• Natasha Connell

Ballet Benefits for Adults - The Cognitive Realm

Photo by Joy Real on Unsplash

Hello Transcend-Dancers!

Last week, I went about describing the amazing physical benefits that ballet practice has for adults. If you haven’t read it, make sure you do! This week I begin by exploring Ballet benefits in the cognitive realm for adult, non-professional dancers. I will again present peer reviewed evidence and add my own experience in the matter. I will share behavioral ballet benefits in next week’s blog post.

There is a wide spread limiting belief about cognition and intellectual abilities declining with age. It is common for people in their 30’s and 40’s to have a momentary lapse in memory, and attribute it to “old age”. This is ridiculous. With the current state of healthcare and quality of life, a person can retain what used to be considered a youthful vibrant mind for a lot longer than in previous decades. That said, the mind works just like our muscles do, meaning that it needs to be challenged in order to improve, or even to stay in the current state. Put in lay terms, use it or lose it. Adults often settle on a career path and stop actively learning. They go about their day doing the same tasks, and rarely wonder into challenging territory for their mind. This leads to cognitive decline that manifest itself in memory lapses, decreased ability to remember chained sequences, and general brain fog.

Let’s look at the science behind adult ballet in the cognitive realm;

· The study by Ali-Haapala, Moyle, & Kerr, (2018), found that practicing adult ballet had positive outcomes such as an increased sense of achievement due to being challenged with increasingly harder combinations. The participants in this study found that this was more rewarding than working at a level that did not increase in difficulty (common in traditional exercise classes).

· Dance based interventions have been widely studied in the context of helping Parkinson’s disease patients in managing their symptoms (Haputhanthirige, 2019). Positive effects have been observed on cognition and dual tasking.

· The study by Van Camp (2015) used the principles of exercise physiology to develop a balance training programme for older adults that focused on modified ballet exercises. The programme offers multimodal training that includes strength training, mobility, agility, body awareness and multitasking, all areas that seem to decline with age, if no action is taken (Van Camp,2015). The author presents a framework for learning the exercises and sequences that is specifically designed to benefit the adult learner.

In my own experience teaching ballet for adults, as well as re-learning it myself after a prolonged absence, I noticed significant positive changes in ability to concentrate, to remember increasingly longer combinations of steps, and relate those steps to music.

When I first started teaching, it was quite a difficult task to create combinations that neatly fit with a particular piece of music, so I started just playing continuous minimalist music by Philip Glass. As my experience grew, it became easier and easier to choose a classical piece of music, and intuitively create a combination that would fit into it, with the proper tempo. It also became easier to create and remember increasingly long pieces of choreography. In fact, just last week I started rehearsing a piece with my students for our next recital, the Cupid variation from Don Quixote. I learned this piece a few years ago. As soon as I started marking it, the entire choreography became instantly available to me, even though I had not practiced it in a long time.

I have observed that students that had previous ballet experience tend to have an easier time remembering combinations, but those that experience ballet for the first time as adults, feel that remembering combinations and terminology is very hard at first, yet with consistent practice, they find that it becomes easier. To facilitate the learning process, I always explain the combinations in detail, execute them along with the class, and keep the same combinations for a few weeks before changing them. I also use visual cues to help the students learn alignment and positions. For example, for plies, I tell them to imagine they are a slice of bread in a toaster, and they can only go up and down, not forward or backward. Seems silly, but it creates a solid image that they remember. When we are practicing a piece of classical dance, I also make sure to describe the character’s essence, to help the students embody it better. In the case of Cupid, I describe it as a playful, impish spirit. This allows them to adjust the quality of their movement to resemble that character.

I also have observed that students that participate in class more than once a week have the most significant improvements, and this makes sense, according to the principle of regularity. If they attend once a week or less, the new neural pathways being built simply do not have enough time in action to solidify, and they dissipate. This is neuroscience in action; when we learn new things, neurons literally rewire together in new ways. If we are consistent with the practice, these new neural connections become wired and solid. As we practice more, mastery eventually develops.

Since adult students enjoy the challenge of learning the combinations in ballet class, and seeing the improvement in themselves, they feel encouraged to be consistent and show up for class week after week. This is an additional benefit that other less challenging forms of recreation and exercise do not possess; A “barre” style workout (the type that is marketed by the various corporate entities housed in strip-malls in well to do neighborhoods) provides a good exercise session undoubtedly, but there is nothing to remember, and if you miss a week or two, you won’t fall behind. There is also no musicality or artistry to worry about. In fact, after attending a few of these classes out of curiosity, I found out that the barre is rarely even properly used, but rather it becomes a place that you attach exercise rubber bands to. I’m not knocking it (maybe a little), but I believe that adults that come to an actual ballet class feel a lot more challenged and satisfied afterwards. From what I have seen in my exploration of the inter-webs, I am not alone in this reaction.

My students have also expressed that they often find themselves going over the combinations outside of class, thus helping to solidify them in their minds. Many also reported that after practicing ballet for a few months it became easier to remember other types of sets and patterns, like phone numbers, lists and directions. I definitely intend to run a proper study of this in the near future, and hope others do as well.

So it is pretty obvious that ballet benefits for adults go beyond the physical, and way into the cognitive arena. The increase in the available ballet classes for adults worldwide is solid proof of this. For a great list of quality adult classes check out Danceclass.com to find one in your area or in the area you are travelling to. I am listed in Georgia! Yey!

Up Next, I will be talking about the adult ballet benefits in the behavioral realm; how does it make us feel, how lasting are the effects, and how these effects translate to other areas of life, and how making ballet friends makes you happier!

If you find this information useful, and know someone else that might, please share it with your tribe, and leave a comment. Let me know if there is anything in particular you want me to write about! Let’s connect the Adult Ballet Community and share our knowledge and experiences!!!

Keep Dancing, Keep Transcending beautiful people!

References for the fellow nerds

Ali-Haapala, A., Moyle, G. M., & Kerr, G. K. (2018). Ballet Moves for Adult Creative Health.

Haputhanthirige, N. K. H., Sullivan, K., Moyle, G., Brauer, S., Jeffrey, E. R., Roeder, L., ... & Kerr, G.

(2019). Effects of Dance on Gait, Cognition, and Dual-Tasking in Parkinson’s Disease: A Systematic

Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Parkinson's disease, (Preprint), 1-3.

Van Camp, J. (2015). A rationale for a ballet exercise-based balance training programme for older adults

with balance impairments: an alternative approach to a group-based balance training in physiotherapy.

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