How the heck do you define and explain neuroplasticity?
I keep trying, but I am not at a version that makes me fully happy. Even experts remain a bit vague. It really IS a hard-to-come-by term - but also one of the currently hottest topics in neuroscience, rehab, and education.
So let’s try anyway. I’ll give you a bit of history-in-a-nutshell first: Until a few decades ago, science believed that once you are done with being a child, your brain is essentially fixed like concrete. The consequence of this brain-view being: Once you are an adult, you can’t significantly change how your brain controls your body, thoughts, emotions. Or in the case of ballet: If you start as an adult, you will never be able to learn ballet as thoroughly and perfectly as someone who startet as a child.
Then, science advanced. Groundbreakingly. Evidence after evidence poured in, and we are now at a point where we can safely say that the brain is perfectly capable of dramatic change at any time = any age. It goes as far as that with the right training, you can completely remap one function of the brain from one area to another. (Or even from one brain hemisphere to the other!)
So in essence, there is no brain-based reason why you cannot learn anything you want, as good as you want.
I know what y’all are thinking now: Then why does it feel, that as adult ballet beginners, we don’t seem to learn as fast/thorough, we don’t look as natural, as dancers who started as a kid?
I’ll try to make the answer to this hot question quite cool:
Because “neuroplasticity” is not synonymous with “learning”.
Neuroplasticity is a property of the brain. It means that given the right input, your brain can change to whatever you want. It’s a long-lasting structural change. But the crucial thing here is “the right input”. (Just wait.)
“Learning” on the other hand, is a broader concept of any kind of input and processing to/in the brain. In that sense, the brain is constantly learning, there is always activity = firing and (re-)wiring, simply as a result of being alive and going about your day. But it does not necessarily translate to these long-lasting structural neural changes that allow you to execute a new skill consistently, reliably and automatically.
So you can take class five times per week, follow all of your teacher’s cues, images, corrections, and buy all of Finis Jhung’s videos - it won’t necessarily translate into becoming a full-blown ballerina. You may experience only incremental progress, or that you constantly learn something and then loose it again.
Another way of saying that: While you are learning and applying all the right things, you are not getting them deep enough into your brain.
So the real question that we need to ask is: Why does neuroplasticity come so natural to kids, and not to adults?
And here we are, back to “the right input”.
Because science does not only tell us that the brain is absolutely capable of plasticity, it also tells us what is necessary to trigger it. And even just observing kids and how they learn when they are at their best, can teach us a lot.
Alright. I know that by now, if you are serious about your ballet, your should be all fired up. Because now we’re talking. In the following, I will present you five principles that can totally change your experience of progress in learning ballet. Let’s dive right in:
1) Massed practice
It’s a widely known fact that you need lots of repetitions to learn a skill. But “massed practice” goes beyond that. In essence, it’s getting as many repetitions within a “short”, limited time period. The term and concept goes back to Dr. Edward Taub, one of the “fathers” or neuroplasticity and its therapeutical applications. He would take in patients, for example after a stroke, to stay in his clinic for a two to three week period, and then let them execute the functions they needed to relearn for the majority of the day. A massive amount of input to the brain, that would eventually lead to lasting changes. This was more effective then less frequent training over a longer period of time.
Application to learning ballet: You can easily see why just taking classes, even every day of the week, simply does not give you enough repetitions. Think about it: During a regular class, you get to do less then ten pirouettes per side. Same thing with jumps, or even the barre exercises. Even if you take 5 classes a week, the number of repetitions you get per skill in a given week is negligible.
So yes, you need to practice outside of classes if you want to progress more than incrementally, that much is clear. But what the concept of massed practice is saying: It is more effective to take, let’s say three weeks and just swamp your brain with repetitions, than to take a few minutes, or an hour, here and there all the time. After those two to three weeks, you can give yourself a break, and just take your classes. These down-times are equally important, because the brain needs some time to process after the mass of input.
Or, if you can’t do just ballet for two or three weeks (let’s be honest here), you could do a slightly modified application of this concept: Make it a point to only work on a set of related movements (like, for example, plié/relevé into passe and pirouettes) whenever you can for two to three weeks, and then switch to another set of movements (like jumps). There are many skills that do not require much space, so you could do this at home, or before/after class in the hallway. This way you still get the massed practice, and the required down time.
(P.S. Massed practice is also the reason why Summer Intensives are so effective and overproportionally advance dancers’ skills! Or the progress you see when you rehearse several hours per day to prepare for a show.)
(P.P.S. Think about how kids learn. The younger they are, the less they do anything else then learning, learning, learning. Or when you look back at biographies of really good athletes, there is usually an element of doing their sports all.the.time when they were a kid. Like having an ice rink in the backyard. Playing soccer on the street. Doing back flips in their bedrooms. They amass an insane amount of repetitions without even thinking about it!)
