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I do not try to dance better than everyone else; I only try to dance better than myself.
- Mikhail Baryshnikov
The words from Mikhail Baryshnikov, a ballet legend ring true at every aspect in life. In the truest sense, ballet encourages a union between mind, body, and soul. While the brain is trained to take instruction, the body performs the steps, and a dancer's soul is visible through the expressions and joy that can be seen in every movement that is successfully executed.
Ballet is the brain gym to sharpen concentration and memory, because in no way can you let your mind wander in a ballet class! A ballet dancer is asked to put the outside world away from the dance floor, and focus and enjoy being in a movement. A strong ballet pose is a perfect combination of body alignment, coordination and working both left and right sides of your bodies equally.
If practiced sincerely, ballet moves get developed into a dancer's muscle memory. Ballet, like many other classical dance forms, encourages the mind to remember the steps, while the body has to work in tandem with the memory developed. Not just your muscles, but even the brain gets a complete workout through ballet.
Ballet inculcates a sense of discipline and grooming. It brings a structure to an otherwise careless outlook towards dance. Words like poise, position, grace, and stance become paramount- and these aspects of ballet remain a part of the dancer's mind and body for the rest of his/her life.
You have a passion for ballet, and it is important to you. You put in a great deal of time and effort in your training and performance. When you can perform the perfect pirouette, you are thrilled and satisfied, but the same feelings are replaced with disappointment and dejection if you fail to do so.
Though the feelings of happiness and sadness are natural, they tend to make you lose your perspective, the negative emotions you feel can even hurt your training and performance in the future.
William James, the author of the book Principles of Psychology, famously said
"The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspect of their lives."
This holds for ballet as well. Through body alignment, placement, postures, leaps and jumps, partner work, breath and balance, ballet pushes dancers to explore their inner abilities and motivates them to challenge their physical boundaries and limitations.
A ballet dancer can improve a lot of outer aspects of the dance movements by changing the way the mind works. Here are some principles of psychology that can be applied to ballet to alter the brain, which in turn helps in improving the way a dancer's body reacts to external stimulus.
Research shows that "learners who hold the growth mindset that intelligence is malleable, and success is related to effort level are more likely to remain focused on goals and persist despite setbacks." Dancers who are encouraged by their instructors to remain focused and keep pushing the limits tend to get better at the dance forms they are following. By applying the simple principle of growth mindset to ballet, dancers can be encouraged to develop self-efficacy and resilience, both essential elements when it comes to improving their ballet performance.
The theory of emotion also known as the James Lang Theory argues that an emotion is the response of a physical movement rather than the cause of it. In other words, your body movements guide your feelings, and not the other way round. It's a given to feel elated after executing the perfect leap. And more often than not, a ballet dancer is expected to leave the worries of the world aside while coming to the dance floor. To be able to dance freely, a ballet dancer must understand that the purpose of her dance is to give her a chance to express her inner feelings. Structured movements in ballet provide dancer an opportunity to manage the ups and downs of their lives, sometimes discover things they didn’t know about themselves. This revelation can help dancers rise above the ordinary and work towards improving their ballet.
Students (read: dancers) tend to enjoy learning and to do better when they are more intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated to achieve.1When dancers understand the motivation behind why they do what they do, and it is easier to work on the aspects which need improvement. Check out our resource on 5 ways you can motivate dancers to continue dancing.
When a dancer sets goals with the help of her teacher, she can channelize the energy in the right direction, stay committed and regularly track her progress. Ballet teachers can help dancers set realistic goals that can be assessed, measured and adjusted to suit various stages in the learning process. Short term, specific and moderately challenging goals can help dancers build efficacy and work towards larger goals.
Dancers are humans too! And humans are creatures of habit. According to James, habits are formed to achieve certain results, because of one’s' strong feelings of wanting or wishing for something. The patterns are capable of causing good or bad actions. By developing routines, ballet prepares dancers to build habits that help them to prepare mentally, physically, technically and artistically to dance their best. Dietary habits are equally important, and dancers need to work on their diet as much as any other sportsperson or fitness enthusiasts. Healthy eating habits go a long way in preventing injuries, providing required stamina and keeping the dancers energized while they work on improving their dance routines.
James argued that “Effort of attention is the essential phenomenon of will”3. Through self-regulation skills that include attention, organization, self-control, planning and memorizing, dancers can improve learning and engagement while performing ballet. By learning to practice self- control, for example, use of mobile phones before, during and after the class, dancers can focus better, and avoid distractions to dance their best.
Every ballet dancer goes through an identity crisis. “Why we do what we do?” is a question not just limited to dancers, but every individual in all walks of life. Dancers need to believe that they can succeed in their dance training and performances. This self-belief helps them in tackling more significant issues in life as well. By conscious imagery, dance instructors can help dancers visualize a better leap, a grander arabesque or a more elegant pirouette. A dance instructor can also assist in directing the students towards picking up healthy responses to stress that the dancers face in ballet and their lives. Instead of grabbing the nearest ice-cream tub, for example, a dancer can be encouraged to go for a walk, read a book or meditate.
In a 2008 article in Scientific American magazine, a Columbia University neuroscientist posited that synchronizing music and movement—dance, essentially—constitutes a “pleasure double play.” Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.
Other studies show that dancing helps reduce stress, increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, and helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition.
It is a moot point whether principles of psychology help in improving your ballet movements or the ballet in itself can help you lead a better, fuller, healthier life. All you need is a leap of faith and rest will follow!
Remember, you are doing ballet to develop the beautiful body, bright mind and enjoy life!
1. APA- 20 Principles of Psychology - https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/ptn/2015/09/top-20-principles.aspx
2. Dance Psychology for artistic performance and excellence - Dr. Jim Taylor, Elena Estanol https://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Artistic-Performance-Excellence-Resource/dp/145043021X