Sunday, January 29, 2012

Music and Movement and Brains, Oh My...Part 1

One of my "hats" is that of  a Kindermusik educator. Coming from a dance background, music is critical. Being a parent, or anyone who works with children for that matter, music is magical!
A few years ago I was asked to do some presentations about the importance of using music and movement in regards to infant and young child brain development. I got tell ya, this stuff fascinates me! This post is a bit long (okay...maybe more than a bit), but pretty easy to get through.

Musical activities stimulate development in every area of the brain.

As adults we have many experiences to pull from to tell us the impact that music has on our everyday lives. Certain styles of music can, in turns, calm us, energize or just simply entertain us. A certain song can take our mind on a detailed journey of the past, or create new memories of places and people.

For the developing brain’s of infants, among many important aspects, are five areas, or domains, that are foundations of learning. Here they are, with some examples.

  • Physical: large motor skills, balance, muscle development.

  • Emotional: Expressing fear or anger, joy.

  • Cognitive: Remembers faces. Learns cause and effect.

  • Language: Cooing, babbling, and crying to express a desire.

  • Social Development: Smiles back when smiled to.

We can add a sixth.

  • Musical: Enjoys hearing music, responds vocally and physically.

To understand better where and how these six domains develop, we can take a journey through the parts of the brain where a great deal of this learning is processed.

Starting with one of the most basic, but important action to occur: the synaptic connection. Mind you, this is a very basic overview.

Cells of the brain are neurons (nerve cells) and glia.


  • Neurons are connected. They pass electrochemical signals to each other. Information is integrated within the cell body, and then an “action potential” (electrochemical signal) is sent out.

            *Signals travel along the axon to the end of the axon, or dendrites, and a synapse occurs.

  • Synapses are like pathways or avenues that allow individual nerve cells to connect with each other.
  • Axons can be thought of as electrical wiring. Axons wrapped in myelin increase the speed of the electrochemical signals.
  • Myelin can be thought of as insulation for electrical wiring. Without it, signals  go astray, or short out.

When an electrochemical signal reaches a dendrite, several things may happen;

1.)    Neurotransmitter may “float up” and away.

2.)    Can break down from enzymes

3.)    Reuptake can occur. This is when a neuron takes back the neurotransmitter for a later action.

4.)    Information is communicated to the next axon, a synapse occurs.

Only number four is a successful transmission of an electrochemical signal.

Glias are “worker” cells. They clean up dead neurons. There are no chemical synapses between glia.

By the 17th week of pregnancy, a fetus has 1 billion brain cells (more than an adult brain). These brain cells are not in their right places. Only after they are formed will they travel (cell migration). Even though distinct areas of the brain are in place at birth, much of its “wiring” still needs to be done. The brain is the only organ incomplete at birth.

We’re going to come back to neurons and synapses in a bit.

Let’s take a look at some of these “distinct” areas of the brain. I've listed them in no particular order. They are all equally important.

The Cerebrum:

·        Largest part of the brain.

·        Surface is the cerebral cortex.

·        Functions; perception, thought, involuntary movement, language and reasoning.

The Frontal Lobe:

·        Brain’s “Top Executive”.

·        Most recently evolved in human evolution.

·        Last to develop in young adulthood.

·        Organizes responses to complex problems.

·        Searches memory for relevant experience.

·        Adapts strategies to accommodate new data.

·        Guides behavior with verbal skills.

Remember, sometimes a teenager actually can’t think their way out of a paper sack. Their frontal lobe just isn’t finished maturing yet.

The Corpus Callosum:

·        Connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

·        Thick band of nerve fibers.

The Thalamus:

·        “Grand Central Station”

·        Sensory and Motor integration. It directs all the input to its proper locations in the brain.

·        In both hemispheres of brain (thalami is plural).

The Hypothalamus:

·        Size of a pea

·        Functions; regulates body temperature, hunger, thirst, etc.

The Hippocampus:

·        Part of the Limbic System or “emotional brain

·        Where new memories are formed (Alzheimers affects the hippocampus before other parts of the brain, which helps to explain why the sufferers will be stuck in “old “memories).

·        Emotion

·        Learning

·        Spatial orientation

The Amygdala:

·        Part of the Limbic System

·        Perhaps the most mysterious part of the brain to scientists and researchers

·        Traps life events for emotional content (as input is received and directed by the thalamus, input is also being assessed by the amygdala).