2) Emotional state
In short: Physiological stress responses kill both learning and neuroplasticity, because of the neurotransmitter cocktail that is released as part of the stress response. (Glucocorticoids will attack nerve cells in the hippocampus, a brain area that plays a big role in memory and learning.)
So the desired changes in the brain can only happen when the nervous system does not feel threatened, but rather open, safe, and playful!
Application to learning ballet: Now when we think of ballet, we usually first think of its calming effect, how it makes us feel grounded and graceful, how it’s fun and a passionate hobby of ours.
But let’s be honest, a ballet class can be a major source of stress, especially for an adult beginner and intermediate dancer:
It starts with coming into class, and feeling the gravity and grandeur that comes from a century-old and perfectionist art form. You see the more experienced dancers with their multiple warm-up layers and booties stretching their oversplits in an aura of unapproachability. It’s uncomfortably quiet. As you desperately fight to not butcher the combinations and to maintain a straight leg, that cute skirt-leo combo you chose for today suddenly starts feeling a bit over the top. You start wondering what others think. And here comes the greatest gift of all, your teacher approaches you and gives you an Individual Correction, and you just fold under the attention. It’s center time, your group’s turn, and you try to do the correct steps, follow the music, aware that everybody is watching you now, the pirouette is approaching, you really DID want to remember keeping your knee out and your spot in the front, you’re messing up everything before the pirouette because you were only thinking about the pirouette, you know you can do it, and you want to show your teacher that you can do it, but as you are doing your pirouette, you forgot to think at all - and now you’re done. Time to jump, you may have pelvic floor issues, or problems with your foot, and how the hell are you supposed to keep a turn-out without the friction of the floor, and as the more experienced dancers swoosh their grand jetés with that smile-which-is-not-really-a-smile-but-more-of-a-vague-idea, you wonder whether “I’ll just try and give my best” was really brave or maybe just not thought through to the end.
In other words: It’s not only difficult to do what it takes to get through class - it’s even more difficult to maintain a neural state that is conducive to neuroplastic changes! And even if you are not panicking through every class - the inherent stress of having to present yourself and remember cues is enough to swamp your brain with that evil glucocorticoid cocktail.
So what is a Late-to-the-Party Ballerina to do to get her brain out of this mess?
Breathing: Physiologically, the counter-measure to a sympathetic stress response is activating your parasympathetic nervous system, i.e. the part of your brain circuits that calms you down. As it is also an autonomous part of your brain (i.e. it is activated/shut down without any consicous actions on your side) there is only indirect ways of doing that. Most effective: Breathing. It’s also simple, because you can breathe anywhere, thanks God. So a good idea is to do focus on your breathing before class (on your way there, while you stretch/warm up in the studio). Keep reminding yourself of it, like use your time between exercises, while the teacher is demonstrating etc. Often enough your teacher will remind you of this, too - so don’t just smile at him like he just made a funny joke, but actually do breathe!
Knowing your steps: For many, remembering sequences can be tough and distracting from anything else. I will do a seperate post about this, but here is an idea: If this gives you trouble, then repeating/marking the steps between classes may help you with getting them deeper into the brain. I work like that. I often have trouble picking up complex allegros, but if I just mark through them slowly (!) a few times after class (I am sure if you ask your teacher, he will show you once more), and maybe another time before the next, I will most surely remember it in the following class. Teachers usually keep their exercises for a few weeks, or longer, in a beginner/intermediate setting, so even if you are having a hard time the first time around, you will probably do better in the following classes. One stressor less.
Then there are mindset shifts, which is more of a long-term work. It’s about becoming comfortable about who you are, where you are with your ballet skills right now, feeling your space in class, allowing yourself to take up that space and to make mistakes. It’s remembering that others probably don’t think as much about you and your appearance, and even if they do, it’s not your problem if they choose to occupy their mental resources with it. Mostly, though, stress comes not so much from what’s actually happening, but rather from what you make of it in your head. And you have control over what is in your head.
Relax your face: Here is another thing I do when I feel tense and stressed out in class: I try to imitate that hunch of a smile that is so typical for ballet. So not a full-blown, radiating smile (which could be too much of an activation pattern. But of course do it, if you feel like it!), it’s almost more a relaxation of the facial muscles. Together with that, I explicitely tell myself to enjoy, even if just the next exercise. This is another way of indirectly activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The good thing is: Your stress hormone/neurotransmitter cocktail has a half-life, and movement is really the factor that lowers that half-life period (= the time that it takes your body to remove half of the stuff). And because we are constantly moving during exercises, you can shake off stress even while class is still running!
