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Do Ballet Dancers' Brains Function Differently?

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.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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