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Why Is Dancing So Good for
Your Brain?
Dancers maximize cognitive function and muscle memory
through practice.
Dancing improves brain function on a variety of levels. Two recent studies
show how different types of practice allow dancers to achieve peak
performance by blending cerebral and cognitive thought processes with
muscle memory and ‘proprioception’ held in the cerebellum. Through regular
aerobic training that incorporates some type of dance at least once a week
anyone can maximize his or her brain function.
When was the last time you went out dancing? I make a habit of going to
my local dance club called the Atlantic House at least once a week. I
have been dancing to DJ David LaSalle’s music in the same spot in front
of a huge speaker since 1988. Some of my friends make fun of me for
‘chasing butterflies’ and acting like a fool on the dance floor. I don’t care. I
know that dancing and spontaneously trying to spin like Michael Jackson
is good for my brain.

While researching this blog, I pulled up some old footage of Michael

Jackson spinning. He was an incredible dancer. Please take a minute to
watch Michael Jackson dance here. In this video you can see how
practicing a dance move like ‘spinning’ from childhood reshapes the
cerebellum (down brain) and allows a dancer to create superfluidity and
not get dizzy while rotating quickly.

Professional dancers don’t get dizzy. Why?

Do you feel dizzy sometimes when you stand up? Does a fear of falling
prevent you from exploring the world more? If you are prone to dizziness,
a new study has found that dancing may help improve your balance and
make you less dizzy. In September 2013, researchers from Imperial
College London reported on specific differences in the brain structure of
ballet dancers that may help them avoid feeling dizzy when they perform
pirouettes. You don't have to train to become a professional ballet dancer
to benefit from some type of dancing.
The article is titled, “The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Training-Related
Perceptuo-Reflex Uncoupling in Dancers.” The research suggests that
years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance
organs in the inner ear linked to the cerebellum. The findings, published
in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help to improve treatment for
patients with chronic dizziness. Around one in four people experience this
condition at some time in their lives.

In a previous Psychology Today blog titled “Fear of Falling Creates a

Downward Spiral” I talk about the risk of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) due
to a fear of falling and impaired balance. Taking time throughout your life
to improve the function of your cerebellum through aerobic activity and
some type of dance is a fun and effective way to avoid the perils of

For this study the researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29

female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers
whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers. Interestingly, most
rhythmic aerobic exercise is going to be a bi-pedal motion or very linear—
like rowing. It is interesting to note the benefits to proprioception and
balance based in the cerebellum that is enhanced through dance.

The study volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They
were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they
were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also
measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs.
Later, they examined the participants' brain structure with MRI scans.

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the
inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through
tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the
fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you're still spinning.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a
shorter time than in the rowers. Sensory input evokes low-order reflexes
of the cerebellum and higher-order perceptual responses of the
cerebrum. Vestibular stimulation elicits vestibular-ocular reflex (VOR) and
self-motion perception (e.g., vertigo) whose response durations are
normally equal.
I have a section in my book, The Athlete’s Way, which explores the
connection to VOR and muscle memory during REM sleep that I will write
about more in a future blog. On Page 54 I say, “It became clear to me that
creating a dreamlike default state of flow through sport is linked to VOR,
too. It is really like REM in reverse. This is my original hypothesis. My
father thinks it makes sense, but other scientists have yet to explore this
theory.” The new research from London this month offers exciting new
connections to VOR and peak performance.

Dr. Barry Seemungal, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, said:

"Dizziness, which is the feeling that we are moving when in fact we are
still, is a common problem. I see a lot of patients who have suffered from
dizziness for a long time. Ballet dancers seem to be able to train
themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the
same principles to help our patients."

The brain scans revealed differences between the groups in two parts of
the brain: an area in the cerebellum where sensory input from the
vestibular organs is processed and in the cerebral cortex, which is
responsible for the perception of dizziness.

"It's not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains
adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the
signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in
the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy.
If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic
dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better."