·        If an experience or stimuli needs a “fear” marker for future reference, this is where it is going to come from.
As an aside, some new research is being devoted to exploring the connections between the amygdala and Autism.

*Note to anyone who teaches movement of any kind. It's important to point out that an individual, of pretty much any age, will experience a sort of "amygdala override" when feeling anxious or threatened, including intimidation and humiliation. It's something that I try to be constantly aware of as an instructor, regardless of what age group I am dealing with. Dance has a way of going directly to a persons soft and chewy center, making one feel vunerable. Its important to remind participants of any age that learning is a process, and what feels awkward or difficult today will get better over time with proper practice and patience.

The Cerebellum:

·        Often referred to as the “little brain”.

·        Located just above the brain stem, at the base of the skull.

·        Functions; movement/motor sensory, balance/ equilibrium, posture and muscle tone and fine motor coordination.

·        Once thought to be a motor control structure, modern research has shown that it plays an important role in cognitive function, such as the processing of language and music.


·        Connects cerebellum to the cerebral hemispheres (this pertains to right and left sides of the brain, bi-lateral, cross-lateral or “crossing the mid-line”).

Medulla Oblongata:

·        Controls breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

We’ve just scraped the surface of the areas and complexities of the human brain.

Let’s revisit those neurons!

“Wiring” is made up of millions of neurons connected by synapses. These trillions of synapses and the pathways they form make up the brain’s “wiring”.

After birth, brain development consists of wiring and rewiring these connections. As new synapses are formed, others are pruned away.

Synapses are formed more quickly in the brain of an infant from newborn to 8 months of age. By 8 months, an infant’s brain can have 1,000 trillion synapses. Remember, synapses are the connections. We want lots of them!

Throughout infancy and early childhood the brain is working hard to make as many synapses, or pathways, as possible. In the first 3 years of life, the brain is at its most flexible and prepared to learn. Vital connections are made permanent. Early experiences, both negative and positive, have a dramatic effect on the formation of synapses.

 Even though this process slows as we travel from childhood into adolescence, and then onto adulthood, the brain remains flexible for future learning. But the strongest pathways are laid down in our earliest months. The “wiring” and “pruning” process works on a “use it or lose it” system.

Enjoy the dance that is life!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dance of the Animals.

It's cold, wet and rainy (finally) where I'm at. But as soon as it warms up a bit and the ground is less mushy, I think this type of movement is a great use of lawn space!

Animals move with a grace all their own.What are we but animals ourselves!

I'm a late bloomer to the benefits of bodyweight training. Better late than never!

I love to move! Okay, I also love to sit on the couch and watch mini marathons of shows like "Weeds" and "United States of Tara". What do I love as much as I love moving (and mini Showtime marathons)? Teaching other people to love movement. When I do get my move on, I love to explore the flow of movement in one direction and then see what happens when that impetus is forced to stop, recoil, redirect. Connecting movements and steps that can go from two feet on the floor, to the ground and back up again. Contrasts of sharp staccato against soft, flowing legato, and all the flavors in between.

When I started teaching lyrical dance a few years ago I was finally, after many years, able to embrace who I was as a dancer, an artist and a person. My classical ballet technique became a tool I could use in expression through movement, rather than just an indelible mark on my movement signature (everyone is designed with their own movement signature). Too bad some lessons of the mind and heart can't coincide with the physical agility and flexibility of youth.

Many times what may look great and easily executed in my head can feel tight and stilted in its actual execution. Many times I have found that I have to design progressions to build up to executing a particular step that I want to use in choreography or pass along to my dance students. Particularly my Lyrical dance students. Sometimes I luck out and find an awesome breakdown on YouTube. Regardless of where a progression, or series of steps is gleaned from, a constant and key feature is almost always a combination of elements: core strength, agility, form, and timing. Those same elements are key features of fitness and everyday functional movement.

If you don't want to wait for the welcoming grasses of spring (I certainly don't) to tap into the benefits of  bodyweight training (resources!), just make sure you have plenty of space around you, whether at home or at the gym.

Enjoy the dance that is life!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Kid-Friendly Dance Video!

A friend of mine who is a grade school teacher and a Zumba enthusiast, like myself, approached me last summer about how much fun it would be to have some dances for her class during some of the rainy months. Her kids took some of my Zumbatomic classes during the summer and has a pretty good time!

So here is the link to YouTube for "I Wanna Be Like You" .

