An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)


While the Music Lasts


When people lived closer to the land, May Day, the first of May, was a time of celebrating the return of life and the defeat of winter with dancing, feasting, and courting.

The May Pole, originally a pagan symbol of fertility, was plaited with long colored ribbons by the young maids in the first bloom of their womanhood. Ancient people considered it a blessing from the gods that the earth became green once more, the cows gave milk in abundance, and the sweetness of honey came forth from the bees.

Dancing was an expression of their joy in such abundance and was a rite of spring to ensure the fertility of the land and its people.

In this time of high-tech, fast-paced materialism, milk, honey, and the soft green of new leaves are still blessings worthy of celebrating, but they may be over-looked in our quest for the newer, louder, quicker reward.

The music in my heart I bore long after I heard it no more.

— William Wordsworth

Still, human beings celebrate passages with dance. Weddings, proms, Bar Mitzvahs, and other life-cycle events are all occasions for dance. We dance for many reasons, but an expression of joy and celebration is one primary impetus. Dancing itself is an expression of life.

It can also bring us back to life.

Dancing Rose

Rose Alma Piller, Rita's mother is 93, has vascular dementia, and is pushed in her wheel chair to the River Oaks School of Dance. But when a Straus waltz or saucy cha-cha begins and Luiz, her dance instructor, takes her in his arms, Rose Alma owns the dance floor with the same grace, ease, and dignity she possessed when she danced in ball gowns.

Her feet move perfectly with the beat as she follows Luiz' lead – gliding, swinging out – moving with a lightness and confidence that any dancer would envy.

When the lesson is over, Rose Alma settles back in her wheel chair and goes home. By the next day she likely will not remember that she went dancing, but during that hour, she was lithe, new and young again.

Rose Alma may be unique, but she's not alone in her experience of how music awakens a long-buried sense of what it feels like to be fully alive. The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, "You are the music/while the music lasts." What poets have long intuited, science is now validating. A whole spectrum of neuro-imaging technologies are looking into our brains to see which parts and levels are activated as we process stimuli and sensations, such as the sound of music and the rhythm of poetry.

When Rose Alma hears the music at her dance lessons, a deep part of her limbic brain, free of dementia, engages. The memories laid down in her somatic or physical self move her not only emotionally but physically, giving her a grace "while the music lasts."


Plenty of mystery lay buried for poets to mine in anticipation of scientific confirmation. "Soul" is familiar to the poets, but it has been an enigma for science and an ignored subject, considered too "soft" to investigate, much less measure. Now the word, long found in narrative as well as poetry, is gradually creeping into the vocabulary of 21 st Century science.

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who became famous when his book Awakenings was made into a popular movie, is one of the first medical scientists to dare to use "soul" in scientific papers. He doesn't define it, but he knows it has something to do with our very essence of being - a core, a center that may miraculously remain immune even to the ravages of disease and injury.

In a paper on "Neurology and Soul," Sacks tells of a patient who had massive frontal lobe damage, which left him "emotionally flat," without expression of feeling. "But he loved music (country music especially)," Sacks said, " and when he sang, as he sometimes did spontaneously, he would come alive in the most remarkable way, as if the music could give him, transiently, what his cortex had lost."

Ritual Within

Rose Alma seldom misses not only her dance lessons but communion at Saint Anne's, a church she has attended for decades. She can say all the prayers and responses by heart. The rite of Mass, Sacks has also discovered, can reach that unscathed deep part of us. He writes of another patient, "so lost, so disconnected, so disoriented, most of the time." But coherence would suddenly come to him in the ritual of Mass. The "organic" sequence of every movement and prayer leading to a "moment filled with meaning" allowed him to recover, though transiently, "his own continuity of soul."

Poets and Gardeners

A present-day resident of Provincetown, at the tip of nearby Cape Cod, is Stanley Kunitz, the only person who holds the honor of being U.S. poet laureate twice, the last time at a mere age 95. At 99, with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award behind him, he keeps writing poetry. He writes when he is not gardening. He has terraced his plot of land as a work of art. Gardeners are familiar with that resonance we feel when we are totally taken by what we are doing, when we become one with it and "commune" with it.

O body swayed to the music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?

— Yeats

Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock said she couldn't do her work on plants and their genes without "holding communion" with them. Though a hard-headed scientist with a reputation of being eccentric, she sounded like a poet when she said that, in summertime "when you walk down the road, you'll see the tulip leaves, if it's a little warm, turn themselves around so their backs are toward the sun.they move around a great deal," as if dancing, and "are fantastically beyond our wildest expectations." (From Blair Justice's A Different Kind
Of Health

Kunitz sees a commonality between communicating with flowers in his garden and doing poetry. This almost centenarian feels "that the poems are still there, but they lie under the debris of life. One has to dig for them very much harder than one had to at the beginning. Poetry is, in one's youth, a glandular activity."

Moved by Joy

The implicit part of self - that limbic place where the soul can be stirred when the amygdala is activated - is much devoted to memory of movement. Kunitz still defines poetry as "physical." It moves people - as music and ritual move Rose Alma and as McClintock's "communion" moved her and, with the help of nature, her tulips. When such soul-stirring occurs, we like to think that our amygdala dances with joy.

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