"This shows that the sensation of spinning is separate from the reflexes
that make your eyes move back and forth," Dr. Seemungal said. "In many
clinics, it's common to only measure the reflexes, meaning that when
these tests come back normal the patient is told that there is nothing
wrong. But that's only half the story. You need to look at tests that assess
both reflex and sensation." In summary, dancers display vestibular
perceptuo-reflex dissociation with the neuronatomical correlate localized
to the vestibular cerebellum.

Visualizing Movements can Improve Muscle Memory

A July 2013 article titled, “The Cognitive Benefits of Movement Reduction:

Evidence From Dance Marking” found that dancers can improve the ability to
do complex moves by walking through them slowly and encoding the
movement with a cue through ‘marking’. Researcher Edward Warburton, a
former professional ballet dancer, and colleagues were interested in
exploring the "thinking behind the doing of dance."
The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the
Association for Psychological Science, suggest that marking may
alleviate the conflict between the cognitive and physical aspects of dance
practice — allowing dancers to memorize and repeat steps more fluidly.
This creates what I call “superfluidity," which is the highest tier of ‘flow.’

Expert ballet dancers seem to glide effortlessly across the stage, but
learning the steps is both physically and mentally demanding. New
research suggests that dance marking—loosely practicing a routine by
"going through the motions"—may improve the quality of dance
performance by reducing the mental strain needed to perfect the

"It is widely assumed that the purpose of marking is to conserve energy,"

explains Warburton, professor of dance at the University of California,
Santa Cruz. "But elite-level dance is not only physically demanding, it's
cognitively demanding as well. Learning and rehearsing a dance piece
requires concentration on many aspects of the desired performance."
Marking essentially involves a run-through of the dance routine, but with a
focus on the routine itself, rather than making the perfect movements.

"When marking, the dancer often does not leave the floor, and may even
substitute hand gestures for movements," Warburton explains. "One
common example is using a finger rotation to represent a turn while not
actually turning the whole body."

To investigate how marking influences performance, the researchers

asked a group of talented dance students to learn two routines: they were
asked to practice one routine at performance speed and to practice the
other one by marking. Across many of the different techniques and steps,
the dancers were judged more highly on the routine that they had
practiced with marking—their movements on the marked routine
appeared to be more seamless, their sequences more fluid.

Conclusion: Synchronizing the Cerebrum and Cerebellum Creates

The researchers conclude that practicing at performance speed didn't
allow the dancers to memorize and consolidate the steps as a sequence,
thus encumbering their performance. This type of visualization and
marking could be used to maximize performance across many fields and
areas of life.

"By reducing the demands on complex control of the body, marking may
reduce the multi-layered cognitive load used when learning
choreography," Warburton explains. "Marking could be strategically used
by teachers and choreographers to enhance memory and integration of
multiple aspects of a piece precisely at those times when dancers are
working to master the most demanding material," says Warburton.

It's unclear whether these performance improvements would be seen for

other types of dance, Warburton cautions, but it is possible that this area
of research could extend to other kinds of activities, perhaps even
language acquisition. He said, "Smaller scale movement systems with low
energetic costs such as speech, sign language, and gestures may
likewise accrue cognitive benefits, as might be the case in learning new
multisyllabic vocabulary or working on one's accent in a foreign
Review: Lucinda Childs’s Enduring
Vision of Order
In 1983, the year of its premiere, Lucinda Childs’s “Available Light” was
hailed as a breakthrough of formal beauty. Then, like most dance works, it
disappeared. In 2015, it was revived and has been touring nationally and
internationally to near-universal acclaim. But it wasn’t until Thursday
that it arrived in New York, for a two-night run at the Rose Theater as part
of the Mostly Mozart festival. As an idea of order, it endures.

In some ways, it has grown larger and more important, as the reputation
and fame of Ms. Childs’s collaborators has risen. The set is by the
architect Frank Gehry, but rather than the spiraling steel that became his
signature, there’s an elegantly industrial doubling of the dance floor: a
raised platform duplicating the stage at a higher level, backed by chain-
link fence. The music is by John Adams, his accurately titled “Light Over
Water”: waves of synthesizer and blasts of brass that give the whole 55-
minute production a symphonic magnitude but also remind you, much
more than anything else in the production, of exactly when it was made.

Yet the idea of order here, the dominant vision, is the choreographer’s.
The vocabulary is the modest version of ballet that Ms. Childs adopted in
the late 1970s, as she moved from the avant-garde toward the
mainstream, increasing her scale and adding music. Pivots, turns, hops,
low-swinging legs, jumps that are more horizontal than vertical: The
materials are kept simple, standard and slightly soft, maintaining
decorum while heightening intelligibility and focusing on design. After
most phrases, the dancers reset to first position, arms at their sides.

What matters most is who moves when, and with whom — this pair or trio
doing this pattern, this other pair or trio doing that, the synchronicities
and alliances always changing. Or perhaps “who” isn’t the right word,
since the dance is impersonal and collective. The dancers, who seldom tilt
from an upright posture and never touch one another, are points in space,
dots to be connected, statically holding the design as others shift. Or they
are vectors, their every clockwork movement defined by such a clear
direction and orientation that they seem magnetized, on tracks.
The single-shaded, color-coded costumes — black or red or white — add to
the complexity, creating an underlying sense of teams that the temporary
groupings sometimes match and sometimes don’t. But the most thrilling
complication is how Ms. Childs uses the set.

Up on the top platform, one or two or three dancers — at first, only two in
white — reproduce one of the patterns being danced below, periodically
switching the connection. The effect is like a highlighter or a laser pointer,
drawing attention to one path through the maze. The duplication is a form
of division, the higher level a higher analysis of the design, promising to
reveal an underlying structure.

Yet for all the order and formal construction of “Available Light,” an
underlying (or overarching) structure is what it seems to lack. True, there
are moments of drama that depend upon sequence: the first time a dancer
in white (originally Ms. Childs, now her young doppelgänger, Caitlin
Scranton) invades the previously distinct world of the lower level; the
climactic appearance, near the end, of three dancers up top, one in each
color. And throughout, the introduction of each new step, each speed,
each variation registers as an event.

But when the piece pauses in a false ending maybe halfway through,
there’s no strong reason for it to start up again or for it to end when it
does. The work is ultimately not so much circular as static, saying the
same thing at length, all its multiplications striving for a sublime that, for
me, it doesn’t reach. Still, it’s serious, major. It’s good that it came around
Review: At BalletX, a New Work Alive
With Suspense and Surrealism
PHILADELPHIA — Five years ago, very few female choreographers were
getting work in ballet. That’s been changing. Just see the closing sentence
of BalletX’s program note for Penny Saunders, choreographer-in-
residence at Grand Rapids Ballet: “In the 2017-18 season, Saunders is
excited to be collaborating with Cincinnati Ballet, BalletX, Missouri
Contemporary Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, SFDanceworks, and
Tulsa Ballet 2, as well as making her first full-length for Grand Rapids

This would not matter if Ms. Saunders were a cliché maker. But her
“Rock-a-Bye,” one of three world premieres on the BalletX’s Summer
Series program, suggests that she is a remarkably fresh mind, with talents
for suspense and surrealism. In this, she has found an ideal composer
in Rosie Langabeer (a New Zealand composer now living in Philadelphia),
whose original music for this work — Ms. Langabeer also sings and
performs, with two other musicians — casts one spell after another.

The stage world here keeps changing, as do the dramas within it. The
music alters too. Some sound is taped (you hear crickets in one passage),
but the live musicians often change instruments. Above all, Ms.
Langabeer and Tara Middleton sing (sometimes a cappella), combining
lyricism and rhythm in ways that make each vocal line eventful.

As “Rock-a-Bye” begins, one woman dances alone before a red curtain,

behind which emerge nine pairs of hands, with their own choreography —
rhythmic, even orchestral. Then that curtain rises, revealing musicians
and dancers in what might be a studio apartment. People sit, stand, walk:
The stage area often looks like a play. Lighting, by Michael Korsch,
continually transforms the space.

