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Beverly Odom

Ballet Dancers’ Brains Better at Overcoming the “Spins”

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Re-printed from Science Daily:

Ballet dancers’ brains adapt to stop them getting in a spin

Scientists have discovered differences in the brain structure of ballet dancers that may help them avoid feeling dizzy when they perform pirouettes.

The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear.

The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help to improve treatment for patients with chronic dizziness. Around one in four people experience this condition at some time in their lives.

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you’re still spinning.

Ballet dancers can perform multiple pirouettes with little or no feeling of dizziness. The findings show that this feat isn’t just down to spotting, a technique dancers use that involves rapidly moving the head to fix their gaze on the same spot as much as possible.

Researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers’.

The volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants’ brain structure with MRI scans.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers.

Dr Barry Seemungal, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, said: “Dizziness, which is the feeling that we are moving when in fact we are still, is a common problem. I see a lot of patients who have suffered from dizziness for a long time. Ballet dancers seem to be able to train themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the same principles to help our patients.”

The brain scans revealed differences between the groups in two parts of the brain: an area in the cerebellum where sensory input from the vestibular organs is processed and in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for the perception of dizziness.

The area in the cerebellum was smaller in dancers. Dr Seemungal thinks this is because dancers would be better off not using their vestibular systems, relying instead on highly co-ordinated pre-programmed movements.

“It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy. If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better.”

Another finding in the study may be important for how chronic dizzy patients are tested in the clinic. In the control group, the perception of spinning closely matched the eye reflexes triggered by vestibular signals, but in dancers, the two were uncoupled.

“This shows that the sensation of spinning is separate from the reflexes that make your eyes move back and forth,” Dr Seemungal said. “In many clinics, it’s common to only measure the reflexes, meaning that when these tests come back normal the patient is told that there is nothing wrong. But that’s only half the story. You need to look at tests that assess both reflex and sensation.”

Oxford Journal study: The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Training-Related Perceptuo-Reflex Uncoupling in Dancers

  1. Cereb. Cortex (2015) 25 (2): 554-562. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht266


Ballet for a Better Everyday

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While this isn’t new news for any dancer, here is another scientific study to back it up:  Long term ballet training improves balance and muscle coordination.  Essentially, this study found that those who were trained in ballet were able to command greater physical control over their bodies and muscle groupings, even when presented with tasks that were not necessarily related to dance.  So dance today for a better everyday!

Published in December of 2015 in the Journal of Neurophysiology

Long-term training modifies the modular structure and organization of walking balance control

Andrew Sawers, Jessica L. Allen, Lena H. Ting

“How does long-term training affect the neural control of movements? Here we tested the hypothesis that long-term training leading to skilled motor performance alters muscle coordination during challenging, as well as nominal everyday motor behaviors. Using motor module (a.k.a., muscle synergy) analyses, we identified differences in muscle coordination patterns between professionally trained ballet dancers (experts) and untrained novices that accompanied differences in walking balance proficiency assessed using a challenging beam-walking test. During beam walking, we found that experts recruited more motor modules than novices, suggesting an increase in motor repertoire size. Motor modules in experts had less muscle coactivity and were more consistent than in novices, reflecting greater efficiency in muscle output. Moreover, the pool of motor modules shared between beam and overground walking was larger in experts compared with novices, suggesting greater generalization of motor module function across multiple behaviors. These differences in motor output between experts and novices could not be explained by differences in kinematics, suggesting that they likely reflect differences in the neural control of movement following years of training rather than biomechanical constraints imposed by the activity or musculoskeletal structure and function. Our results suggest that to learn challenging new behaviors, we may take advantage of existing motor modules used for related behaviors and sculpt them to meet the demands of a new behavior.”


Is Your Dance Teacher Qualified?

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Not unlike many parents, when my child was young, I wanted to enroll her in ballet.  My initial concerns included things like: commute, online reviews, schedule of classes, tuition….. But safety??  Without open water, baseballs, or heights to contend with I wasn’t really concerned.  Turns out, I just got lucky.

Unqualified instructors are not only a waste of time and money, but life-long consequences can arise from not stretching correctly, improper posture, or going en pointe too early.  Younger students are particularly at risk as their bodies are still developing and may not be ready to command the physical control necessary to execute the movements being asked without risking injury.  It is important that the instructors are knowledgeable of the physiological and psychological demands required at each stage.

Starting out with a good foundation is important as bad habits are hard to break.  Ensuring that one starts with a good routine, which includes a warm up, setting realistic goals, and being part of a supportive team are all skills that are will serve them well throughout life.  Muscle memory, the body’s tendency to revert to a learned position, develops naturally yet may require a great deal of conscious effort to “correct”.  I’ve heard from a number of current and former dancers that strangers will remark that their ballet background is evident simply from the way they carry themselves as they move about in everyday life.

I have come to really appreciate the true integrity and dedication to the art of ballet that Capitol Ballet instills in their students.  Dancers are placed and promoted based on ability—not age or parent preference.  The emphasis is on precision and technique—not performances or profit.  Check out some of the alumni; a testament to the quality and caliber of their instruction.

For more, read this BBC article: Unqualified Ballet Teachers Can “Damage” Children

Header Photo Credit: Thinstock; BBC

Ballet & BMX Bikes

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By chance, one family in the UK found themselves in a whole new world.  The parents said that they hadn’t previously considered ballet for their oldest son, Oscar, when he was invited to audition for the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) at the age of 6.  They now have three sons who are active dancers, and Oscar continued being awarded scholarships to further his ballet education. 

A letter accompanied the boy home from school after being selected by a scout for the BRB.  As part of an outreach program, the ballet company actively recruits students who may have not have otherwise exposure or opportunity to dance classes.  Equal numbers of boys and girls are selected to audition and 80 are offered free weekly lessons taught by their staff.

In addition to ballet, the boys are competitive BMX racers.  Their father told the Independent that dancing helps them to be better athletes overall “…you can see that their ballet helps them in terms of their balance, strength and stamina”

Photo credit and Original Story From the Independent: Our band of Billy Elliots: Why our boys do ballet


Experience the Magic

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We couldn’t agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson  more!  While he may be best know as an astrophysicist, those aren’t the only stars he’s familiar with.  He has said that when he was in college at Harvard, he was a preforming member of 3 different dance companies and still maintains a great deal of respect for the art, the stage, and the demanding work ethic required.    

Come see us up close!

Spinning Science and Dance

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How do they do that!?!  While the simplified conclusion of this video is that it come down to a matter of science, dancers know that there is so much more to it!  Physics yes, but also countless hours of practice, pure devotion, and dedication to achieve such mesmerizing level of precision and grace. 

In the third act of “Swan Lake”, the Black Swan pulls off a seemingly endless series of turns, bobbing up and down on one pointed foot and spinning around and around and around … thirty-two times. How is this move — which is called a fouetté — even possible? Arleen Sugano unravels the physics of this famous ballet move.”