Ballet as a form of meditation

New research indicates that barre exercise may boost mental clarity and wisdom in addition to physical health.

Unless you pull an Elizabeth Gilbert, and drop everything in an effort to tap into your inner wisdom, seeking out moments of meditation in the modern world isn’t easy. Most of us just don’t have time to sit alone in a room for an hour of private reflection (or even if we did, we’d fidget and quickly reach for our phones). This may be one of the reasons why classes combining stretching and meditation, have become a popular workout trend in recent years — it’s a way for busy people to multi-task: a healthy exercise proven to shape the body and free the mind from daily stresses. Now these exercise studios have spread like wildfire through urban cities, their classes filled with clients looking for a healthy release. But hold onto your exercise mats, ladies, because there’s a new workout rising through the ranks, that may offer the same health benefits: ballet.

Researchers at the University of Chicago stumbled upon this realization during a study on meditation as a means to wisdom. The original focus of the experiment wasn’t on ballerinas, but it included test groups of people practicing various forms of yoga (an exercise long associated with mediation), and, for comparison’s sake, a test group of ballet dancers. Along the way, the research team found a correlation between practicing ballet and increased wisdom. Fueled by their unexpected findings, the group released their results earlier this week, and now have plans to look into the ballet-wisdom link further.

The abstract concept of wisdom, of course, is a difficult thing to measure scientifically. But the Wisdom Research project at the University of Chicago attests to the importance of their work, as they try to track down its source: “It is difficult to imagine a subject more central to the highest aspirations of being human.” The first step? Figure out what different things people do that lead us to feeling more wise.

“As we learn more about the kinds of experiences that are related to wisdom,” Howard Nusbaum, professor of psychology, said, “we can gain insight into ways of studying the mechanisms that mediate wisdom. This also lets us shift from thinking about wisdom as something like a talent to thinking about it as something more like a skill. And if we think about wisdom as a skill, it is something we can always get better at, if we know how to practice.”

And, so far, the research indicates that certain physical skills like ballet (and yes, yoga, too) can lead us to mental skills like wisdom. The correlation is there, according to Patrick B. Williams, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology, but reason why is still unknown. “We’re also the first to suggest that meditation’s ability to reduce everyday anxiety might partially explain this relationship,” he says.

A dancer has to be able to think about very tiny areas of their body, while at the same time maintaining balance, poise, and flowing through the movements. Requiring myself to focus so intently on my body and how it moves and appears … is simultaneously clarifying and relaxing.

This meditative connection to ballet makes sense to Makeesha Fisher, 37, of Vancouver, B.C., who studied ballet as a child and took it back up in her early 30s. Though Fisher loves ballet as a way to maintain flexibility and tone her muscles, she says, “ballet also requires so much of my focus. It’s a great way to forget about things for an hour or so. The technical attention is challenging, but also meditative in a way I haven’t been able to achieve by other means.”

Thus, Fisher says she is not surprised at all by the study. “The mind-body connection and awareness required to do ballet is intense — both in technique and in learning movements and choreography. In order to achieve levels of proficiency, a dancer has to be able to think about very tiny areas of their body while at the same time maintaining balance, poise, and flowing through the movements. Requiring myself to focus so intently on my body and how it moves and appears is often mentally exhausting and frustrating, but in a way it’s simultaneously clarifying and relaxing.”

Because of the benefits Fisher’s experienced, she says she is constantly trying to get other adults into ballet, though she understands it can be daunting joining a ballet class at an older age. When the average person thinks of ballet, it conjures women who have been dancing since they were toddlers in tutus. But there’s no reason novice adults shouldn’t approach it just like any other fitness class.

Fisher suggests trying a barre fitness class. “Barre incorporates elements of ballet (as well as yoga and pilates) for the primary purpose of fitness as opposed to “dancing” (in other words, no choreography) but it’s much more user-friendly,” Fisher says. Of course, if you’re 45 and just beginning ballet. You won’t ever look like that 17-year-old YouTube ballerina you saw, she says. But that’s not the point. The idea is to do something good for your body, that opens your mind.

“She dreaded the thought of being in a leotard around younger women — without bellies.”

Sara Maslanka, 25, Artistic Director at Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble, echoes the daunting nature of beginning or getting back into ballet as an adult. “It’s very humbling!” she says. But interested adults should try ballet at least once, “to at least know you’ve tried it.”

Maslanka recalls an acquaintance who had just recently had a baby. The woman wanted to do ballet as a means of getting back in shape, but was very self-conscious of her post-baby body. The woman dreaded the thought of being in a leotard around younger women — without bellies.

To ease the woman’s fears, Maslanka suggested an adult dance class for non-dancers. In fact, Maslanka, who has been dancing since she was a little girl and now has a Bachelor of Arts in Dance and Pedagogy from Columbia College Chicago and a Masters of Science in Dance Science from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, says she loves to take dance classes with non-dancers who do it simply because they appreciate the fun of dance and its benefits. Maslanka says she — and anyone who takes the class — can work on improving technique without worrying about comparing yourself to others.

The other benefit of these classes, Maslanka says, is that it becomes “a community where people build the social, emotional experience together. You bond because you’re going through similar things, you form a ‘language’ as a ways of interacting with one another.” Maslanka wonders if this “community of practice” is what ultimately connects to stress-release and wisdom.

The mental release — along with seeing students take “ownership” of their dance experience — is what makes Maslanka happiest as a dance teacher, she says. And she’s seen it happen everywhere, in teaching children, and working with adults to working with elderly people with arthritis, dementia, and cancer at care homes. Maslanka adds: “If someone with severe arthritis can do it, anyone can do it.”

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