Brain health isn’t something that’s often discussed in ballet, but new studies being conducted are bringing the topic into the spotlight, so to speak. Ballet is well known for its physical benefits, but not many people—including many dancers themselves—are aware of the mental effects it has on the brain. Some effects start to happen after only a few lessons, and some take years to develop. Studies have shown that ballet has a positive impact on every part of the brain from coordination, balance, and muscle memory to cognitive thought processes and decision-making areas of the brain. Brain scans and studies have shown physical differences in the brains of dancers, and these differences have been attributed to significant improvements in a range of areas of the mind.
Improvements in the Brain
Dance—and more specifically, ballet dancing—has been shown to have incredible impacts on both conscious and unconscious thoughts in the brain. The multi-tasking, fully present nature of ballet means that it’s a highly stimulating activity for the brain. Clare Groves, a senior mental health clinician and ballet student, explains, “Ballet is mindfulness at its best. . . It’s the actual act of dragging our thoughts back into the moment that rewires the neural pathways into a healthier thinking pattern. Having to be present for a 90-minute class is a significant amount of time for the brain and does a huge amount of good work.”
Ballet is unique in that a dancer must be completely mentally present in order to remember every step, concentrate on the placement of every part of the body, “feel” the music and improve musicality, and move in sync with the other dancers, especially during pas de deux work. Unlike many other physical activities like cycling, running, or swimming, there is no room for the mind to wander off into daydreams. The moment that happens is the moment the dancer forgets steps or loses the perfect ballet posture and turnout every dancer continually strives for.
Additionally, the process of learning and applying new choreography and corrections from instructors is especially stimulating for your brain. Applying new concepts in ballet involves the split-second decision-making area of the brain, because dancers—often unconsciously—must make decisions that help them do things like balance while turning, jump higher, or emphasize a certain downbeat of both the music and the body.
An intriguing concept from these studies means that school-age dance students receive more brain stimulation than other children. Dancers have often been shown to excel in school because of the additional brain stimulation and improvements to memory and coordination. And that’s to say nothing of the confidence young dancers build as they learn new skills in ballet.
Dance and Dementia
The effects on a ballet dancer’s brain reach far past the school age. Several studies have shown that ballet dancing results in a 76% reduced risk for dementia. The mental effort and social aspect of dancing are amazing for the aging brain. Dancing is unique in that it was the only activity of 11 physical activities that was definitively shown to have this positive effect.
Incredibly, dance has been shown to not only reduce the risk of dementia, but also to mitigate the symptoms of dementia patients. Dancing works to build and improve cognitive functioning, and this combined with physical activity has a remarkable way of rebuilding an aged mind. Even more interesting is the fact that dancing is highly therapeutic for people living with Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s affects the nervous system and often causes tremors, weakness, an unsteady gait, and a loss of unconscious movements like blinking. These symptoms often ease or even disappear when a Parkinson’s patient begins consistently dancing. The phenomenon that dancing effects on the brain shows its truly astounding nature of requiring both mental and physical strength.
Balancing Act in the Ballet Brain
Parkinson’s patients are not the only ones benefiting from the change dance effects on the brain. Because ballet is the most rigorous and structured kind of dance, ballet dancers’ brains have been specifically studied to find additional changes from even other dancers’ brains. It turns out that ballet dancers have decreased density of gray matter in the brain’s area of vestibular processing, or the area that controls dizziness. This means that through years of training, ballet dancers actually evolve to feel less dizzy during spins and turns than the average person, or even average dancer, would.
Additionally, ballet dancers have increased gray matter density in the prefrontal cortex, which assists with balance. So ballet dancers’ brains have evolved not only to feel less dizzy, but also to improve balance. These two factors mean that ballet could be wonderfully therapeutic for people who struggle with chronic dizziness.
Ballet and Mental & Emotional Health
Most people know that exercise produces feel-good hormones in the brain, but many don’t know that dance is a step above other forms of exercise due to its unique nature. The combination of physical movement with music produces large amounts of serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins, all of which help us to feel exhilarated, happy, and more relaxed. Music in particular has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and the classical music ballet uses is the optimal for reducing and preventing anxiety.
In several studies, dance has also been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. This is particularly important for teenage dance students, as the rates of depression are at an all-time high for their age group. The music, movement, and social connections that ballet and other dance forms provide help people of all ages.
Dancing for Brain Health
The physical benefits that come from ballet are huge, but the changes it evokes in the brain are equally noteworthy. Because of studies that have been done on ballet dancers, we’re learning that ballet is a catalyst for incredible health developments in the brain. With ballet bringing so many mental and physical benefits, we can see how it’s a truly unique and remarkable physical activity.