Five years ago, an idea popped into the head of longtime Ballet West patron and practicing psychologist Dr. Aharon Shulimson: "Do ballet dancers' brains function differently than the rest of us?" Shulimson and his wife Julie Terry, president of the Ballet West Guild and Shulimson's clinic's technician, had recently conducted a study on ultra-marathon runners using a specialized brain imaging technique called Quantitative Electroencephalography, and were eager to try it out on dancers. Shulimson describes QEEG as the "human equivalent of taking your car into the shop and plugging it into the computer to see how it works." The test allows Shulimson to compare an individual's brain wave activity to statistical norms to see how it's functioning. He stresses that the test isn't designed as a means of diagnosis, but rather "to understand the neurological underpinnings of things like ADHD and anxiety."

Last year Ballet West director Adam Sklute gave Shulimson and Terry permission to recruit dancers; 26 volunteered. For principal dancer Adrian Fry, the experiment gave him a chance to "enter a different world." "People find dancers very fascinating," says Fry. "I wanted to see if there was real evidence behind that."

"We really had no idea what to expect," says Shulimson. "There was no previous research to go on." Shulimson does point out that the results certainly couldn't be bad, as whatever's going on in these dancers has enabled them to become successful in an incredibly competitive field.


Retired Ballet West first soloist Elizabeth McGrath wearing an EEG electrode cap and ear electrodes for the study. Photo Courtesy of Aharon Shulimson.

The Results


The results were surprising. More than 2/3 of the dancers in the study were found to have overactive brains with an excess of brain activity. "When I see that in my patient population, it's usually affiliated with someone with anxiety disorder, someone with the tendency to overthink things, to hyperfocus," says Shulimson. This brain type is also affiliated with sleep issues, as people in this group tend to have a harder time shutting their brains off at night. Shulimson said that a number of the dancers in this category did reveal that they have trouble sleeping.

The other third of participants were almost the exact opposite, characterized by an underactive brain with an excess of slower brain wave activity. This is most commonly affiliated with an ADHD diagnosis. "Patients who have that type of brain wave typically do well with interesting and stimulating situations. If someone is coming to set Serenade on you and that doesn't focus you, you're in the wrong line of work."

Fry thought the results made sense. "I find dancers to be the most focused individuals, maybe on the planet. I think we're just really excellent multitaskers. We process a lot of information and facts and are constantly combatting our own minds and the music and the steps and emotions; there's a lot that goes into just taking a step onstage."


Shulimson and Terry at a Ballet West event. Photo Courtesy of Ballet West.

What's Next

Though Shulimson and Terry presented their findings at the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback Conference in Chicago earlier this year, the duo needs to expand their sample size in order to validate and publish their results. Sklute and other Ballet West staff members are helping to connect Shulimson with other companies around the country. "If I could get San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet or Boston Ballet to participate, I could die happy," says Shulimson.

In the meantime, he's been reading up on mental health concerns for dancers and is working to better understand his results. "Just based on the EEGs you'd expect anxiety disorders and some OCD type symptoms, which in a sense are helpful for dancers. You've got to be obsessed and on target 100% in ballet, or you'll be replaced with someone who is."


Authorship for the study attributed to Aharon D. Shulimson, Ph.D, M.S.C.P. and Julie Terry.

Show Comments ()
Viral Videos
Bucharest National Ballet's 2013 trailer for "La Sylphide,' via YouTube

Few things are more powerful for promoting ballet performances than captivating trailers—especially in today's visually-focused, digitally-connected world.

We've rounded up some eye-catching ads from seasons past and present that not only make us wish we could have seen the show, but also stand alone as short films.

Bucharest National Opera's La Sylphide

Magnifying the scarf which—spoiler alert—brings about the ballet's tragic conclusion, this 2013 Bucharest National Opera's trailer turns that fateful fabric into a beautiful, deadly web. Its windswept movements form a dance of its own.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!

popular
Boston Ballet in Bournonville's "La Sylphide." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


Wayne McGregor Makes His ABT Choreographic Debut

Ever since Vaslav Nijinsky shocked Paris audiences in 1913 with his Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes, dancemakers from Sir Kenneth MacMillan to Pina Bausch have tried their hands at choreographing to Igor Stravinsky's infamous score. This spring, Wayne McGregor will be added to that list. The Royal Ballet resident choreographer's first work for American Ballet Theatre, titled AFTERITE, will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on May 21. Known for his grounded and experimental movement style, McGregor's work will feature video designs by innovative filmmaker Ravi Deepres and sets and costumes by designer Vicki Mortimer, both longtime collaborators. Alessandra Ferri, who has collaborated with McGregor in the past, will join ABT as a guest artist.

Keep reading... Show less
via Instagram

The wait for Alexei Ratmansky's restaging of Petipa's Harlequinade is almost over! But if you can't wait until American Ballet Theatre officially debuts the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 6, we've got you covered. ABT brought the Harlequinade characters to life (and to the Alder Mansion in Yonkers, NY) in a short film by Ezra Hurwitz, and it's a guaranteed to make you laugh.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Ballet Stars
DePrince soars in English National Ballet's "Giselle." Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

As told to Amy Brandt.

Myrtha is a role I've always loved to watch, but when Tamara Rojo asked me to dance it for English National Ballet's Giselle last year as a guest artist, I thought she was crazy. The role is usually for a tall, strong dancer. I'm strong, but I'm also very petite. I thought people might criticize me for that. I also wore brown tights onstage, since I'm a brown dancer, and I was nervous people wouldn't understand that—but I got great comments on it.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Josephine Lee on the road. Photo Courtesy Lee.

Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop is taking her wares on a tour of the West Coast: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Nevada. Lee is visiting dance schools along the way in her mobile pointe shoe van to fit ballet students. Check out her first five vlogs from the road, filled with picturesque scenery, fun facts and fitting tips—and stay tuned for the next round.

Jeanne Robinson Dance Arts in Salinas, CA

Among the attractions in Salinas that Lee points out is the childhood home of famous novelist John Steinbeck.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

If diamonds are a girl's best friend, it's safe to say that faux-diamond earrings are a dancer's best friend. A fixture onstage at just about every competition weekend, these blinged-out baubles are also the surest sign that recital season is upon us again. And what better way to get into the sparkly spirit than by drooling over these 5 diamonds in the rough? (Sorry not sorry!)

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!