Ballet class: the ultimate body & brain workout
You probably already know that ballet is great for your body, but did you know it’s also an incredible brain workout. By this I mean, it gives your brain (as well as your body) an amazing workout to keep your mind in great shape.
Time and time again, when I speak to people who come to Move Through Life about why they love ballet, they comment on how it keeps their mind active.
Did you know that your ability to learn new things, to adapt to change, to use your imagination, to think on your feet, and to solve problems starts to decline as early as your mid to late 20s?
These abilities are part of your ‘fluid intelligence’, which is the ability, independent of previous knowledge, to:
- solve problems
- find patterns
- use logic
- use working memory
- use inductive and deductive reasoning
- make decisions.
Fluid intelligence is a concept initially identified by psychologist Raymond Cattell. Cattell divided intelligence into two types – fluid and crystallised. Crystallised intelligence is the ability to use skills, knowledge and experience, and relies on access to long term memories. Unlike fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence increases with age.
As you can imagine, the natural decline in your fluid intelligence as you age can have a huge impact on your life, and could mean you lose your independence earlier than you’d like, and could turn you into one of those ‘grumpy old’ women or men.
Benefits of ballet for your brain
So how does this relate to ballet? Isn’t it obvious? Ballet is a fantastic way to keep your mind active and to help slow the decline in fluid intelligence. You might think that you’re too old to start ballet (even if you’re in your 20s), but not only does ballet keep your mind sharp as you age, but as an adult, you can more fully appreciate both the body and brain workout you get in a ballet class.
Here are just five of the ways that taking regular ballet classes is like doing a brain workout, which is great for your mental functioning.
In each ballet class you perform a number of movements or steps that are familiar, but combined in different ways. This helps improve your capacity to combine information in new ways, and gives your short term memory a vigorous workout. And your medium term memory is stretched when you are required to remember a combination from the previous lesson (which may have been a whole week ago). It’s not only the movements of various body parts in space that contributes to the fitness of your memory, but when you learn ballet, you also learn the terminology (ballet movements are named in French) so this gives your linguistic and verbal memory a boost.
A good ballet teacher will use plenty of imagery when they teach to help you understand what is happening inside your body, and to help you move with greater efficiency. You might be asked to imagine that your foot is a paint brush as you slide it along the floor in a battement tendu, or that a gust of wind blows your leg up in a grand battement and then your leg floats down on a cushion of air.
You also use your imagination when you perform a sequence of movements in your mind (which can be as effective in remembering movements as actually doing the movement), and when you imagine yourself performing a sequence well before actually attempting it. These are both techniques to help you get better at doing ballet movements, but they are also excellent training for your imagination.
The use of vivid imagery while performing or thinking about ballet movements improves your ability to visualise, to see things from a variety of perspectives, and to imagine things that don’t yet exist.
3. Whole brain thinking
Ballet is an incredibly precise dance form. In a leg movement (such as a battement tendu, a grand battement, developpe, or a ronds de jambe), you don’t just think about moving your leg. You also think about the movement in your toes and the arch of your foot, at the same time as pulling up your inner thigh and abdominal muscles, maintaining your turn out (the outward rotation of your legs in the hip sockets), moving or holding your arms in precise positions, and possibly making decisions about head movements (you might incline your head, turn it towards the centre, or look into your hand, for example).
These kinds of movements require the left and right hemispheres of the brain to work together, and builds connections across the corpus callosum (which connects the two hemispheres). This in turn increases your capacity to undertake other mental tasks that require whole brain functioning, such as creativity, problem solving, pattern recognition, the ability to shift rapidly between divergent (thinking outside the box, coming up with lots of possible solutions to a problem) and convergent thinking (narrowing down the possible answers to come up with the best answer), to name a few.
4. Pattern recognition
Complex ballet exercises are essentially made up of patterns. An exercise that may seem convoluted and confusing is suddenly simple when your recognise the pattern. A great example is a battement tendu exercise where you are constantly changing legs and directions. It can all seem like a blur, and then suddenly it clicks.
Have you ever noticed that the world seems to get faster and faster?The ability to spot existing and emerging patterns is your best bet of making sense of the world and helps you to make important decisions, and to make them quickly. It can also help you avoid that feeling that the world is moving too fast and you are being left behind.
5. Stress relief
Sadly, stress and the negative health consequences are a reality for many people. Your probably live a busy life, juggling work and home pressures, racing from one thing to the next, and taking on more and more responsibility as you progress through adulthood. And the kinds of effects stress can have on your health include increased susceptibility to the common cold, to heart disease and cancer. It can also make you more irritable and rob you of the simple pleasures in life. Stress can also damage your brain, making you more anxious, forgetful, and emotional. Stress can lead to depression and heighten your susceptibility to other forms of mental illness. These are the outward signs. Even more alarming is the physical damage caused by stress – it can result in free radicals which kill brain cells, halt the production of new brain cells, make your brain more susceptible to toxins, result in the premature aging of brain cells, and increase your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Scary stuff, hey? But ballet is a wonderful stress relief. Like all exercise, it releases endorphins, which counteract the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. The focus required to execute complex ballet movements helps you to focus, resulting in the same kind of relaxation effect as meditation.
The way you breathe in ballet also helps to reduce stress. In part, it is the increased rate and depth of breathing required to perform strenuous movements, but it is also due to an increased awareness and control of breathing as a strategy to make the movements more ‘effortless’. This type of breathing can help lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce cortisol (stress hormone) in the blood, reduce lactic acid build up in muscles, and increase the delivery of oxygen to the muscles and organs and eliminate carbon dioxide.
Finding your own ballet ‘brain workout’
So there you have it. You might think you are too old to start ballet, or to go back to it after a break. But you are never too old, and in fact, as you get older, doing something like ballet (or another form of dance) is even more important.
Open up your internet browser to your favourite search engine and enter ‘adult ballet classes’ to find a class near you. If you live in Adelaide, look up Move Through Life Dance Studio (www.movethroughlife.com.au/ballet). We specialise in providing dance classes for adults of all ages in several locations across the metropolitan area, and you’ll enjoy the social benefits of sharing a dance class with other adults around your age – a rare luxury not so easy to come by.
by Jo McDonald
Jo McDonald holds a Bachelor of Science with a psychology major and an Honours Psychology degree from the University of Adelaide, and a Graduate Diploma in Creative Industries (Dance Teaching) from the Queensland University of Technology. She is the founder and owner of Move Through Life Dance Studio, as well as one of its ballet teachers. Jo is a passionate about giving all adults the chance to dance throughout their lives, regardless of age or previous dance experience.