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The Power of Music and Dance

Dr Aw headshot in a circle

Update from Dr. Aw

October 20, 2020

During my early days at OMERS – I was warmly welcomed by colleagues Anne Soh, VP of Actuarial Services and Plan Actuary and Lisa Conway, Director of Growth Equity, who spoke to me about their exciting community work with Canada’s National Ballet School, who was doing some interesting work with Baycrest, a global leader in brain health and aging. Anne and Lisa were both very passionate about a wonderful program run by the school called “Sharing Dance Seniors.” In response to the pandemic, they shifted the program online and offered several free events providing instruction on dance and movement virtually. The broader National Ballet of Canada also offered virtual ballet lessons to front line health care workers at a hospital in Toronto. What great wellness initiatives!

Physical benefits of dancing include improved aerobic power, muscle endurance, strength, flexibility, gait (balance), bone density and reduced risk of falls and cardiovascular disease (1). This program also allows participants a healthy outlet for creativity, artistic expression and belonging to a community.

In my medical practice – I have found many of my healthy aging patients incorporate some form of creative art into their life (2). Some play instruments, sing, act in community theatre or paint. Even my parents who are both in their 80s surprised me a few years ago when they told me they started line dancing!

The link to music and wellbeing has been around for centuries – mainly in a social and cultural context. It seems intuitive that music can have a healing effect on the mind and body – but quality studies in the past have been sparse. However, the research is getting deeper on the health benefits of music interventions (playing instruments, singing, dancing).

Engagement in visual arts for adults with mental health conditions have been found to improve subjective wellbeing, reduce anxiety, improve self-esteem, enhance quality of life and prevent readmission to psychiatric hospitals (3). The impact of music therapy for cognitive improvement is still being debated. The first study to compare the effectiveness of art therapy and music reminiscence activity to prevent cognitive decline as a preventive strategy in a randomized controlled trial is being done with the National University of Singapore (4). Reminiscence therapy with music involves listening and discussing events and experiences related to music. In this trial, they will use music videos and link them to personal photographs for community living elderly individuals with mild cognitive impairment. The role of music is also being investigated in the rehabilitation of stroke, Alzheimer’s and age-related neurological diseases.

Studies (5) are also finding music interventions may be beneficial in movement disorders (Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington disease, Tourette syndrome, progressive supranuclear palsy). Evidence is emerging on the benefits of group dancing, singing and instrumental music performance particularly in Parkinson’s disease.

The social benefits of dance are many and include combating loneliness through human connection. Let’s also not forget the emotional importance of joy and play. There is lots of research on child play – but emerging studies are looking at the importance of adult “play time”. We all need to recharge and have fun as part of an overall wellness strategy. I found a study (6) from Carnegie Mellon University that elegantly defined play in adulthood as “a behaviour or activity that is carried out with the goal of amusement and fun, involves an enthusiastic and in-the-moment attitude or approach, and is highly interactive among play partners or with the activity itself) and identifies potential immediate outcomes (e.g. positive affect, feelings of being accepted and valued, reductions in daily stress) and long-term outcomes (e.g. psychological, physical and relational health) of play in adulthood, with an emphasis on play occurring within the context of close relationships.” Or stately simply. Sing and Dance!

I will leave you with lyrics from the 1987 song “Come from the Heart” by songwriters Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh:

“You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.”

Stay healthy!


  1. Physical Benefits of Dancing for Healthy Older Adults.

  2. Art for life’s sake.

  3. Engaging in Visual Arts Improves Subjective Wellbeing for Adults with mental health conditions

  4. Art therapy and music reminiscence activity in the prevention of cognitive decline.

  5. Music therapy for Movement Disorders.

  6. Young at Heart.

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