Tiny effects of body language count, hugely. A woman sits, in profile to us,
at a table; a man approaches from behind, softly lays his hand on her
shoulder, and then slowly passes on, leaving the stage. Though just a
moment, it changes her: Having leaned forward with his touch, she takes
time to recover her poise.
Dance solos, duets and larger ensembles melt in and out of each other.
Situations often look pregnant with amorous suggestion. Early on, the 10
dancers are a gathering of five male-female couples; they break up into
various more intimate subgroups, often same-sex, with hints of pain,
competition, surrender.

There are many stories here, short and fleeting. You never know what’s
coming. The quietly inconclusive ending is a particular surprise. After the
curtain falls, it takes a few seconds to realize how much has happened.

The company’s other two world premieres are unlike “Rock-a-Bye,” and
unlike each other. One, “Situated,” is by a regular BalletX
contributor, Matthew Neenan, who has seized the opportunity to make
something uncharacteristic.

Mr. Neenan, whose tastes in music are diverse, has a wacky, perverse side.
In “Situated,” there are eight dancers with eight chairs. The music, played
on piano by Martha Koeneman, is six items from Mendelssohn’s “Songs
Without Words”; but Mr. Neenan has the dancers speaking words (often
not English ones) and seldom doing much dancing.

Everything is precisely choreographed, but largely in ways that make

naturalistic behavior look peculiar. (The performers in one passage build
their chairs into a single — and precarious — formal tableau, gaze at it
solemnly, and then earnestly, carefully dismantle it.) There are tender
duets, sometimes keenly scrutinized by the others, sometimes occurring
as in private; but the overall mood is comic. I’m sorry this is a slight piece;
Mr. Neenan has the talent to turn even an exercise in absurdity into
something substantial.

“Requiem,” by the British choreographer Andrew McNicol, plunges in

where angels fear to tread: it’s to Christian religious music and it’s to
Mozart. Very few artists have the skill to handle Mozart in dance:
However dance-friendly his music may sound, there are always more
layers to it. And very few have the resources to address liturgical music.
Here the words, in Latin, ask God to have mercy, warn of God’s anger,
speak of the grief that will attend the Last Judgment: Who can
choreograph that?

Many choreographers nonetheless try: I suppose Mr. McNicol’s

“Requiem” (the music is taped) is the least misguided dance staging of the
Mozart “Requiem” I’ve seen. It abounds in dramatic situations without
telling stories: it builds sculptural groupings, it contrasts highs (dancers
held high overhead) and lows (others supine on the floor), and sets speed
beside stillness.

Mr. McNicol has plenty of formal skill; although he can’t match Mozart,
he does much to show the music’s complexity. But his semi-abstracted
dramas are wrong for the very specific dramas of the soul conjured by the
Requiem’s verbal text.

I have the impression that choreographers don’t just tell BalletX

performers what to do but learn from them. Certainly these three works
gain from the dancers’ excellence: three-dimensional, richly textured,
constantly alive with dynamic contrasts.
Dance? Easy. The Ballerina Tiler Peck
Leaves Her Comfort Zone.
Tiler Peck dances with a fleetness so astonishing, it’s as if her feet were
made of wings. For this ballerina, performing 32 fouettés — those flashy
whipping turns made famous in “Swan Lake” — is like a rest step, she
once told me. A rest step. Even a seasoned ballerina might find that

“I’ve never been really nervous when I perform,” Ms. Peck, a principal at
New York City Ballet, said in a recent interview at a restaurant across the
street from Lincoln Center. “I’ve always just been able to be onstage and
feel very comfortable.”

As odd as it might sound, being comfortable onstage isn’t always a good

thing. It often seemed that for all her facility, Ms. Peck, 29, was dancing
behind a veil. In recent months, that veil has been lifted and a different
Ms. Peck has emerged: a little raw, emotionally unguarded and daring in a
more delicate, walking-on-a tightrope way.

