When we are really, successfully dancing, we are operating entirely in our right brain. Our left brain controls most of our lives, and so one of the advantages of dancing is that it gives us access to our right brain.
Our brain is actually 2 separate hemispheres, connected by the “corpus callosum”. The two hemispheres operate independently, and are quite different in what they do, and in how they operate. The left hemisphere is our consciousness: thinking, figuring out, planning, remembering, talking, listening, judging, etc. The little voice in our head is our left brain chattering all the time. The left brain operates sequentially, like a computer, doing one thing after another, and so it can go only at a certain maximum speed.
Our right brain is about who we are and who we are being: being one with everyone, being in contact with those around us. Everything happens at once in the right brain; it has no past or future; there is no train of thought. There is no time constraint; we embrace all of life at the same time. When we dance with full connection with our partner and the music, we are in the right brain; there is no thinking or planning, and our feet move as if on their own, knowing where to go. We sometimes call this “muscle memory”. There is no delay in our actions; we respond instantaneously to nuances in the rhythm of the music, and to our partner’s movements, which is how we stay perfectly in sync with our partner.
When we are learning a dance, our left brain listens, figures out the instructions, and controls the movement of the feet accordingly. The memory of the left brain memorizes a sequence of instructions, then feeds them out one at a time to the action controller, which, at the same time, is getting instructions from other memory sections, such as keep your head up, flex your knees, navigate ahead, hold your arm around your partner but don’t squeeze too tight, and so on. There are many instructions coming in, which each have to be processed one-by-one, and turned into body actions, and messages sent to legs and arms. There is a severe limit to the speed at which these instructions can be processed, and many instructions are forgotten within seconds of being processed. We frequently experience forgetting the next piece of a move when we are focused on where we are now.
To transition from learning a dance (in the left brain) to doing that same dance (in the right brain) it takes repetition. Practice. Each of those many instructions must be practiced until it is automated as a part of right bring function. The act of balancing while riding a bicycle is a good example repeating the actions until they are automated by the right brain. The right brain can command the balancing moves instantaneously, while the left brain is too slow, and lets us fall down while we are trying to figure out the next move.
While dancing, we are performing hundreds of actions simultaneously. To make a change, we can add one instruction to the list, and hold it in the left brain consciousness while the right brain does what it already knows. This one additional instruction can thus be practiced until it can be integrated into the right brain automation. One instruction. This is how we learn to dance. One step at a time. (This also means that a dance teacher can say many things, but only one can be remembered by the dancer. Once that one thing is integrated, another can be said.)
For more on left/right brain functioning, see: Jill Bolte Taylor on TED.