As a dancer and a neuroscience enthusiast, I am interested in how the two disciplines overlap. From my early childhood years through high school I focused on competitive Irish Dance, making the leap over to contemporary dance in college. As I transitioned, I noticed that my repetitive, muscle memory-focused dance background did not prepare me for learning new choreography. Dancers with contemporary dance experience can learn new choreography (even with movements they have never encountered before) extremely quickly.
The professional contemporary dancers I have talked to describe dance and choreography as a language- yet it is a language with no set rules. My question is, what is happening in the brain that allows for this fast learning process? I have seen dancers learn several minute long strings of rapid choreography simply by watching another person dance the sequence twice. That is some crazy fast learning! Mirror neurons, neurons that fire when one executes an action as well as when one watches someone else do the same action, must have something to do with it. Can mirror neurons be exercised and therefore work more effectively in dancers who use them frequently? Or do dancers have more plastic brains? Exercise has been linked to greater neural plasticity, but I exercise regularly and still can’t learn choreography at the same rate. Or perhaps this has to do with the connectome. Maybe there is a critical period for learning dance like there is a critical period for acquiring language. I wonder if dancers’ ability to learn quickly is cross discipline, or if their short-term movement memory is much greater than their long-term movement memory. There are SO MANY unanswered questions.
While dancers have been the subject of some studies, including those for mirror neurons, I believe that the dancer’s brain should be looked at more closely for research on topics such as plasticity and memory storage.