This Is Your Brain on Dance

Tamara Rojo as Odile and Carlos Acosta as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, by Johan Persson, courtesy of Royal Opera House

In this week's mind-blowing news, a study published in Cerebral Cortex shows it's more than snappy spotting that keeps dancers spinning like tops without getting dizzy. It's also science. Dancers' brains, it seems, actually function differently than nondancers', making it easier for ballerinas to whip through 32 fouettés at a time.


To test the theory, researchers at Imperial College London spun dancers and rowers around in chairs in a darkened room—no spotting help there. (Researchers chose rowers because they matched the dancers in athleticism but not in spinning tendencies. After all, those boats go straight pretty much non-negotiably.) After the chairs stopped, rowers felt like the room was spinning much faster than dancers did. Furthermore, MRIs revealed reduced activity in certain areas of dancers' brains, specifically where dizziness is perceived. “It's not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance," said Dr. Barry Seemungal, a neurologist in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College. “Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input."

So practice makes perfect in your brain structure as well as your body. This is clearly because dancers are morphing superhumans who can biologically redesign themselves for maximum performance capabilities. If that doesn't get more boys into ballet classes, I honestly don't know what will.

Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

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Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

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News
Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.

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