision-making, like freestyle, than memorization has been shown to be more beneficial to mental acuity. Belly dance meets this criteria. The main benefit was derived from dancing often, three to four times a week.
The study concluded that “dance was the only physical activity that benefited the brain. This was attributed to the cerebral rather the physical aspect of dance.” The “need to learn and remember numerous dance movements produces a constant and very beneficial challenge to the brain.”