Dancing to Unleash Creativity

 In Dance Training

The Science Behind Improvisational Dance’s Impact on Creativity

Submitted by Kailey Zaronias, CCD Alumna. Kailey is attending Case Western Reserve University, majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Dance and Chemistry in the Pre-Professional Scholars Program in Medicine.

Imagine a setting in which creativity roams free. In this experience, any story can be told and the only limitation is the existence in a human body. This creative adventure is the premise of improvisational dance. To enrich creative thinking, dance improvisation tests both the brain’s ability to cultivate abstract imaginations and the body’s ability to create the physical portrayal of a symbolic message.

Where does creativity come from and why does it matter? Creativity, which is crucial to problem-solving and innovation throughout life, begins to develop in early childhood with convergent thinking skills – evaluating options to make decisions – and divergent thinking skills – generating new problem-solving connections. In the first several years of life, creative experiences quickly accumulate to build one’s cognitive foundation. As cognitive scientists uncover new information about the brain, working memory, creativity, symbolism, etc., it becomes exceedingly clear that strategies for enhancing neural foundations are best implemented in early childhood when cognitive abilities are especially impressionable. The Dana project by Laura-Ann Petitto compared the creative experiences of non-dancers and dancers, who had trained since before age seven. By analyzing behavioral tasks, participant surveys, and functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy imaging (fNIRS), researchers found that dancers had significantly increased accuracy on attentional tasks, selective attention, improvement in rapid short-term memory stimuli processing, and performance on other creative thinking tasks. Essentially, dancers had built many creative and critical thinking skills compared to non-dancers their age. The early creative experiences that build a child’s neural foundation hold immense potential for their life-long cognitive abilities.

Improvisation is a powerful type of dance to cultivate creative cognitive engagement in young children. As a free-form type of dance, improvisation allows the dancer to portray any symbolic message with their choice of movement vocabulary. This style of dancing is unique and important because students must think quickly, trust their technique, and rely on their creativity to generate expressive movement. In a 2017 study, Hansen and Oxoby found that improvisational dance training improved both the non-verbal creativity and the cognitive flexibility of the dancers’ creative design fluency. Creativity is also affected by different movements. A 2012 study by Slepian and Ambady found that fluid arm movement, as opposed to rigidity, enhanced creativity in the domains of idea generation, cognitive flexibility, and remote associations. Based on a plethora of research, dance curriculum incorporating improvisational movement holds great potential to enrich childhood development of creative thinking.

Further research will be valuable for greater inclusion of creative movement in early education and more awareness for supporting the dance community. Until then, dance can continue to inspire creative exploration for people of all ages and abilities. An abstract and creative approach to movement makes dance accessible to everyone, even those with no formal dance training. Improvisational dance is open to interpretation, non-judgemental, and an incredibly freeing experience. I hope that as individuals go on with their daily routines, they can make a little time to turn on their favorite song, close their eyes, and let their creativity run wild.

Original Artwork by Kailey Zaronias


Faber, R. (2017). Dance and early childhood cognition: The Isadora Effect. Arts Education Policy Review, 118(3), 172–182. doi.org/10.1080/10632913.2016.1245166. 

Gilbert, A. G. (2015). Creative Dance for All Ages: A conceptual approach (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hansen, P., & Oxoby, R. J. (2017). An earned presence: studying the effect of multi-task improvisation systems on cognitive and learning capacity. Connection Science, 29(1), 77–93. doi.org/10.1080/09540091.2016.1277692.

Oppici, L., Rudd, J. R., Buszard, T., & Spittle, S. (2020). Efficacy of a 7-week dance (RCT) PE curriculum with different teaching pedagogies and levels of cognitive challenge to improve working memory capacity and motor competence in 8–10 years old children. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 50. doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2020.101675.

Slepian, M. L., & Ambady, N. (2012). Fluid movement and creativity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), 625–629. doi.org/10.1037/a0027395.

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