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The Mental Health Benefits of Dance

Using movement to improve well-being.

Numerous studies have explored the mental health benefits of both physical exercise and listening to music. Not surprisingly, dance therapy has also been found to have a positive impact on mental health, according to recent research conducted at Goldsmiths, University of London.

What contributes to dance's powerful effect on the brain? It may have to do with the interaction that takes place between dancers and live bands—a kind of mirroring effect that enhances both the dancers’ and musicians’ performances. Synchronization is promoted on multiple internal and external levels.

A 2018 doctoral dissertation by Hanna Poikonen at the University of Helsinki on the effects of dance on the human brain found that the brains of professional dancers display augment theta brain wave synchronization when watching dance. Writing about the paper for Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland notes that previous research has shown that theta brain wave activity correlates with the synchronization of deeper brain structures such as the hippocampus, basal ganglia, and cerebellum with the cerebral cortex. The effect of theta brain waves on structures within the brain may help to explain why dance is particularly helpful for people attempting to overcome psychological trauma, which tends to highjack higher cortical functioning due to increased activation of fear centers in the brain.

Many of my patients recovering from auto accident trauma have found engaging in physical activity to be beneficial. Dance therapy has also been applied as an adjunctive treatment for traumatic brain injury, dementia, and Parkinson's disease.

One of the frequent problems reported by patients attempting to overcome the effects of trauma is repetitive negative thoughts they are unable to turn off. Dance can be an effective way to stop these thoughts by providing an escape into the physicality of the body, acting as an analgesic, and prompting the release of mood-enhancing endorphins in the brain. (Bronwyn Tarr, 2015).

For individuals dealing with emotional pain from loss, longing, sadness, and depression, the music and movements of Argentine tango, in particular, are anecdotally known to be of huge benefit. When tango dancers come together in what is called “the embrace,” emotional barriers stemming from melancholia may be temporarily dissolved.

For people who find themselves unable to engage in strenuous athletic activities, dance can be an excellent alternative. A man in his 80s recently shared with me that he is excited to have found dance as a way of staying active, healthy, and balanced as he ages. He hopes to be 100 and still able to dance.

Perhaps dance is one of the ultimate healing remedies that we need more fully embrace to overcome the effects of trauma and live longer, happier lives.


Julia C. Basso, Medha K. Satyal and Rachel Rugh (2021). “Dance on the Brain: Enhancing Intra- and Inter-Brain Synchrony”. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Christopher Bergland (2018). “The Powerful Psychological Benefits of Dance”. Posted May 8, 2018, Psychology Today.

Scott Edwards (2015). “Dancing and the Brain”. Harvard Medical School.

Hanna Poikonen (2018). “Dance on Cortex: ERPs and Phase Synchrony in Dancers and Musicians during a Contemporary Dance Piece”. University of Helsinki.

Bronwyn Tarr, Jacques Launay, Emma Cohen and Robin Dunbar (2015). “Synchrony and exertion during dance independently raise pain threshold and encourage social bonding”. The Royal Society Publishing.

James F. Zender, PhD (2020). Recovering from Your Car Accident: The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

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