Why Dance Matters

OK, OK, it can be intimidating. You have to follow the beat and maybe even put yourself in uncomfortable proximity to total strangers. But the cognitive and emotional payoffs, say faculty, students and patients, are profound.
By Melinda Sacks
May 2019

Why Dance Matters

OK, OK, it can be intimidating. You have to follow the beat and maybe even put yourself in uncomfortable proximity to total strangers. But the cognitive and emotional payoffs, say faculty, students and patients, are profound.
By Melinda Sacks
May 2019
CONNECTING: Graduate students Rocky Aikens and Pranav Rajpurkar, ’16, MS ’18. (Photo: John Todd)

The First Step Is Always the Hardest

Feet Illustration
CONNECTING: Graduate students Rocky Aikens and Pranav Rajpurkar, ’16, MS ’18. (Photo: John Todd)
Almost 30 years ago, Jay Heyman nervously followed a young woman he liked into dance class. “I had never considered myself anyone anyone would want to dance with,” says Heyman, a self-described introvert. But Becky Agin invited him to take the class with her, “and I wanted to spend time with her,” he says. “She convinced me it wouldn’t be the awful disaster I thought it was going to be.”

Indeed it wasn’t. “There was always stress in going, but once I was dancing, it was always fun,” says Heyman, ’90. Over the next five years, he and Agin immersed themselves in social dance, taking class after class and traveling to swing-dance camps around the country. Heyman fell in love with the communal joy of waltz and the sheer fun of polka. (Salsa, not so much: “I don’t have Latin hips yet.”)
Students bare feet dancing on the floor
Photo: John Todd

Social dance, Heyman says, changed his life—not least because he and Agin married in 1995. “The class solidified that we were good partners,” he says.

Despite the trepidation that dance inspires in many newbies, the social dance scene at Stanford has thrived since its inception. Back in Heyman’s day, students had to camp overnight on the sidewalk in front of Roble Gym in order to get a spot in Social Dance I, a Stanford phenomenon launched 27 years ago by lecturer Richard Powers, MS ’70. One quarter, the campout line wrapped around the side of the building to the rear of Roble Field. Then the sprinklers went off at 3 a.m.

Mercifully, online enrollment began the following year.

A group of Stanford students dancing close together
DANCE CRAZE: Sign-ups for social dance courses begin at midnight. All spots are gone in 22 seconds. (Photo: John Todd)

The strategy to get into Powers’s classes has evolved accordingly. Shortly before registration opens at midnight, Filip Simeski, a second-year social dancer and PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, opens seven tabs in his web browser. At 11:59 p.m., he starts clicking them in succession, rotating through each in a quest to nab a coveted spot in social dance. They’re gone in 22 seconds. (Powers has timed it.)

“There is something about dance that pulls you like a magnet,” says Simeski, who takes Powers’s class three days a week and goes out dancing for fun two or three nights a week (depending on his homework load, of course, he adds quickly). “When I dance, my mind is completely empty and I am just with my partner and I am happy,” he says. “It is better than meditation.”

Dance is many things. It is abstract gyration to rock music and precise execution of ballet steps. It is synchronized performance and free-form improvisation. It is obviously good for cardiovascular health; less obviously, for cognition and mental health. At Stanford, dancers, scholars and dancer-scholars explore how dance does not merely constitute the mind directing the body but also the body influencing the mind. Researchers study the effects of dance on the brain and analyze dance movements to design robots that appear more human. Patients with Parkinson’s disease attend a specialized class that benefits movement and multitasking. And social dance students gain an understanding of human nature that reaches far beyond the polka.

Researchers have suspected for at least 15 years that dance has salutary effects on the brain, particularly in protecting memory. In a 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, a group of New York scientists tracked the activities of a large cohort of senior citizens without dementia for about five years. The only physical activity that was associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia was dancing—and the association was stronger than it was for cognitive activities like reading, board games or playing a musical instrument. More recent studies suggest that social dance, in which participants must react quickly to unanticipated input from their partners, may be especially beneficial.

Two women dancing together
Photo: John Todd

Powers has been teaching social dance for 40 years, leaving behind an engineering and design career to pursue the art form that makes him happy. He estimates that 15,000 Stanford students have taken his courses. The value of social dance has only increased in recent years, he says—a consequence of 21st-century education reforms. “Ever since No Child Left Behind, educators teach to the test,” he says from his office in Roble Gym, where he is surrounded by vintage dance posters and antique containers of floor polish, which was once applied to dance floors to be rubbed in by dancers’ feet. “Creativity is diminished, and if you color outside the lines, you won’t get as good a grade. The first day of social dance, they learn there is not just one way to do things. Improvisation is key.”

While some forms of dance are based on the exacting execution of memorized steps, Powers’s classes emphasize the “social” over the “dance.” Students learn cross-step waltz, swing, tango and nightclub two-step, among other styles, all of which highlight partner interaction. The lead and follow roles are treated in gender-neutral fashion, allowing everyone to learn to function as both.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Powers is teaching salsa in Social Dance I. Sunlight fills the Roble studio from huge windows overlooking a verdant soccer field, giving the blond wood floor a golden hue. Students—some barefoot, others in stocking feet and a few with dance shoes—rotate from partner to partner as they try to learn the steps.

