Arts Coronavirus and COVID-19 Health & wellbeing

Exploring the impact of dance

Michela Vecchi, an Associate Professor of Economics at MDX, is leading a team of researchers to explore the potential effects of dance on wellbeing and on our professional life across cultures.

Benefits of exercise

The benefits of physical exercise on mental and physical health have been known since the ancient Greek and Roman times; often summarised by the motto ‘mens sana in corpore sano’, meaning “a healthy mind in a healthy body”.

Recent research across different disciplines is providing increasing evidence to suggest the presence of important connections between body and mind. In particular, keeping active and exercising is not only good for our physical health but has also important consequences on our mental health.

Michela dancing in her kitchen

Dance can boost wellbeing

Although any form of physical exercise has beneficial effects, dance gives an additional boost to our brain functions and our wellbeing.

Current studies, carried out by scholars across a diverse range of fields including psychology and neuroscience, are showing the effectiveness of dance in improving cognitive functions and wellbeing among a wide range of individuals and particularly those affected by dementia. Dance blends the positive effect of music, which stimulates the reward centre of the brain, with the motor, sensor and coordination regions of the brain. Dance involves memory, emotions and creativity, hence the secret of its success, is its complexity.

In recent years, various organisations, such as Dance Well and Aesop, have been organising dance sessions for elderly people and those suffering from Parkinson’s. These initiatives are growing and increasingly involving individuals of all ages and disadvantaged groups among society, such as refugees. Dance promotes connections among people and contributes to build a sense of community and inclusivity.  

Can dance improve our performance at work?

Economists have always recognised the positive relationship between cognitive skills and productivity and, more recently, wellbeing is often listed among the factors that can promote performance. Therefore, dance at work could improve our working life, the quality of our work and promote creativity and productivity. These are important assumptions that require new evidence.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has profoundly changed our working life. Those of us who are not key workers have spent significantly more time at home than before. Adjusting to the “new normal” often involves a new working routine, with keeping fit at home and maintaining our wellbeing becoming more important than ever.  The dance world has also had to quickly adjust to the changing environment and move to online delivery of classes on a much larger scale than in the past.

Be part of the research

In our study, my team and I explore the effects of dance on wellbeing and productivity during these challenging times. To this end, we are calling on amateur dancers who practice in their free time at home, novices, semi-professionals and professional dancers alike to complete our survey.

You can also complete the survey in another language other than English.

Michela stretches on her kitchen island with ballet point shoes

Blog written by Dr Michela Vecchi and Dr Patrick Elf


Dance, cognition and ageing

Dr Michela Vecchi, our Associate Professor of Economics, and dancer, discusses the physical and, more importantly, mental improvements dancing can bring.

In recent years, we have seen an increasing interest in dance; Strictly Come Dancing has become an all-time favourite Saturday night show, the provision of ballet type fitness classes has risen dramatically, and the Royal Academy of Dance, usually associated with young girls and boys training for their grades, is now offering classes to women over the age of 55 under the appealing name of Silver Swans.

The main reason behind this new dance-exercise rage? Dance not only exercises the body but also does wonders to your mind.

Physical exercise, dance and health

The benefits of physical exercise on mental and physical health have been known since the ancient Greek and Roman times, as summarised by the motto ‘mens sana in corpore sano’. Contemporary studies carried out by psychologists, neuroscientists and physiologists agree that being active and engaging in a variety of physical activities promotes not only physical health and wellbeing, but also cognition. Cognition includes those mental processes that assist us in everyday life, like learning, remembering, speaking, moving and interacting with others. These abilities decline with age and, in the most severe cases, this decline leads to degenerative conditions like dementia, Alzheimer and Parkinson’s Disease.

Although physical exercise is good, recent studies are increasingly showing that dance has additional benefits compared to a wide range of physical activities, particularly in reversing the signs of aging in the brain. There is fast growing evidence on the role of dance in preventing cognitive decline in older individuals affected by Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. Improvements in balance, reduced motor impairment, and general improvements in the quality of life, have been recorded in several studies.   

Professor of Economics Rafi Eldor, from the University of Tel Aviv, provides a personal and inspiring account of his experience with Parkinson’s disease and of how dancing has helped him coping with the condition. After his diagnosis and with no prior dance experience, he decided to fight the disease by challenging his body and “becoming a dancer rather than a PD patient”, and the results have been amazing.

The benefits of dance have not only been recorded in individuals affected by dementia but also in healthy elderly individuals. Studies comparing the effects of dance to other forms of physical exercise, such as cycling, Nordic walking, and aerobics show that dance induces additional improvements in memory, learning and balance. The benefits of dance have not only been assessed in relation to other physical exercise practices. A major study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City shows that the improvement in cognitive abilities related to dance is higher compared to other cognitive activities such as reading, writing or doing crossword puzzles. The study concludes that the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia is frequent dancing.   

Why is dance so effective?

It is still not clear why dance is so effective in improving cognition, but the advantages are likely to be rooted in the stimulation of different brain functions, which are necessary to learn new steps and routines, to move in time with the music, to balance and express emotions. It is well known that the brain is stimulated when learning something new and in dance this stimulation comes from different types of activities. Going back to the popular TV show, it is easy to see that ballroom dancing requires contestants to learn new styles and techniques and adapt them to the movements of the partner and to different types of music. Dancing is not just a form of entertainment, and the benefits of this complex set of actions should not be underestimated.

Why wait for old age?

Although scientific work has primarily focused on elderly individuals, you do not have to wait for old age to start dancing. On average, cognitive abilities start to decline in the mid-thirties as part of the natural ageing process. This does not limit our everyday life and  forgetting a wedding anniversary may not trigger a major family crisis; however, it is a signal that our brain is slowing down.

The dance-exercise rage has led to the provision of several types of classes for adults that can easily fit around busy work and family schedules. It has also contributed to overcoming the stigma attached to dance, particularly regarding age, class, race, gender, level of physical activity and appearance.

Dance is not only for the young with slim and supple bodies, but it is an alternative way to exercise, open to all ages and levels of abilities. Why not give it a try?