What’s Really Going on When You Learn a New Ballet?

The National Ballet of Canada in rehearsal, photo by Karolina Kuras.

Have you ever wondered what’s going on in your brain when you’re learning a new ballet? A new study from York University, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, used ballet dancers to shed new light on the learning process and its long-term effects.

To understand the changes that happen in the brain when learning something over a long period of time, the researchers recruited 10 dancers ages 19 to 50 from the National Ballet of Canada. They had the dancers try to visualize the movements they had learned in rehearsal while listening to music and undergoing fMRI brain scans. This was done four times over a 34-week period while the dancers were learning a new work.

The brain scans initially showed an increase in activity from week one to week seven. By the end of the 34 weeks, however, activity had decreased again when compared to week seven. In other words, brain activity rose at first, reached a peak and then gradually returned to its original level. Think of it this way: when you're first learning new choreography, you have to work harder to remember and master the unknown material. Once you've become expert at it, you're able to do the movements more instinctively.

The findings may not come as a surprise to dancers—after all, you’ve experienced this process firsthand. But the results suggest that using dancers as a model could help give researchers a more complex understanding of motor learning in general.

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

Latest Posts


Courtesy ABC

Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Alicia Mae Holloway Talks About Her Time on ABC's “The Bachelor”

Bunheads tuning in to the season premiere of ABC's "The Bachelor" on January 4 may have recognized a familiar face: Dance Theatre of Harlem's Alicia Mae Holloway, literally bourréeing out of a limousine to greet bachelor Matt James. While Holloway unfortunately didn't get a rose that night, she did thoroughly enjoy being the long-running reality franchise's first professional-ballerina contestant, as she told Pointe in a recent Zoom call.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

#TBT: Carla Fracci and Stephen Jefferies in "La Esmeralda" (1987)

Carla Fracci, a former principal dancer of La Scala Ballet in Milan, is among the rare class of ballerinas who continued to perform into her 50s and beyond. Romantic ballets were her calling card throughout her career. In 1987, when Fracci was 51, she was featured in a television special, dancing reconstructed 19th-century ballets in the style of historical ballerinas. In this clip of La Esmeralda from the program, Fracci and her partner Robert Jefferies, a former principal at The Royal Ballet, deliver an extraordinary performance, capturing the verve and spirit of their characters.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Ask Amy: How Can I Make the Most of Performance Opportunities in a Pandemic?

My school is connected to a professional company that operates on a show-to-show basis. Students can audition for company performances when they're 15. My 15th birthday is in February, and I think that our directors are choosing people to participate in virtual performances based off of whether they have performed with the company before. This was supposed to be my big first year with the company, but COVID-19 has changed that. How do I make it known that I want to participate? Do you think I should wait until things are more normal? —Lila
Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks