From Pointed Toes to a Positive Mind

The ballet world that is immortalized in films such as “Black Swan,” or in reality TV shows such as “Breaking Pointe;” may not seem like the most mentally healthy culture.  In fact to a uniformed audience member it may even seem counterproductive to write a mental health post about the psychological benefits of participating in a world that popular culture has shown to be a place where eating disorders run rampant, cutthroat competition becomes a way of life and every waking moment is consumed with the pursuit of perfection.

And while there may be some factual basis for the melodramatic world of ballet that Hollywood has created; popular culture has overlooked the fact that a disciplined practice of Ballet can actually provide many mental health benefits for anyone (even someone with no Ballet experience).  And in the Washington DC Metropolitan area, there are many wonderful beginning adult ballet classes. These classes can be a great place to start learning more about the discipline of Ballet and its  many mental health benefits.

Exercise

Ballet provides its participants with a unique opportunity to exercise both mentally and physically at the same time.

Learning ballet is like learning a language; a language that involves both your body and an outside source: the music.  While you learn how to dance you will learn how to control every miniscule part of your body while also learning how to time your movements with the music.  This mental workout stretches and strengthens the existing connections in the brain and it forces the participant to consider his or her environment in a different way. Dance changes the way that you listen to music, changes the way that you observe people moving through space and changes the way that you think about your body.  In fact, dance causes you to think about your body as a tool and helps you become more aware of how you treat it.

However, Ballet is not just a mental exercise. An hour and a half ballet class can burn up to 600 calories, making it an extremely physical exercise as well. In addition to the release of endorphins that accompanies any form of exercise, ballet also changes your posture and the shape and tone of your muscles.   Ballet teaches you how to carry yourself with confidence and how to respect your body for the amazing things that it can accomplish. Ballet is a form of exercise unlike any other where in addition to the great physical benefits you also get the mental benefits of creating something beautiful while working out.

Work Ethic

The level of training and commitment required of professional ballet dancers is close to that of Olympic athletes and they are always striving to make their own bodies reach the unattainable goal of perfection.  This goal of reaching perfection is something that we all seemingly face throughout our lives.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who was struggling with a college class.  She was not prepared for the amount of work that the class required of her and even though she was working her hardest she was unsure of her ability to earn an “A” in the class.  Being in a situation where we are unsure of our ability to achieve success is something that everyone has experienced at one time or another.  Whether it is at work or with our families or even during a volunteer activity, everyone can understand the frustration and anxiety that comes from the uncertainty of a new project or task.

Ballet helps you learn how to manage that anxiety; it teaches you that it is ok not to be perfect.  When you take a Ballet class you may work your hardest for months before you see improvement.  And as every professional ballet dancer will tell you, you learn how to work toward perfection while acknowledging that all you can do is try your best each and every performance.  Or as Harper Lee says in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, “Courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Achieving this level of mental courage is hard and it is something that the discipline of Ballet teaches you.  As you struggle with learning new dance skills, you are also forced to learn how to control your thoughts so that you are able to accept your imperfections without letting your them define you.  You learn that no obstacle is unbeatable and you learn how to only worry about the things that you can control and let go of the rest.  This mental courage helps people defeat helplessness and will leads to a greater sense of self efficacy.

Hope, Faith, Passion

Unlike most things in our society, Ballet is not something that comes easily or quickly.   Often you work for months on the smallest correction before you see results.  In order to truly enjoy ballet you quickly learn that one must have faith that hard work and integrity will eventually pay off even if the results are not instantaneous.

In addition, ballet is a great example of what people are capable of accomplishing when they are passionate about something.  Ballet dancers are some of the most highly specialized workers in the workforce; however they are also some of the most underappreciated.  A ballet dancer does not become a ballet dancer for the money or  the fame. Ballet dancers becomes professional ballet dancers because they have a tremendous amount of passion for their work.  And so the next time you have some spare time, take an evening to see a ballet performance, and let their passion inspire you to become passionate about something of your own.  People who are passionate about what they are doing are usually healthier and happier in the long run.

The last thing that Ballet can teach a participant is hope.  Ballet is an art form that allows the viewer to escape into magical worlds filled with Nutcrackers, Swans, Pirates, glittering jewels, fairies, Princes and Princesses.  And as the audience member watches he or she must consider another perspective and to remember that there is still beauty and light in a world that may seem dark and hopeless at times.   I think that during each performance, the audience is given a chance to change its perspective slightly and to realize that hard work, faith and passion really do accomplish great things.  And as the Artistic Director of Connect the Dots Dance Company this is something that I try to communicate through all of our performances.  While we understand that we may not be able to solve the world’s problems, we also understand that we can put a little optimism into it.

My Mental Health Day Thanks:
Amber Shriver; Artistic Director of Connect the Dots Dance Company
http://connectthedotsdancecompany.weebly.com/

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