Saturday night fever during a pandemic

Discusses research on the positive effects of dance on physical health, cognition and well-being

[Guest post by my Middlesex colleague Michela Vecchi. In this post Michela discusses research on the positive effects of dance on physical health, cognition and well-being.]

The disco is packed, the psychedelic lights are flashing and John Travolta enters the dance floor, shaking his hips to the tune of ‘Night Fever’ by the Bee Gees. Almost immediately, your feet start tapping, you nod your head and swing your shoulders in time with the music. This is a completely natural reaction, as dance is a universal human behavior, as old as the human capacities for walking and running.  All societies use music and dance for a vast array of social purposes, including fending off evil spirits, something that might come useful nowadays.

The positive effects of dance

Recently, dance has generated an increasing interest among scientists, particularly psychologists and neuroscientists, because of its important effects on physical health, cognition and, generally, well-being. Preserving our well-being is particularly pressing now as the coronavirus has shut our doors and forced us to live in isolation. Virtual reality has become a lot more real than it has ever been as our professional and social life is confined within the few inches of our computer monitors. This can adversely affect physical and mental health and here we look at dance as a potential tool to relieve these negative effects and help us to cope with the pandemic.

In common with other physical activities, dance makes us move and can therefore help reduce obesity. If you have a sedentary job, working from home further limits your opportunities to move as you don't take many steps to go from your bed to your workstation, unless you live in an extremely large house. Working from home is also likely to increase our calorie intake as it is very easy to reach for that extra biscuit and indulge in comfort eating. Introducing some exercise in your daily stay-at-home routine can help keep the calories at bay and improve your overall physical health. However, there is another reason for keeping active, beyond maintaining physical health. A large amount of research has shown that physical exercise reduces tension, improves mental health and relieves stress. So why dance rather than going for a jog?

Dancing organizes and strengthens brain connections more than any other type of exercise. This is due to the complex brain functions that are activated when dancing with music. As clearly narrated in NeurogalIMD, dancing bundles together the benefits of music, which stimulates the reward center of the brain, with the motor, sensor and coordination regions of the brain. Hence when we dance different parts of the brain communicate with each other, improving our memory, empathy, emotional intelligence, as well as reducing stress. Quoting Dr Judith Lynne Hanna, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, (2017), dance is exercise PLUS, it is a nonverbal language that is akin to cognitive therapy.

Dancing during a pandemic

This is all very good, you might say, but during isolation all clubs are closed.  Here is where technology is coming to the rescue.  Just a quick browse of YouTube and you can find a wide range of free dance classes ranging from ballet, hip-hop, salsa, flamenco, bhangra and tango, just to name a few. Naturally you are going to miss out on the social experience related to attending dance classes face-to-face, but there are several other advantages. For example, you can easily fit the class around your work schedule. Personally, starting with a one-hour class every morning improves my concentration and keeps me going for the rest of the day. If you are a little shy and perhaps you have not danced for a while, it is more comfortable to dance in your home, where you can release your inner dancing queen without anybody looking at you, unless you are taking a live class. But even then, you will be a small square on the instructor’s screen which leaves a large margin for undetected error. Another advantage is that you could be dancing with top performers, like Tamara Rojo, National Ballet’s artistic director and lead principal dancer.

If you are not in the mood for dancing or you do not have a suitable space, there is an alternative. Dr Corinne Jola and Dr Luois Calmeiro from Abertay University  explain in the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing that when dancing, the brain’s activity spans across an extended network of areas involved in the processing of multiple sensory, motor, cognitive and emotional functions. These activities are stimulated not only when practicing dance but also when watching a dance performance, particularly if we are familiar with the dance. In fact, when we watch someone performing an action, our brain may mirror, or simulate, performance of the action we observe, something technically called mirror neuron action. Hence, watching some free ballet streaming during the lockdown could boost our brain activity. Perhaps digging out a copy of Saturday Night Fever will have similar effects; and if you are old enough to have watched the original release of the 1977 film it might bring back memories of mimicking John Travolta in your local disco. That will certainly bring a smile to your face, another great tool for fending off the blues of the isolation.

Dance and productivity

Looking at a more long-term scenario, the relationship between dance and well-being can also have economic outcomes. In a recent RSA event Andy Haldane from the Bank of England highlights the importance of good work to promote productivity performance, one of the UK main economic concerns. There are many factors that can contribute to well-being at work including good management, a sense of responsibility and fair remuneration.  

Dance at work could also promote productivity via its impact on mental and physical health. The effect could be particularly important for older workers as the ageing process naturally leads to a decline in cognitive skills. There is an ongoing debate on the productivity outcomes of ageing (Bloom and Sousa-Poza 2013) and several studies supports the presence of a negative relationship (Skirbekk 2004; Kornuiotis & Kumar 2011). The main question that my future research will address is whether we can devise a workplace dance intervention that can compensate for or even reverse cognitive decline and promote worker’s well-being and productivity performance as they age. 

The covid-19 crisis has added another layer of concern on the future of productivity, not only in the UK but all over the World. Predictions by Nichola Bloom from the University of Stanford are quite pessimistic. This situation might change when we will all be able to go back to our office and resume our face-to-face interactions with our colleagues. When this will happen, we might want to consider packing a leotard and a pair of leggings in our briefcase.

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