Quinn Wharton

Are Dancers' Brains Wired Differently?

Dancers are masters of multi-tasking. Performing a series of steps on stage while portraying a character and making a split-second change from a single to a double pirouette is no problem, but no coincidence either. Dancers' brains appear to be programmed differently from non-dancers' brains.

Studies at the University of Maryland in partnership with the University of Houston during the past three years reveal that dancers use multiple areas of their brains simultaneously while dancing: one part controls movement without expressive intention, another part imagines movement qualities and these parts work to execute movement while also making higher-level decisions.


"When you see dancers who are dancing beautifully, their whole brain is being engaged," says Karen Kohn Bradley, associate professor emeritus and director of graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland. "They are thinking about the sequence, focus, timing and qualities of lightness and strength all at once."

A dancer moving as data was collected from the University of Maryland/University of Houston collaborative study. Photo courtesy Karen Kohn Bradley

This research helps explain why professional dancers can process complex choreography in a split second. Cerebral synchronization makes dancers proficient at "enchainment"—the ability to remember chunks of steps and recognize their patterns. Bradley explains that the brain stores these patterns in lower parts (like the cerebellum), which opens up more room in the frontal lobe for expression and "creative reinventions on stage if something suddenly goes wrong," she says.

But are dancers born with these brain patterns and the ability to multi-task? According to Bradley, it's hard to say. Some dancers are innately wired like this; others have the propensity to develop these abilities over time.

Bradley believes that the information she and her colleagues have acquired is a useful approach to training people to be more expressive and more aware of the impact that this expressiveness can have on others. A trained movement analyst, she says it can be applied to many disciplines where movement and gestures matter in different contexts. Some of these are predictable, like theater or animation, and some are surprising, like diplomacy and deal-making.

Quinn Wharton

Bradley's work also has huge implications for dance education. In class, dancers typically focus on the sequence or the technique. But this engages only one part of the brain. Bradley believes more studios need to give their dancers images that help them with expressive qualities. "We've all heard of the laser beam shooting out of the leg to improve battement technique," says Bradley. "But we also need imagery that evokes feeling. For example, 'That's honey…I want molasses.' " This training also translates to the idea of musicality: Bradley believes that dancers must be trained in being expressive with or without music, using simple images or pure qualities, such as "rise up," or "be more buoyant."

Examining the power of dancers' brains continues at UM, UH and MIT, as well. University researchers have linked individual brain electrodes on dancers' heads to different sounds, enabling the dancers to signal lighting and music with their brainwaves and the touch of their feet on the floor.

Will all of this technology make better dance? Bradley says it is reassuring to know that, "ultimately, it all still depends on the sophistication and beauty of the dancer."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021