Why Do We Dance?

matthews RAIN dancing.JPG

At Inner City-Inner Child, dance is a vitally important part of our work. Our Dancing With Books program deeply connects preschool children with books through singing, music, and movement. We celebrate all kinds of dance in our programming, including African, step, mambo, merengue, salsa, and freestyle.

Dance has been integral to the human experience since ancient times. It is part of virtually every culture on the planet, and the variety of dances across the globe is astounding. But even the most avid dance fans have wondered at times, Why do we do this?

There are many theories about why we dance and enjoy it so much. A common thread among them is that dance serves an evolutionary purpose and is fundamental to our survival and well-being. We highlight below the reasons for dancing that are most apparent and meaningful to early childhood education and our work at Inner City-Inner Child.

Brains in Our Feet

A recent study validates what many of us understand intuitively when we learn a new dance, whether it involves an advanced ballet technique or the Cupid Shuffle: dancing makes us smarter, and mastering a dance is an expression of our intelligence. The study compared the neurological effects of dancing, stretching, and walking, and found that of the three activities, dancing was the most beneficial to the brain. As the 1970s disco band Chic phrased it, when we dance, our “brains are in [our] feet.”

The compelling connection between dance and brain function is not lost on us at Inner City-Inner Child. Our assessments show that preschool children make gains in five key learning areas—literacy, math, creativity, physical development, and social-emotional development—after participating in our Dancing With Books program.

So when children in our program like Mateo work hard to master the dance steps we created to bring Eric Carle’s From Head to Toe picture book to life, they are not only having fun, but are also stimulating early childhood brain development.

Connecting and Belonging

Another theory about why we dance is that dancing demonstrates our ability to connect with others. As one social science reporter framed it: “Dancing together, especially in the synchrony, can signal that you are actually simpatico with lots of other people.”

We see this regularly in the early child development centers and school pre-K classrooms where we conduct our Dancing With Books program. Each classroom often has at least one child who is noticeably more reluctant than others to participate when our residency begins. It is, in many cases, a child who is slow to bond with the other children and adults in the classroom in general.

As children like Kayla and Madison show us, joining a dance circle gives children a special opportunity to participate with others and feel like part of the classroom community. Singing and dancing with their classmates in the circle has a remarkable way of releasing their inhibitions and improving their social development. It provides a sense of belonging that often endures long after our residency ends.

Happy Feet

If you’ve ever seen the video for Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy,” you have a clear sense that there is a strong connection between dance and happiness. But do we dance because we are happy, or does dancing make us happy?

As many of us have experienced personally, the dance-happiness current can flow in either direction. What some may find surprising, however, is just how powerful the current is: dance has been shown to affect brain chemistry and improve the mood of people with depression.

At Inner City-Inner Child, children like Kayla and Madison show us the power of dance to bring happiness to the spirit and feet of young children each time we enter a classroom. That is reward enough for the work that we do, yet it serves a larger purpose as well: children learn more effectively and have more positive long-term feelings about school when they are happy in the classroom. But we’ll say more about that in a future post.

An Invitation to You

A blog can hardly convey the high degree of learning and profound sense of belonging and happiness that children experience when they dance, sing, and read in Inner City-Inner Child’s Dancing With Books program. To learn more about how to support our work with professional development programs in DC, we invite you to watch our video and click here. Let’s keep dancing!

For more than two decades, Inner City-Inner Child (ICIC) has supported early childhood education in Washington, DC through arts education programs and early childhood development training. We provide quality arts integration and early childhood development programs that serve low-income families in DC. ICIC also provides arts-focused professional development programs for teachers who work in early childhood centers and school-based early childhood education programs in DC. In addition, we engage low-income DC parents in child development activities that help them create learning experiences at home.