Ballet Training
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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

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When you can't remember the choreo. (Julie Kent in Lilac Gardens, photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

Whether you're polishing choreography for your upcoming student showcase, or boosting your stamina for your summer intensive (or both!), these tips for better memory will come in handy!

  1. Better learning through oil. Yep, rosemary oil contains a compound that helps with memory formation.
  2. Understand that the first few weeks will be a struggle. Common sense tells us that it takes time to master something, and studies have shown that brain activity spikes during the first few weeks of learning new choreography. It stabilizes after a few weeks, once you've "mastered" the new information.
  3. Power naps are your friend. If you have the chance to snooze or zone out in front of Netflix, choose the former. German researchers found that people were better able to retain information after a nap than after a binge session.
  4. Coffee, coffee, coffee! (In moderation.) It can boost your short-term memory. Yay!

 

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.

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