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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee

Dancing to Keep the Brain and Body Young

Jan 30, 2012 09:18PM ● By Jori Azinger

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Use it or lose it.” It’s really simple: a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Typically, if one finds themself having difficulty with getting up from the floor, the temptation is to stop getting down on the floor. But that’s the last thing they should do. Instead, he or she should challenge themself to get down on the floor and back up again, over and over.

On the surface, it’s easy to list the typical benefits of dancing. It is a physical exercise that enhances flexibility, strength, tone, posture and balance (which can prevent falls). It can also reduce stress, build confidence and provide a social outlet.

As a dance instructor, I have been reaping the benefits of dance for many years. But a recent conversation with a dance therapist prompted me to look more deeply into the benefits of dance. The therapist was describing a 99-year-old female client with severe dementia. She explained that although the client would rarely consciously connect with anyone, therapy requiring her to mimic simple movements seemed to illicit smiles and eye contact—glimmers of her presence in the here and now.

This anecdote points to a unique benefit of dance. The Bronx Aging Study examined the influence of cognitive and physical leisure activities on the risk of dementia over a period of 21 years, following a cohort of subjects age 75 and older that did not have dementia at the beginning of the study. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study found that the risk of dementia was reduced by 35 percent for those that read regularly; by 47 percent among those that solved crossword puzzles four days per week; and by 76 percent among those that danced frequently. Golfing, bicycling and swimming did not significantly reduce the risk of dementia.

Instinctively, the results did not completely surprise me, because of my personal experience with dance. When I began dancing 15 years ago, in my mid-40s, I was extremely awkward and highly uncoordinated. I was stiff and tight—not only in my body, but also in my mind and spirit. At that time, dance would have been at the top of my lists of “Things I cannot do” and “Things to avoid.”

Willing to change, I took my first step into a dance class. I began with Nia, a sensory-based movement practice that draws from dance, martial arts and healing arts, building coordination and grace. Then, I traveled to Chicago for Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms style, followed by training as a facilitator of JourneyDance, a celebratory style that weaves together simple, guided movement sequences and free exploration.

As far as the impact of dance on my brain health, I have some time before I will be able to tell if dance has helped me to maintain mental acuity. Yet I know that when I dance and need to make split-second decisions, confusing my brain and going a different direction, not only am I having fun, I am also helping my brain to be flexible and practice making choices. I know that my reflexes are quicker than they were 15 years ago and that learning to give myself permission to do it “wrong” was a huge gift. Most importantly, as we challenge ourselves to new experiences, we create possibilities for transformation and freedom.

Jori Azinger is certified as an instructor of both Nia and JourneyDance. She teaches these and other movement classes at The Dancepants Studio, in Thiensville. For more information or a class schedule, visit

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