So that pirouette thing continues spinning my head. For the first time ever, I had like two weeks in a row where I was consistently doing a double on the left side - a nice one even, not just getting around. But then last week I think I lost it again. It was better again today. So much for consistency.
There is an endless number of cues and corrections when learning and mastering a pirouette. From which one has always stood a bit out for me: Spotting.
What I have always wondered, from all the things you can focus on - how important is spotting when you are just learning a pirouette, or a double, or triple (I guess after that you got the hang of it, so you don’t need that question any more!)? And what actually happens during a spot, with your head, your eyes, and your brain? And if you know all that, how can that help you with learning to pirouette?
Here is a little teaser: From all I have researched so far, spotting and what it actually triggers in the brain is possibly the main reason why it can take many, many years to turn well consistently. So, if after five years of ballet training, you still get frustrated over your turns, although you feel like you are strong enough for them - add another five years, and things might look much different.
At least that’s what one super interesting study from England suggests.
But let’s start with some basics. Why do you spot, and what is the tricky thing about it?
In ballet, doing pirouettes usually does not happen in isolation. Meaning - you want to do as many clean turns as possible (or however many the choreography asks for) AND THEN CONTINUE into whatever step comes next, as if nothing has happened! So you want to avoid falling out of the turn, and minimize the onset of vertigo (= the sensation of spinning and how the space whirls around you). Spotting helps with all of that, because it a) stabilizes your field of vision and b) maximizes time where your head is NOT rotating.
In order to understand better what happens to the brain as the head spins around, let me introduce you to two new friends:
1.) The Vestibulo-Ocular Reflex (VOR): A reflex is an involuntary neural reflex (like blinking, or stabilizing reflexes when you loose balance on a slippery surface). The VOR is a reflex that kicks in when your head turns: It makes the eyes move to the opposite direction of your head rotation. So when you do a pirouette to the right, and your head starts turning to the right, the eyes will move to the left!
2.) Self-perception of rotation: The neural networks of your brain perceive that you are turning, which is quickly followed by an onset of vertigo (=sensation of spinning, the room whirling around you).
Here is the connection: In normal mortals, both of these friends go together. As soon as you start turning your head, you start perceiving that you are turning, with onset of dizziness and everything – AND your eye reflex kicks in.
Now the interesting thing is – if you keep turning and turning and turning, and there is no visual input (in the dark), at some point you don’t feel that you’re turning any more. It feels like actually standing still. At the same time, your eye reflex also calms down, so your eyes get still, too! This attenuation of the self-perceived turning and the eye reflex typically takes about a minute of turning. And again, both (self-perception of rotation and eye movement) go down pretty much simultaneously.
Ok, that goes for mere mortals. But not for highly trained ballet dancers.
A Pirouette Experiment
So let’s turn to the study.
The researchers were wondering if ballet dancers’s brains and eyes, with all their pirouette training, react in the same way to rotation as other well-trained, but non-pirouetting, athletes.
So they recruited 29 female ballet dancers from the Royal Academy of Dance, London Studio Centre, and Central School of Ballet. The control group consisted of 20 female elite rowers. The dancers were in their early twenties and had an average of 16 years of training. Controls were matched in training experience, weekly training, age, dexterity and other important factors.
What the researchers did is a quite common set-up when investigating humans’ reactions to rotation: All subjects were seated in a spinning chair, in the dark, and then the chair rotated them for 60 seconds. The athletes indicated their perception of rotation by rotating a turning wheel in front of them in the same speed as they perceived being rotated, plus their eye movements were recorded. In addition, all subjects got a brain MRI to see if there were specific areas that correlated with the behavioral observations.
The results were quite striking, and they tell us quite a bit about how to approach your pirouette training.
Ballet Dancers Turn Differently
Here are the main findings of the study:
· Perceived rotation and eye movement died off much quicker in dancers than in rowers. That means that dancers’ brains “ignored” being rotated much more effectively than other elite athletes’ brains!
· Perception of rotation and eye movement were “uncoupled” from each other in dancers. So in contrast to mere mortals, where the eyes kind of react to the perception of rotation – ballet dancers eye reflex had a bit of its own life. You can picture it this way: Although they did not feel any rotation any more, the eyes were still doing their thing in order to stabilize the visual field (even in the absence of one = darkness).
