Dance, Muscle Memory & Neural Pathways

"The hard must become habit. 
                 The habit must become easy.  
                         The easy must become beautiful." 
                                                                          - Doug Henning

You walk into the dance studio, the teacher says, “Let’s begin with two demi pliés and a grand plié in each position,” the accompanist begins and you execute the exercise.  You don’t think: plié means to bend, demi means halfway, grand means big, I slowly separate my thighs while holding my turnout, I bend my knees, I bend my ankles while I keep my chest lifted and my chin high, and I hold my abdominal muscles strong.  You simply do the pliés.

 If you have been dancing a long time, you don’t have to think about how to complete this exercise any more than you would think about how to pick up a pencil.  Your body simply completes the task.  Did you ever wonder how that is possible?

Thanks to the body’s nervous system, humans have something called muscle memory.  Although it implies that we are able to store memories in our different muscles, that is not what it means.  When we do an exercise for the first time, we create a new neural pathway.  This pathway is the route that a message travels on to go from the brain to the muscle and back to the brain again.  The second time an exercise is performed, it becomes easier because the messages are travelling across a familiar pathway.  Eventually, after the movement is practiced several times, it becomes almost automatic because the pathway is no longer new but is well travelled.  This ability allows for well-rehearsed dances to be executed without the dancer thinking of what step comes next or how it should be done and gives the dancer the freedom to concentrate on performing.

Muscle memory, however, is also the reason that bad habits are difficult to break.  When a dancer learns to do a plié with forced turnout and pronating feet, and then tries to correct it, he/she is forced to stop the body from using the old pathway and then create a new pathway.

Fortunately, the nervous system never stops growing and developing, and it is always possible to change bad habits and learn new things.  The ability to learn new things, create new neural pathways, and reorganize the nervous system through physical activity is exactly what makes dance valuable for many different populations, including the elderly and the differently abled…  

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