What Can Neuroplasticity Teach Us About Cross-Training for Dance?

What Can Neuroplasticity Teach Us About Cross-Training for Dance?

You don’t just dance with your body, you dance with your brain.

Let’s look briefly today at dance through the lens of neuroplasticity- The brain’s ability to adapt and change itself.

In our current dance training paradigm, we talk mostly about muscles. Stretch this. Strengthen that. Work the muscle groups we don’t use in dance to create balance. Work the muscle groups we DO use in dance to help us dance stronger. This is all fine and valid. But what’s happening in the brain?

It frustrates me that in dance we rarely talk about the brain: The neuroscience of learning and honing skills, the important role the autonomic nervous system plays, or how pain really works.

This is what I find to be especially interesting: What can neuroplasticity can tell us about the importance of cross-training to support of dancing, learning dance as an adult, and keeping our bodies moving well to optimize our performance while preventing injuries, to be especially interesting.

First, consider these two questions:

Is dance “natural human motion”?

What is natural human motion?

I often ask these questions if I am working with a new group of dancers in a workshop to frame the session and get them thinking.

To the first question, nearly all dancers laugh and say “no”, dance is definitely not natural human motion. I remember one  dancer going into a rant about how Graham technique is the most unnatural thing one could do with their bodies (although we later discovered in the workshop that there are aspects of Graham technique that are very “human” to perform, but become convoluted by other more complex ways of moving).

Graham technique

Pleadings!

The answer to the second question- what is natural human motion? is less clear.

For many dancers, the first thing that may come to mind is that natural motion means using parallel rather than turned-out positions. They know that the degree of flexibility they need is not natural, and that the going on pointe is not natural. They know what natural motion is not, but have no clear idea what it is or should feel like.

We can see that there is a problem here. Dancers know intuitively that what they are doing with their bodies needs to be balanced with more fundamental forms of training, but lack the understanding of how to do this and what that should look like.

ARE YOU AVOIDING THE ISSUE?

Rather than confront this problem, dancers find it much easier to avoid it, choosing not to think about what could happen should their bodies fail them, particularly if they have never had serious trouble with their bodies before. In a state of avoidance, it is impossible to see the value in supplementary training. Their training to supremely control their bodies can often create the sense that they can do anything, though any duress, by their passion for dance and the power of their will. This mindset is summarized by these words, I think every dancer can relate to:

Dancers who have never had a serious injury can fall into the trap of assuming their bodies are indestructible, that they can never become injured.” (~Fitt. S, 1996).

This is the ultimate example of being too attached to our physical identity, and so in a way, cross-training can be the ultimate practice of non-attachment. A way to stop avoiding the issue and face reality, reconnecting with who we are as humans, and seeing clearly the realities we need to confront as dancers.

Indeed, the power of the dancer’s mind is incredible. But sheer will, passion, and avoidance can only take a dancer so far, and takes a tremendous amount of energy to sustain. When a dancer is willing their body perform physical feats it is not ready for, or needs a break from, it can be draining and dangerous. All of our choices have repercussions but dancers, somehow, put this out of their minds to keep doing what they love in the present moment. Yes, being in the now is important, but there is a distinct difference between avoidance and non-attachment.

Deciding not to face the reality of their needs and best practices is not what I mean by living in the moment and not being attached.

What’s missing is the reminder from the beginning of their training that dancers are first humans before they chose to become dancers, and this needs to be respected.

As Gary Ward, creator of Anatomy in Motion, once encouraged us to ask in his seminar, in a discussion on how his work can help athletes perform better,

“Do you need coaching in your skill or to master body mechanics?” ~Gary Ward

In the case of many dancers, adding more training will only go so far if they cannot appreciate the simple beauty and benefit in practicing the fundamentals of human movement stripped of their highly trained movement skills.

Fundamental does not mean lowest level, but highest importance.

NATURAL MOTION AND FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT

What do these terms mean?

Natural human motion refers to joint motions that naturally occur in the human gait cycle and in fundamental movement patterns. These are the motions essential for smooth execution of larger movement patterns. Observing human motion is “zooming in”.

For example, the knee bending, the spine extending, and the rear-foot pronating are human motions that are part of the larger squat pattern, as well as the shock absorption phase of gait.

As we discussed earlier, it is important to understand is that all motions the human body is capable of performing serve an important purpose and need not be feared or avoided. There is no human motion that can be labelled “bad” or we would not have been created with the ability to perform it.

Embracing all movement without such judgement allows us to move with a complete map of our bodies. Perhaps foot pronation is the cause of one person’s troubles, but it is not because pronation is “wrong”, only that it is happening at a time, quantity, or duration, that is not serving them within a movement pattern.

Fundamental movement patterns refers to full body patterns of movement, motor control within movement patterns, and competence of basic movements uncomplicated by specific skill. These movements can include squatting, lunging, stepping, bending, rotation, crawling, and rolling.

