THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON BALLET

By Joshua Jones

Jimmy Buffet has Parrotheads, kids can be Potterheads, Justin Bieber loves his Beliebers, and don’t get in the way of a Trekkie or a Bronie (people who love My Little Pony)! You may not know that Ballet West also elicits this same type of fandom. Patrons regularly travel from Arizona, Vegas, and California for every production. Then, there are Ballet West Besties like Julie Terry and Dr. Aharon Shulimson who come not just to every production, but every cast… sometimes multiple times.

You might recognize Julie as the bubbly woman in the lobby during The Nutcracker, spreading cheer and selling tickets to the Sugar Plum Parties. She has been happily volunteering for over 20 years. “When we started dating, Julie was the President of the Ballet West Guild,” recalls Aharon. “She said that if I wanted to see her, I’d better start volunteering.” He joined the Guild and has committed his time and energy to Ballet West ever since. He has fallen in love with the athleticism, the beauty, and with the dancers themselves. 

Aharon, a psychologist, operates a clinic in Sugarhouse specializing in treatment of ADHD. They use a specialized brain imaging technique called Quantitative Electroencephalography (QEEG) which helps doctors better understand how the brains of their patients are working.  Julie is the Clinic’s QEEG technician. The data from these tests makes it possible to compare an individual’s brain wave activity to statistical norms. “Just like a car can be hooked-up to a computer to tell the technician if it is running properly, this test can tell us if a patient’s brain is in-tune,” explained Aharon.

In the past two decades, Aharon has had a gnawing question: How might the brain of a ballet dancer differ from an ordinary person? The more dancers he met, the more he thought about the question. Ultimately, he and Julie conceived of a research study using QEEG  to study dancers’ brain waves. Ballet West Artistic Director, Adam Sklute, approved their request to approach dancers to participate in the research. Twenty-six dancers volunteered, from Principals to members of Ballet West II. Each dancer’s EEG was recorded using a futuristic-looking cap on their head and having electrodes clipped on both ears for 10 minutes. 

“When we began, we had no idea what we would find because nobody had done anything like this with ballet dancers before,” said Aharon. “We knew, however, that whatever was happening in these 26 dancers’ brains, it could not be bad, because it was part of what got them all to one of the top ballet companies in the country.”

The results were often startling. More than 2/3 of dancers studied had a highly-overactive brain. This is often seen in anxious patients. Julie said in a “normal” population you’d find four out of 100 people with brain activity similar to what they found. “These dancers probably have a hard time sleeping because their brain doesn’t want to turn off,” surmised Aharon. “They’re like little bumble bees just always buzzing,” Julie said.

Another large group of dancers had a combination of fast and slow brain waves (beta and theta, or alpha). These particular results were similar to what Julie and Aharon found when they did a study with ultramarathon runners who run 100+ mile races. “For runner that we studied, it made it easier to mentally check-out while running, but still have the energy to finish a 100-mile race,” said Aharon, who thinks it may have a similar effect for dancers who spend hours in the studio dancing.

Finally, a third group of seven dancers had an excess of theta waves, or both theta and alpha. These types of brain waves are most commonly associated with ADHD. Indeed, several of the dancers in this group admitted they were diagnosed with ADHD as children. “Other professions, such as helicopter pilots and emergency room doctors, are a good fit for someone with ADHD because their work environment has a high level of stimulation that helps them stay focused,” said Aharon.

Julie and Aharon presented their findings at the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback Conference in Chicago earlier this year, and doctors were very interested in the trends that they found. Of course, with such a small study a definitive conclusion cannot be drawn. However, the duo is looking forward to expanding the study to other ballet companies in order to gather more research and explore this aspect of brain imaging.

In the meantime, the duo will continue to be the one cheering the loudest, first on their feet for a standing ovation, and smiling the widest after each Ballet West performance.

 

Media may contact Joshua Jones, Associate Press Director for more information at jjones@balletwest.org