“I am, in a weird way, proud that you are so bad at sequence memorization,” Powers tells his dancers, who respond with laughter. “Because it makes you so good at improvisation.”

Once he teaches a basic step, Powers urges personal interpretation, listening to your partner’s moves and gestures, and what he calls co-leading: allowing either partner to take over and show the other what to do next.

“How do you show confidence?” he asks the room. “Brace your arms. How do you show insecurity? Noodle arms.”

These lessons, small and large, naturally transfer into real life, says Alexis Ivec, ’21, who found social dance a year ago. “Richard’s dance classes are more than just teaching how to dance a dance,” she says, “but how to live life. How to be OK with making mistakes, throwing away perfection, and how to be adaptable. How to dance for your partner and how to work together. His classes create an environment that is infectious and vibrant, and I think that is why so many of us keep coming back. I won’t be taking dance in the spring, but I won’t stop dancing.”

To emphasize the ideas he hopes to impart, Powers offers a quote of the day and a short chalk talk halfway through the hourlong session. Students gather on the floor in front of a large video screen.

“Self-absorption kills empathy,” reads a quote from psychologist and author Daniel Goleman. “When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands.”

Another comes from the 1871 Nilsson Dance and Ball-Room Guide: “Both ladies and gentlemen should act as though the other person’s happiness was of as much importance as their own.”

Jay Heyman, now a computer support analyst at Stanford, says the lessons of social dance have stuck with him. “It is an opportunity to put yourself in a position of possible failure without major consequences,” he says. “You have to remake a connection with every new partner. To be able to do that for a new person is a very kinesthetic thing, focusing on how the other person moves, how they think. When those match up, it is a magical moment.”

What Robots Can
Learn from Dancers

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Catie Cuan was in the middle of ballet class in 2014 when she learned that her father had had a stroke.

“He was hooked up to multiple machines that ranged from small to very large,” she says. “I asked him if he felt more confident knowing the machines were protecting him, and he said a definitive, ‘No!’’’

Cuan’s dad recovered well, but Cuan, then a digital designer who would soon be hired to dance with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, couldn’t stop thinking about how dehumanizing and frightening his experience had been. Perhaps making the machines less mechanical and imposing could lessen patients’ distress. Why not make machines move more like humans—like dancers, even?
Young woman posing in front of a robot
MIRRORING: Cuan says dance gives us a vocabulary to teach robots how to move more naturally. (Photo: Samuel Berube)

Through arts residencies at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign and at the software company ThoughtWorks, Cuan began to explore new modes of human-robot interaction, becoming a “robot choreographer.” She entered Stanford as a PhD student in mechanical engineering this fall, focusing her research on how movement and gesture can enhance the relationship between humans and robots.

Cuan is contemplating how humans could use gesture to help control the movement of a robot. “What dance does is give you a very big palette, a very big vocabulary to describe movement,” Cuan says. “One thing you learn as a dancer is how capable our bodies are—the sheer range of power, mobility and expression. I think we can use that expression to have new interfaces respond to us, rather than the other way around.”

A smiling woman
Photo: Kevin Barry

She would also like to use dance to refine robots’ movements so that they convey clear intentions, allowing humans to more easily interpret and respond to their actions. “Dance teaches you how to create movement that conveys intention across several different contexts,” she says. “It is such a natural extension of what it is to be human.”

If robots moved more gracefully, she posits, they would be more approachable and less intimidating. Of course, such technology could be harnessed to make so-called creepy humanoids even more unnervingly realistic, but Cuan is more focused on machines that are unapologetically robotic. Since robots increasingly assist us everywhere from the home to the operating room, making them friendly rather than frightening is crucial, she says: “We need artists to reframe what robots will be in society.”

Cuan hopes to study how the stories we tell about robots affect humans’ responses to these unfamiliar machines. Meanwhile, she continues to choreograph with them. “Taking those robots out of the lab [and] into a dance studio transforms the feelings I have toward them,” she says.

At the end of her 2018 TED talk, Cuan dances with a two-foot-tall white robot that has a face and hands, and even wears shoes. The two mirror each other’s movements in a duet. At one point, Cuan cradles the robot in her arms like a baby.

“When the audience sees a robot in a performance, I’ve noticed it gives them freedom to think about robots in new ways, to picture themselves dancing or working with a robot,” she says. “Perhaps it even empowers people to learn to use robots as they never have before.”

Dance as Treatment

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Damara Vita Ganley starts the Monday morning Dance for PD class by having everyone slide their hands slowly up and down their thighs, reconnecting to their bodies.

From sturdy white plastic chairs gathered in a circle, more than 20 participants—some with Parkinson’s, others family members or caregivers—follow her direction as they settle in for the 75-minute session.

