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Seven benefits of thinking like a ballerina

By Melanie K

Ballet dancers make it look effortless. That’s their job. But despite its fancy-free, ethereal aesthetic, theirs is arguably the most physically and psychologically demanding profession in the world. And while we aren’t all destined to make our mark en pointe, adopting a ballet dancer’s mindset can lead to success in all walks, spanning far beyond the stage.

Here we explore seven strategies straight from the barre that will benefit your life.

Stay in the moment
It’s the preoccupation of the modern era, but mindfulness has been vital for ballerinas for centuries (just try pulling off the 32 fouettés turns required of the Black Swan while stressing over how much time is left on your parking meter and pondering what’s for dinner) and even for the mere mortal, multitasking has been getting a bad rap of late. Physiologist Glenn Wilson found that people who go about their daily doings with one eye on their inbox and phone (sound familiar?) experience a 10-point reduction in IQ. The remedy could lie in meditation, yoga or, indeed, ballet – a recent study out of the University of Chicago discovered a correlation between mindful physical practices and wisdom 

Grow a thick skin
Former ballet dancer and editor of Pointe magazine, Amy Brandt, admitted that: “Frankly, you do need thick skin to be a ballet dancer. The point of class and rehearsal is to improve our performance, and corrections are meant to help us. We have to be strong enough to face our shortcomings honestly.” As do the rest of us. Criticism and feedback across any field should be accepted and logged as a learning. So try not to take it all so personally – and hold back that emotionally-fuelled, knee-jerk response.

Practice makes perfect
It’s a cliché as old as time, but a study fresh from York University found that practice does indeed make real change to the brain. Researchers put 11 dancers from the National Ballet of Canada under the microscope for 34 weeks, asking them to visualise dancing a sequence they were learning while undergoing MRI scans. It was discovered that, come week seven, they had heightened brain activity compared to week one – but it doesn’t take a scientist to know that talent doesn’t happen overnight. Persistence pays off, so find that thing you’re passionate about and do it every single day.  

Have a routine
Professional dancers hit the barre five to six days a week, and you can’t manage that kind of commitment without an iron-clad routine. This brings about numerous benefits for your body and brain (there’s a reason routine establishment is used in the treatment of depression). Allotting specific time slots to tasks makes you much more likely to tick off your to-do list, eliminates the guesswork (read: stress) from hectic periods, and works just as well for your nights. According to the National Sleep Foundation, going to bed and waking up at the exact same time each day helps keep your body’s internal clock in check, so you’ll get better at nodding off and staying asleep.

Embrace your creativity
Creative expression has long been linked to healing, so it’s a crying shame that around three quarters of us don’t feel we’re living up to our creative potential. Ballet dancers have the luxury of exercising their creativity daily, and whether your thing is writing, drawing, singing or latte art, make your artistic outlet a priority. Need inspiration? Get outside your comfort zone and try something new. You could even go that step further and not only think, but also move like a dancer. There’s a wealth of benefits to be had here, too, with dancing proven to be a natural mood booster.  

Act the part
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer Julia Erickson wrote in a post for the Huffington Post that: “Ballet dancers aren’t born with invincible self-confidence. It’s a deliberate practice to cultivate a positive self-image, and it works – not just for dance, but for everything.” So start mastering the art of self-trickery. Just as the simple act of smiling has been shown to make you feel happier, pretending to be braver than you truly feel, done often enough, will build your self-esteem. Take a cue from social psychologist Amy Cuddy who’s taught us that broadening your stance and standing tall, or “power posing”, increases testosterone levels in the brain, making you feel more powerful.

Have an eye for the details
The imitable Margot Fonteyn said, “Minor things can become moments of great revelation when encountered for the first time” – and she would know, with ballet requiring the tiniest, most nit-picky of muscular tweaks, Margot spent her career quite literally sweating the small stuff. Little things done right can amount to large feats (any anthill is testimony to that) so let yourself obsess a bit over what’s important to you. As the saying goes, sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life.