When we look at patterns of movement we are “zooming out”. These global movements are, as expressed by physical therapist Gray Cook, important to evaluate injury risk, limiting factors in performance, and exercise contraindications. Cook’s book, Movement, explores in great detail the importance of maintaining these movement patterns for optimal performance and health.

“The movement specialty should be the goal, not the starting point” ~Gray Cook

EARLY SPECIALIZATION CAN MESS US UP

One cause of this decline in fundamental movement quality could be early specialization, as is common in other aesthetic athletes like figure skaters and gymnasts.

As young as two years old, dancers (or their parents) may decide they will focus solely on dance. In other athletic populations there is evidence suggesting that starting early is not necessarily linked with long-term success, and may even be correlated to increased risk of injury.

The challenge is that early specialization is appealing and encouraged because dancers want to master their art as early as possible, knowing that their “best” dance years will be while they are still relatively young, but early specialization does not allow the dancer to develop of a foundation of general physical preparedness, or base of functional movement and strength.

Dancers who specialize from a young age are may never learn some fundamental movement patterns, or are unlearning human movement, something first called “learned nonuse” by neuroscientist Edward Taub (who did some pretty cool work helping people regain function post-stroke).

It is important to consider that, when a dancer hits a plateau in training, the answer may not be to add more hours of dance-specific training and rehearsals, but perhaps to evaluate whether or not there is a limitation in general physical preparedness or athleticism preventing them from excelling.

Dancing “harder” isn’t the same as dancing better. No matter how many extra nails you use to hold a house together, if it has no foundation, it won’t stay upright for long. As I fondly remember a favourite ballet teacher of mine, Christine Wright, telling our class one day, “If something isn’t working, don’t do it harder”. Seth Oberst also wrote this great blog post on the topic of making exercises too hard.

When trying harder isn’t helping, additional hours of coaching may not be what’s holding the dancer back. Perhaps they lack a foundation of movement and work capacity that should have been formed before they started dancing. But this doesn’t mean it’s too late.

HUMAN MOTION: USE IT OR LOSE IT

“Use it or lose it” is the simplest way to describe neuroplasticity. When we use our brains in a particular way, we create new neural circuitry, and the more we use these circuits, the better and faster we get at firing them. This also works in reverse: we stop performing movements, skills, or tasks, and their neural circuits become weakened, like a muscle that we stop using.

We can call this neural atrophy learned nonuse. When we “unlearn”, motor maps weaken and atrophy. It is not simply muscles that atrophy when we stop using them, but the brain can unlearn and shrink areas that aren’t being stimulated. We also know from experiments in this field that by simply imagining movements and skills we can strengthen their maps in our brains. Todd Hargrove wrote THIS blog post a few years ago with some examples that are pretty cool. So if we were really smart, we would practice visualization as part of our daily training.

#SimpsonsChallenge. Epitomy of neural atrophy

What we have learned from studies on folks who have gone blind, or lost a limb, is that the part of the brain that usually would be responsible for a particular movement or activity can be reassigned for something else if we’re not using it for that thing. This plastic property of the brain, it’s ability to reorganize itself, can both serve and disserves us.

Neuroplasticity is incredibly useful, as it means we can change our brains and our bodies regardless of how old we are (yes, even if you feel “too old” to learn something new, like dance, or how to heal an old injury, neuroscience proves that you can).

There, however, is a critical period when we are very young during which making changes is effortless, and this is why early specialization is so coveted in the dance world. But we also see dancers who have started at a much older age, like Misty Copeland, who took her first ballet class at 13 years old and began dancing professionally soon thereafter.

The point I wish to make is that if we can unlearn it, we can learn it back; the brain is hardwired to adapt and change based on the inputs we give it. We can reclaim movements that are missing from our system, movements that can help dancers move more effortlessly, build strength safely, and open them up to new options in choreography.

CONCLUSIONS?

So I suppose what I’d like to you have appreciated through this blog post is the the role the brain plays in supplemental training for dancers, whether it be yoga, lifting weights, pilates, gyrotonics, or mountain unicycling.

We need to stop avoiding the issue and face this need to proactively care for our minds and bodies before it’s too late.

We need to understand that we are not just training muscles, we are training brains- We are creating new neural circuits or denying neural circuitry from being expressed.

It is not simply enough to go through the motions. Real learning requires focused, deliberate practice, or we will simply be strengthening the patterns that already exist in our brains and bodies- further unlearning, staying in our comfort zone.

Speaking of deliberate practice, I’d like to challenge you to 30 days of deliberate practice! Join the 30 Day Core Challenge and practice one exercise deliberately, everyday, for 30 days.

core training challenge

So what do you think? Does looking at cross-training for through the lens of neuroplasticity spark anything for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and encourage you to leave a comment below to keep the conversation going.