Betty Cohen warms up in a cheerful purple sweat suit, ready to throw herself into the class. Cohen originally came to Dance for PD to accompany her husband, who has Parkinson’s. Although he is no longer able to participate, she continues to attend twice a week.
Headshot of Bronte-Stewart smiling
WITHIN REACH: Dance for PD, says Bronte-Stewart, helps Parkinson’s patients with difficult tasks like sequencing and multitasking. (Photo: Timothy Archibald)

“For me, as a caregiver, it is a release,” she says. “I come in feeling so down and depressed. The beautiful thing is that I leave class feeling alive again.”

There is no mention of illness or disability. Crutches, canes, walkers and wheelchairs recede into the background. Within five minutes Ganley, who is certified to teach Dance for PD, has introduced a clapping and foot-tapping series of moves. The accompanist in the corner of the room watches her closely, mixing original music on his laptop in real time to fit the mood of the dance. The studio at the front of Stanford’s Neuroscience Health Center has flexible floors and tall windows that allow in a stream of natural light.

A group of older individuals practicing dance moves
Photo: Timothy Archibald

“The dancers are here as artists, not patients,” says Ganley, a modern dancer who has performed all over the world. “I am not there to fix or improve or impart anything except the permission to take this one short window of time to be expressive and daring and connective.”

Dance for PD was founded at the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn more than 15 years ago; today, it is taught in 16 countries. This is not your typical memorize-the-steps dance class but a free form of artistic expression that invites customization to accommodate the differing abilities of people with the neurodegenerative disease.

That participation ranges from small, subtle hand and wrist movements by those who remain seated throughout class to standing, twirling and holding hands while moving in a circle. Students are asked to do their own interpretation of leaves falling from a tree, stomping out a fire, raindrops pouring from clouds. “We are not trying to do circus acts in class,” Ganley reminds them. “We are turning ourselves into living poetry, and the simple, slow blossom of a hand can be as exquisite as someone turning and leaping across the floor.”

The symptoms of Parkinson’s, which include slowing or freezing of movement, body rigidity, tremors and loss of balance, can make the tasks of daily living challenging, even impossible. A 2018 study conducted by scientists at Northwestern and published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine reported significant improvement in gait and balance among people with Parkinson’s who participated in dance therapy.

Photo: Mark Hanlon/Stanford Medicine
Photo: Mark Hanlon/Stanford Medicine

Research about the benefits of dance for movement disorders is so compelling, says Stanford professor of neurology Helen Bronte-Stewart, that she was determined to include a dance studio in the neuro-science center when it opened in 2016. Dance for PD instruction “doesn’t just teach motor skills like ballet,” says Bronte-Stewart, a former ballet dancer. “It is actually sequences of poetry and music and movement. We are getting to the cognitive aspects of Parkinson’s disease that are difficult for people: sequencing and multitasking. By hooking into music and voice and movement, dance is actually really helpful for the brain.”

Several of those in the Stanford-hosted class “would never have thought of taking a dance class in their life,” says Bronte-Stewart, whose research focuses on understanding the pathology of Parkinson’s disease and developing a “pacemaker for the brain” that would regulate brain activity to restore movement.

“Every single one of our patients comes out of class saying, ‘This is not just a dance class. This is different. This is something I’d come back to,’” she says. And come back they do.

“You just get absorbed in the experience of it,” says Sherry Brown, a Palo Alto psychotherapist with Parkinson’s. “You don’t worry about other things in life. There is something about the music and the movement that feels very exhilarating, very satisfying.” Although she can’t measure it precisely, Brown believes that taking part in the class twice a week has kept disease progression at bay.

Jordan Parker, ’18, a research assistant in Bronte-Stewart’s lab and a ballet, tap and jazz dancer, has received similar feedback from other participants.

“People who wouldn’t have ever called themselves a dancer come in and regain movement capacity,” she says. “One of the dancers talks about moving through her house and how sometimes she freezes and can’t move, but when she thinks about dance, she is able to walk again.”

At the end of class, Ganley asks each person to step into the center of the circle and do a movement she or he associates with either the word “blooming” or “fierce.”

A blonde woman in a maroon sweater uses her feet to propel her wheelchair into the middle of the room, then twirls gleefully with her arms over her head. She stops, arms extended and hands open, and pronounces: “Blooming!”

Almost last to go, a quiet man in a black T-shirt and black pants takes tentative steps forward as he gazes at his feet. But when he halts in the center of the circle, he does a one-two punching motion with clenched fists and offers softly, “A little bit fierce!” His classmates burst into applause.

“Dance,” Ganley says, “invites you to transform into the most majestic version of yourself.”

Across campus in Roble Gym, Richard Powers concurs. Each spring, he teaches community classes at Friday Night Waltz, a drop-in event that packs the First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto. Enthusiasts come from as far away as San Rafael and San Jose. They are college students, faculty members—really, anyone who wants to learn to dance. All levels. No partner required.

From teens as young as 15 to dancers in their 90s, there are many newcomers each week. Powers imparts to them all the same lesson: “You are never too old or too shy to dance. And it’s never too late to start.”

Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer at STANFORD. Email her at msacks@stanford.edu.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.