“Playing” on your own: And again - the work that you put in between classes can make a huge difference. Just because when you work on your own, or 1 on 1 with a teacher in a private class, you don’t have most of the stressors. You can work on your own pace. Really slow it down (see also next point). You can stop and do it again. Nobody is watching (except your teacher, if it’s a private, but you are hopefully working with someone you are comfortable with). Nobody cares if you make a mistake, not even you. So this builds both skill - but also the confidence that will lower your stress response in class with others.
(P.S. From all the evidence I have digested so far, I believe that the emotional state is one of the main, if not THE main reason why kids learn how they learn. Kids are not worried about how they look to others. They do not care about mistakes, or if they fall, and they don’t limit themselves in the sense of “I have to perfect before I can perform/put myself out there”. They do not want to impress anyone (ok, deep psychological family issues aside). They just want to do fun and crazy stuff. But that’s also the beauty of showing up to the party late: You get to do all the fun and crazy stuff!)
This is actually quite intuitive, but it’s funny how often it is overlooked, underrated, or simply misunderstood. The theory behind this goes back to Feldenkrais (who really is another father of neuroplasticity, long before science acknowledged that there was such thing!). In short: If you want to learn and ingrain a movement skill, you have to be able to execute it SLOWLY, in a controlled manner, before you can speed it up.
Application to learning ballet: This is a great tool. You can use it for anything. Whatever gives you trouble, or even what doesn’t. Just do it very slowly. You will be surprised what you will discover through this. Do a super slow tendu, and you will immediately see if you are on your leg. Do a slow pique arabesque on pointe and you will feel EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD.
The misunderstanding often comes down to: Well, if I do it slowly, I won’t be fast enough, I won’t build the fast-twitch muscles etc. But that’s two different things. With the Slow, you ingrain the movement pattern and build the stability and coordination. THEN you can (and eventually have to) speed it up. Slow is almost always way more challenging than fast.
(Try that with spotting, just on two legs flat, and do slow, clean turning heads. You will actually start feeling all the weird things your head and eyes are doing when you whip them around.)
Again, this point relates to how you practice and train outside of classes, because in classes, the pace is obviously given by the music. And again, you don’t need much space for working on certain movements slowly!
So while you need lots of repetitions of the same movement (see point 1) above), this is another key component of neuroplasticity. You need to give your brain just enough variations to let it “approach” the skill from another angle.
Application to learning ballet: A good example is to practice pirouettes en dehors from forth, from fifth, or from a front attitude (fouetté-style, but just a single or double, or whatever turn). One of my teachers had me practice them from a relevé fifth position, without a plié, just to feel the action of the torso and the arms.
Variation can also mean different speeds, different floor, different shoes (for instance doing jumps or promenades (on flat) in pointe shoes vs soft shoes). You can really get creative. The idea is to make the variation just big enough for the brain to feel a change, but not so big that it actually becomes a different thing.
5) Awareness and Attention
This is maybe one of the most important principles and conditions for neuroplasticity. That’s why I am putting it off to the very end of this list. So it sticks with you forever!
It comes down to: Training is not the same as training.
If you really want to get a new motor skill deep into the brain, you have to put all your attention to what is actually happening. Meaning: You don’t just go through your repetitions and through the exercises trying to get the steps right - you actually feel what is happening in your feet, legs, pelvis, torso, arms. Even if you do it wrong, you still intercept what’s going on everywhere. You actually feel the mistake. It goes beyond mindfulness - it’s actually paying attention to all the actions relevant to the movement you are executing in every given moment.
This may sound trivial, but see point 2) how fast we turn our attention to everything that is not relevant for the execution of the movement. Or we get annoyed by what we did wrong, or compare how others do it better.
Keep coming back, every time.
* * *
So there you have it.
One note of caution: First of all, there are more principles than the five listed here, and second, the mechanisms of neuroplasticity are a huge, but not the only factor in getting better at ballet. Other factors include your body’s dimensions, how fast you respond to training stimuli, how fast you build muscle etc. But I will guarantee you that if you start applying these five principles, you will see a difference in your progress.
Let’s not kid ourselves - it will be a challenge! You will need to make extra efforts to find space, to work after/between classes, to do it even when others may think you are a bit of a nerd/nut to put in all that extra work.
But if you find the braveness to allow yourself to learn like a child again, and put in the work against all odds - you can be pretty sure that, eventually, neuroplasticity will do the rest for you.
I would love to hear about your explorations! Have you tried any of these principles before, or are you thinking about experimenting with them? Keep me posted on your progress! And let me know if you would like me to expand on any of these principles in more detail.