The Benefits of Classical Ballet for the “Differently-Abled”
By Sierra Heller
“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful…This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking” (Anges de Mille-“41 Inspirational Quotes About Dance”). From the first demí plíe to the final saut de chat, classical ballet offers a wide variety of psychological, physical, and emotional benefits to students with hindering illness and disabilities. All of the various aspects of the mind, body, and correlation between the two are present in every segment of a structured ballet class. Through the movements of the limbs and the concentration and memorization of the brain to the physical movement utilized by the body and its absorption of classical compositions, ballet has limitless benefits for children with various disabilities. In fact, “Some scientists speculate that complicated sounds like classical music boost the operation of firing patterns in the brain’s cortex” (“How Classical Music Benefits Children With Learning Disabilities”). As the countless definitive movements of individual body parts interlace with the memorization and coordination of the body as a whole, ballet presents obvious positive influences to children with disabilities. Not only does the rigorous training of classical ballet challenge these children in a fresh and exciting way, but it also teaches a lifelong skill of discipline. In addition, the memorization of the combinations keeps the children’s minds active and engaged while the classical music that consumes the studio increases focus and concentration. The rigor, discipline, memorization, and music of classical ballet have numerous benefits, both emotional and physical, on children with disabilities.
To begin, physical activity leads to reduced stress as well as an improved mood and state of mental health. This total body movement helps children to develop a sharper sense of thought, judgment, and learning, which can impact future acquisition of skills. Physical activity additionally results in improved quality of sleep and a reduced potential risk for developing depression. In addition, research suggests that being involved in both strength and aerobic activities (such as classical ballet) for between thirty and sixty minutes, three to five days a week, enhances mental capacity and improves overall mental health. Even lower levels of physical activity increase the likelihood of a positive mood and greater health of the mind (“Physical Activity and Health”). These mental health benefits are particularly influential on those with physical disabilities, since their minds may be extremely high functioning and active. According to National Center for Biotechnology Information, aerobic exercise minimizes stress, anxiety, depression and negativity while simultaneously building confidence in individuals. “These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA) and thus, on physiological reactivity to stress. The outcome consists of an elevated sense of self-esteem and cognitive function as well as a decrease of social isolation (“National Center for Biotechnology Information: “Exercise for Mental Health”). After ballet class, the children with Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder that most often manifests itself in intellectually and physically debilitating functions, are “…more confident, more able-bodied, more musical, and better able to work cooperatively,” noted Julie Anderson, teacher of the Be Beautiful, Be Yourself Classes at the Colorado Ballet Academy (Anderson personal interview).
Clearly, there are obvious links between physical activity, a prime component of ballet, and individual physical, mental and emotional well-being. “I think the best part is afterwards when everybody gets up and leaves and they feel so energized. You can tell they are different when they leave than they were when they walked in,” explained Sharon Wehner, principal dancer with the Colorado Ballet and also a teacher of the Colorado Ballet’s Rhythm and Grace dance classes for individual with Parkinson’s disease (Wehner personal interview). “I can come in feeling kind of draggy… but I always leave feeling energized and awake,” stated Deborah Clendenning, a participant in the Rhythm and Grace classes (Clendenning personal interview). The physical rigor of classical ballet positively impacts those with disabilities. Additionally, the rigor and discipline of classical ballet also play an enormous role in the benefits that ballet provides to these individuals.
In addition, the discipline required of classical ballet has tremendous benefits to those who participate in ballet classes. First of all, an enormous sense of self-discipline is gained through the study of ballet. Participants must be self-motivated to learn and obey instructions (“Ballet: A Great Way to Get Children Active”). Self-discipline is truly important to students with disabilities because they can develop and enhance their ability to follow directions. The discipline required for ballet will positively impact life skills that are essential for individuals with disabilities throughout their lives. Developing self-discipline is necessary and imperative in order for people to live an optimally structured, purposeful, and successful lifestyle. Also, according to The Academy of Dance, discipline that comes from movement of the body, such as ballet, increases the likelihood of having successful organizational skills, requires great concentration, and is required to become aware of commitment (“Why Take Ballet?” The Benefits of Dance). Life skills such as organization, commitment, and concentration will serve as fundamental principles of lifelong success, particularly for those with disabilities. These skills will help individuals develop the knowledge that is needed throughout all aspects of their lives. Lastly, based upon information gathered from The Ballet Classroom, “The ballet teacher views discipline as a commitment to practicing steps taught as well as structure, rules, and etiquette of ballet class” (“The Discipline of Ballet Class”). By practicing the steps, following instructions, and obeying the proper etiquette devoted to classical ballet, students will gain a strong overall sense of self-control that will be essential for various components of a rewarding and more prosperous life.
Along with the discipline of classical ballet come several positive influences of the memorization that are required of this classical art form. Classical ballet requires the memorization of specific combinations as well as coordination of the entire body as a whole. In a ballet class, the teacher presents the students with numerous combinations that require the participants to learn, memorize, and then perform the given exercises. It is proven that benefits of memorization include teaching the body to remember important information and challenging for the brain. In fact, “Irish researchers found that through extended exercises in rote learning, (memorization based on repetition) learners can actually recall more information overall” (“In Praise of Memorization: 10 Proven Brain Benefits”). Neurobiologists think that memorization can lead to more lively and powerful brain activity. This is another positive benefit of memorization that is required for increased learning capacity. In fact, even creativity is connected to memory. These skills associated with memorization will benefit those with disabilities by encouraging them to think ‘outside of the box’, and also by increasing their ability to obtain and transfer new knowledge. “Researchers from the National Institute on Health and Aging have found that adults who went through short bursts of memory training were better able to maintain higher cognitive functioning and everyday skills, even five years after going through training” (“In Praise of Memorization: 10 Proven Brain Benefits”). This proves that memorization creates a lasting and transferable impact on the function of the brain and its ability to respond optimally in day-to-day tasks.