You can dance along or learn it in sections, then when you have it memorized, give it a try with just the music. I found it on itunes. The artist is XYP.

Don't worry about doing a step wrong. When it comes to dance and fun, there is no wrong step. Just make sure you and your neighbors are not going to crash (at least not too hard) into each other! Smile, relax and have fun!

Enjoy the dance that is life!

Friday, January 6, 2012

20 Best!

The other day I was searching for something on the web when I came across this posting on
I really appreciate the simple yet tried and true selection of exercises. They don't give any recommendations for number of reps or sets, or what exercises should be paired with what. Future post? Hmm...
What I really stand behind though, is incorporating pull-ups (chin-ups) into one's regular regiment. Ladies, fear not the pull up! I never even considered doing a pull-up up until about a year ago. But going through a step by step process of progressions (definately an upcoming post!) I did it. The benefits (bragging rights among them!) are amazing. Pull-ups are a very effective exercise to work the arms, upper body, back and core. Sure, you might get some calluses on your hands. Nobody will be noticing those. Strong sexy arms and upper body will get noticed though. Let's not forget that functional strength is always of value, no matter what one's goals are.
Don't belong to a gym? Need equiptment for the home? I've heard many rave reviews about this pull-up bar product.

Coming soon; Fun dance routines for kids!

Monday, January 2, 2012

It's the start of 2012, let's have a ball!

Okay, don't worry if you just dropped your party clothes off at the cleaners.
I'm talking about a common, easy to find tennis ball (Penn brand works nicely). Before you go for that racket, sit down and take your shoes and socks off.
We are going to use our tennis ball as a self-myofascial release device, with a focus on the foot.

To ensure your body moves smoothly with a minimum of friction, muscles are enveloped in a slippery skin like tissue called fascia. This webbing of fascia that covers the muscles up and down the front and back of our body connect under our feet.
Our feet and ankles work as a sort of switch board for the rest of our body, harmonizing the jobs of foundation, shock absorber, and propulsion engine as well as providing flexibility and resiliency.
 26 bones, 33 joints, the over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as a network of blood vessels, nerves, skin, and soft tissue all work together in a structure to form a system of arches.

Has your dog or kiddo ran off with your tennis ball yet? The afore mentioned arches are what we are going to focus on with our tennis ball and self myo-fascial release.

The following exercises can be done a few times throughout the week or everyday.

Medial arch – highest and most important (and abused quite frequently when we pronate or roll inwardly at the ankle). It is composed of the first three metatarsals (big toe to middle toe) as well as other bones.

Before you start rolling out the bottom of your foot, make sure that you are seated comfortably on a chair. To much shifting on a surface such as a couch may cause other muscle groups to tense, as most of your focus will be directed to the foot you are working. You may also be comfortable sitting on the floor, just be sure that you have your upper body positioned comfortably and you feel that you can control the amount of pressure exerted onto the ball (start gently rolling and you'll know what I mean about pressure).

You can start by slowly rolling the ball along the medial arch in a forward/backward motion. The first few times you will want to go easy on the pressure, then increase both speed and pressure in following sessions. You can even add small circular motions, clockwise and counter. You may even focus steady pressure on a specific spot. Listening to your foot will be your best guide. Remember, they are by design, very communicative! Most likely, the medial arch will be where you will spend the most time time rolling.

Lateral arch – longitudinal arch, lower and flatter than the medial arch. It is composed of the fourth and the fifth metatarsals (4th toe to pinky toe) as well as other bones.

Same guidelines as above.

Transverse arch – this arch is found at the base of the five metatarsals and at the base of the ball of the foot.
I have found that small circular motions work best for the transverse arch. Again, most of your time will be spent on the medial arch.

Be sure to work both feet, but not necessarily for the same durations of time. My left foot usually requires more attention than my right foot. Your feet will "talk" you through it, all you have to do is listen.

Who should do this? Dancers? Runners? In my never to be humble opinion, everyone. With the exclusion of those with leg and foot complications due to diabetes, peripheral neuropathy of the lower extremeties or any other leg or foot injury under the care of a doctor. Otherwise, if you have feet then you probably have muscles and fascia attached to them. And they would appreciate a little TLC.

So grab a tennis ball (buy a new one, don't take the dog's or your neighbor's), toss it in your gym bag, purse or car, and make self-myofascial release part of your regular routine.

Want to know a bit more about barefoot training? Check out this article.

Enjoy the dance that is life!