Using Dance to Strengthen the Nervous System

“Every dance movement I make helps me orient myself in reality, my own emotions, and my own body."- Joseph Baldock
Our bodies are amazing.  We are adaptable beings.  Our muscles can change shape and our nervous system continually grows and adapts.   This ability to adapt, or neural plasticity, is part of what makes dance such a great activity for special populations.
As soon as we are born, our bodies begin to develop through eight basic neurological patterns, or pathways, that establish our nervous system.

1)    Breathing – as soon as we leave the
2)    Sensory Integration – established  
       through tactile communication, or 
       touch- the reason that human contact
            is so important during the first 3 months              of life.
3)    Core-distal movement – movements that begin to use the
           arms and legs reaching away from the torso
4)    Head to tail movement – Curling and curving of the back to
            help align the spine
5)    Division of upper & lower body movements – teaches
            stabilization of body parts
6)    Division of right & left side body movements – helps to
            develop weight shifting ability and horizontal eye
7)    Cross-lateral movement patterns – since each side of the body
             is controlled by the opposite side of the brain, these 
             movements encourage the strengthening of
             pathways between the right and left brain hemispheres
8)    Vestibular movements – spinning or swinging movements
             that help develop balance, and muscle tone as well as

When one of these motor patterns is skipped, partially developed, or altered, it shows up as a limitation or a problem with perception, movement and/or thought processes.  The good news is that the pathways are never destroyed and can always be re-established through movement.

Working on re-establishing these patterns can help people with all types of disabilities ranging from sensory processing disorders to autism spectrum disorders to Alzheimer’s disease.  Using movement as a tool is exactly the premise behind occupational therapy programs that work with people who are struggling with these disabilities.

It is exciting to realize that we, as dance educators, can use our art form as a tool to help these populations.  Dance educator, Anne Green Gilbert, has developed a warm-up program called Brain Dance, which she uses at her studio in Seattle, Washington.  She incorporates movements that follow the eight developmental patterns in an effort to either reorganize or reinforce the basic neurological patterns.

Since most dance classes include movements that include these patterns, this reinforcement is easy to incorporate into our classes.  What a simple way to use our knowledge to contribute to the development and re-establishment of the nervous system and create healthy dancers among all populations!


  1. Awesome post! Applying this to my own teaching has opened a whole new perspective on teaching - teaching my students about neural adaptations and plasticity has helped them to understand that it truly does take time to learn/re-learn movement. And for myself I have a new appreciation for why a student can have a hard time changing habits -- and sometimes repeating old ones knowingly.

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