· There was a specific area in the vestibular cerebellum correlated with these findings, and interestingly, the “better” the dancers were in shaking off the feeling of rotation, the smaller their brains were in that area! Which was a bit of a surprise at first, because superior skill is usually associated with a higher density (“bigger”) brain. The researchers’ interpretation: The smaller network is advantageous for dancers, because it simply fires less, so it helps dancers to ignore the rotation much more efficiently. (This is quite the confirmation for my polar coordinate pirouette brain model. Check it out if you haven’t yet!)
· The more dance experience, the more the brain had shrunk in that area.
· The study was set up in a way that allowed for one pretty important conclusion: It is highly unlikely that the results were a consequence of a favorable genetic predisposition for dance. We can pretty safely say that the superior neural strategy for pirouetting is an adaptation to long-term training. Which is good news, because it means: No one is born a turner! Just lots of work.
Practical Implications for Your Pirouette Training
So what kind of implications do the findings have in practice, when it comes to learning and building a single and multiple pirouettes? Here are four conclusions from the study that you can apply to your pirouette training right away:
1) Train balance and turning separately
One of the key implications from the study is that the neural adaptation to a turning head is crucial for executing solid pirouettes. That, in turn (haha), implies that you can sort of seperate a) the strength/balance component from b) the rotation tolerance component of a pirouette. So for a), you need to be able to have a strong passé on demi-pointe or pointe, and for b) you need a brain that doesn’t get much bothered by being swirled around. Now, given the time it seems to take for the vestibular plasticity, it’s pretty safe to say that the neural adaptations take longer than building passé strength. So it’s probably a good idea to take any chance to turn your body - slow, fast, to both sides. You can just do it on two feet flat, so that physical fatigue is not a limiting factor to getting lots of turning repetitions.
Not sure where you are at right now? You can test yourself pretty easily: If you can go from forth or fifth into passé pretty consistently but have trouble turning, then you need lots of rotating practice.
2) Spotting is not crucial for turning – but probably helps triggering the plastic adaptations
There is another interesting outcome from the study: Spotting probably matters less than we are usually made to believe. At least for experienced dancers. This comes from the fact that the study was done in total darkness, and subjects were seated and passively rotated. So the dancers’ superior response to turning was present even without spotting!
Here is why you should not neglect spotting, though, especially when still learning and building a pirouette. It seems that spotting is a way to TRIGGER the plastic changes of the brain, because it is a strategy to minimize vertigo. So all that shrinking of the vestibular cerebellum, and the seperation of perceiving rotation from the reflex response, comes from spotting = giving the brain an experience of how it feels like to be not dizzy when turning.
But even though experienced dancers do not necessarily rely on spotting, it is still an advantageous strategy to pirouetting without dizziness and maintaining orientation.
3) Total time matters
The plastic changes in the brain were highly correlated with the years of dance experience as well as hours per week of training during those years. So don’t despair just because you are five to ten years into your ballet training, or even less. It might take longer to develop a turning-affine brain, especially if you don’t do ballet for several hours per day.
At the same time, the evidence presented above gives you a little hack to your pirouette training: Even if you do not take three classes per day - if you can just consistently increase the number of repetitions of head rotations of any sort, you can shortcut the long years to who knows how many less.
4) You got this!
And last, maybe my favorite conclusion from all of this: Remember that, in all likelihood, turners are not born but MADE. Over many years and lots of repetitions. Which is the end of all excuses, and the beginning of a turner’s mindset!
So long story short: While spotting, or the lack of it, is not a dealbreaker, it is still a crucial helper for learning, improving, and mastering pirouettes. It’s main purpose in learning is to help the brain experience a rotation without dizziness, and thus start a neuroplastic change that eventually leads to shrinking of the rotation-perceiving area in the brain.
Or even shorter: A little light-headedness will serve you well!
Are you just as fascinated and obsessed by the implications of the study as I am? Have you considered yourself a non-turner before, and does this scientific evidence help you change your mind about it? I will definitely start adding more rotations to my training, preferably in my kitchen :-P
Link to the original paper:
The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Training-Related Perceptuo-Reflex Uncoupling in Dancers, Nigmatullina et al., Cerebral Cortex, Volume 25, Issue 2, 1 February 2015, Pages 554–562,