Furthermore, ballet is connected to coordination of the entire body. Participation in ballet promotes body awareness. Certain movements in the ballet curriculum require individuals to work to maintain control of balance, strengthen their center of gravity, and further develop the relationship of their own body in space (“Mind-Body Exercise”). This sense of balance and control can particularly benefit those with disabilities as they go through common daily movements. A recent article from Forbes explains that the hippocampus, a portion of the brain connected to memory and learning, is highly reactive in neuron growth during activities involving physical endurance. Researchers have discovered that a protein called FNDC5 is created during exercise and is then released into the blood during perspiration. This eventually produces another protein known as the Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor that enhances the growth of new nerves in the brain while maintaining the existing nerves in the brain (“How Exercise Makes Your Brain Grow”). The additional growth of brain cells that is connected with physical exercise will benefit those with disabilities by enlarging the capacity of their brains to gain and absorb information. Finally, “According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for twenty minutes facilitates information processing and memory function” (“Physical Exercise for Brain Health.”) Various researchers and scientific institutes have proven that connections which exercise has with the brain will positively increase the capacity and functioning of the brain. “Every class is full of rewarding experiences” said Anderson (Anderson personal interview).
Additionally, she explained that watching kids accomplish by themselves and being able to present it is her favorite part. With the increased memory capacity provided from exercise and ballet, individuals can learn to actively engage their minds and maintain greater amounts of information.
Deborah Clendenning, who suffers from a degenerative neurological disease, explained that the most rewarding part of attending ballet class was having moments where she feels graceful again. “As a result of doing this class, I am clearly stronger than I was. Thought that with my neurological condition I would never be able to get stronger…I can tell that my core is stronger, my legs are stronger, so just going through my everyday life is easier,” said Deborah Clendenning (Clendenning personal interview). This strength will continue to benefit those with disabilities as they navigate through their lives.
Combined with the increase of memorization and coordination that ballet provides, the classical music that consumes the studio also benefits those with disabilities. “Classical music can positively impact everything from emotional development to motor skills to cognitive functioning” (“How Classical Music Benefits Children With Learning Disabilities”). Lastly, numerous research sources suggest that classical music increases the ability of the brain to function and improves aspects of physical well-being. “A 2004 study out of the University of San Diego found that after hearing classical music, listeners had lower blood pressure,” (“WQXR – New York’s Classical Music Radio Station.”) These benefits are particularly important to those with disabilities because having lower blood pressure will aid in overall wellness and health. Health is a prime concern for those with disabilities as it is largely connected to all aspects of their daily lifestyles. Also, researchers have come to a theory known as the Mozart Effect, which connects classical music with improved mental functioning. It is suggested that listening to classical music, such as Mozart, is related to increase in mental performance,(“Mozart Effect”). There is even a specific correlation between classical music and children with special needs. Listening to classical music helps those with special needs by improving concentration, increasing positive thinking, raising intelligence quotients (IQ) levels, improving creativity levels, and decreasing stress (“How Classical Music Benefits Children with Learning Disabilities”). In fact, “Some scientists speculate that complicated sounds like classical music boost the operation of firing patterns in the brain’s cortex” (Ray, Jim R). It is evident that the increased levels of creativity as well as the reduced stress levels and increased IQ that results from listening to classical ballet music will positively influence those with disabilities.
“I think that one of the key things about dance, which is different than any other kind of movement therapy is the music…It takes them (the participants) out of their normal, everyday patterns…It can transform you to another place. The music really drives them (the participants) to break out of some of their disabling patterns,” said Wehner. She also explained that music is extremely important in helping the participants of her classes break their boundaries. “…That (the music) is the difference between dance and going to the gym. We are dancing to music and that really helps facilitate more freedom for them,” said Wehner (Wehner personal interview). From having increased creativity and a more positive mood, these children will have an increased sense of joy and love that will carry them far in life.
Through the discipline and rigor of classical ballet as well as the required memorization and the music that accompanies the dancers, engaging in ballet will significantly benefit those with disabilities in various emotional, physical and psychological ways. From the proven benefits of the Mozart Effect on mental performance to the physical benefits of strength and endurance exercises, which are paramount to ballet, it is obvious that the numerous components of ballet will enhance the lives of those with disabilities. As participants progress through a ballet class, not only are they having fun and exercising, but they also are stimulating the mind and body to communicate in new ways. There is no doubt that through participating in classical ballet, students will reach a greater overall state of wellness and well-being. As articulated by instructor Julie Anderson, “I really feel that these children and those who have Down Syndrome are not disabled, they are differently-abled…and there aren’t boundaries…” (Anderson personal interview). The extensive research I have conducted, as well as my personal interaction with instructors and children with mental and physical challenges, has reinforced my belief that classical ballet has numerous significant and positive benefits on this particular population.
Anderson, Julie. Personal interview. 13 October 2014.
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