Language & Dance: Neuroscience

Neuroscientists who have studied the brain functions involved in dance have been able to show the likelihood that dance was an early form of communication.

Interestingly, no other mammals or animals dance. Certainly, we can think of animals that “make music”, like birds, and that move their bodies in curious ways – such as birds during mating rituals. But no other creatures on Earth create music and then move their bodies to it in endlessly creative and social ways. Furthermore, no others display an involuntary habit of tapping, clapping or “grooving” to music.

I definitely think of dance as a means of communication (and partner dancing as a form of conversation), and watching this Ontario Arts Council video “Why We Dance” indicates that many dancers feel the same way:

The Neuroscience of Dance

While dance is a fundamental form of human interaction, it’s also incredibly complex in terms of brain function. Major mental coordination is required to execute even rudimentary dance steps (spacial awareness, balance, timing, physical coordination…).

One important thing that neuroscientists studying dance have found is that the ability of the human brain to mentally rehearse movement is vital to learning new movement. Movements become easier – become habitual – if the brain is able to rehearse them independently of the physical action. It’s as important for the brain to be able to imagine how a movement feels as it is to be capable of performing the required motor functions.

So, the human brain is not merely a machine that makes movement happen. It is also a creative engine that actively makes mental representations of body movement, and its ability to do so plays a significant role in one’s success in learning and performing new movement.

Dance and Language

Language is also representational – we create language to stand in place of actual objects, people or actions. As with dance, to communicate with language, our brains must be able to do more than perform the motor functions of speech. The brain must also be able to imagine the world and recreate it in sounds, words, sentences and phrases.

Another reason that neuroscientists believe that dance was an early form of language is that the same area of the brain is reponsible for both speech production and physical gesture. So, the brain functions involved in dance are also involved in language. Whether it’s dance, language or music, what’s involved is placing units of movement, speech or sound into seamless, coherent sequences.

Put another way, “dance is the representational capacity of movement combined with the rhythmicity of music.”* We use it to tell stories with our bodies. By doing this to music we are able share the experience with others and create social cohesion by synchronizing our own movement with the movement of others.

Next time you dance, think about what you’re trying to communicate and who else you want to involve in that communication. Next time you practice dancing, spend some time imagining what you wish to practice even before you start to practice physically!


Steven Brown & Lawrence M. Parsons. “The Neuroscience of Dance.” Scientific American, July 2008. Summary here >>

Elizabeth Landau. “Music: it’s in your head, changing your brain.” CNN Health, May 26, 2012.
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