“I feel like Bambi,” she said, with a laugh. “I feel so wacky.”

Ms. Peck’s transformation has much to do with what she accomplished

last summer: conceiving and directing an impressive program of dance at
the Music Center in Los Angeles. In “Ballet Now,” a new documentary
directed by Steven Cantor, Ms. Peck is captured in the days, hours and
minutes leading up to the performances. “It changed me as a person, and
I think that’s what has translated into my dancing now,” she said. “I do
feel a difference.”

The film, produced by Vulcan Productions, which is committed to

introducing more dance programming to the general public, will be
available to stream on Hulu on July 20. It tracks Ms. Peck, who in less
than a week put together an eclectic program of ballet, tap, hip-hop and
mime, featuring choreography by George Balanchine, Justin Peck (no
relation), Bill Irwin, Michelle Dorrance and others; she oversaw dancers,
choreographers, the orchestra and every other last detail. Of course, she
danced, too.
“It was such a huge turning point for me,” she said, adding that it brought
on an important realization: “I know I could run a company. And I could
do it really well.”

After she said this, Ms. Peck laughed with delight. She’s always been
cheerful, but she’s never seemed so loopily at ease. The experience of
being in charge has both relaxed and empowered her. “It was never
something that I really ever thought about,” she continued. “Now I know
it is something that I want to do.”

In “Ballet Now,” Ms. Peck is shown behind the scenes, racing from one
rehearsal to the next, dealing with the orchestra and wolfing down

The actress Elisabeth Moss, one of the film’s executive producers — and a
former dancer who trained at the Westside Ballet in Santa Monica, Calif.,
and at the School of American Ballet in New York, just like Ms. Peck —
pushed for the movie’s behind-the-scenes focus.

“I love watching the normalcy mixed with the extraordinary that you see
in Tiler in this film,” Ms. Moss said in an email. “She’s one of the most
brilliant dancers internationally and also gets tired and sore and needs
caffeine and to talk to her mom. I was struck by the similarities to many
other working women.”

Ms. Moss was also involved in the editing of the film. It was important to
her and Ms. Peck that this would be an accurate representation of work
that went into the performances. “We didn’t want to gloss over anything,
or have it be just a performance piece,” Ms. Moss said. She wanted to
present a more realistic take on ballet that would show, she said, “the grit.
The ugly parts. The parts that we all deal with every day in our own jobs.
These dancers are no different.”

At one point in the film, Ms. Dorrance refers to Ms. Peck as a “stage
beast,” and it’s true. But she’s also pragmatic, exacting and candid,
qualities that Mr. Cantor, who is also one of the film’s producers,
captures. “It wasn’t like he was trying to make me be something I wasn’t,”
Ms. Peck said. “That was the most important thing, because I’m so tired of
seeing ballet dancers being overdramatic.”

Mr. Cantor, who previously created a music video with Ms. Peck, could
see that the experience of directing the show changed her, even during the
course of shooting. “She went from being really nervous — ‘Oh my God,
all of these people are coming in, and how am I possibly going to pull this
off?’ — to almost compartmentalizing her schedule so that everybody
thought she was totally attentive to their needs,” he said. “She would go
from one thing to the next and be completely in the moment with people.”

Apart from the stress of putting on her first show, Ms. Peck was also
dealing with a personal crisis: the breakup of her marriage to Robert
Fairchild, then a principal dancer at City Ballet. That story is left out of
the film; Ms. Peck, with Mr. Cantor’s support, held her ground to not
include it. And, for Ms. Peck, that was another important step.

“I’m not so good at saying no — or I wasn’t until I did this show,” she said.
“I don’t like people to be upset at me. But I wouldn’t have gotten anything
done if I wasn’t able to say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’”

She demonstrates that ability in the film. At one point, just two hours
before curtain time, her patience wears thin when stagehands explain that
applying a nonslip solution to the dance floor for Ms. Dorrance’s piece will
take too long to dry. She tells the crew, “So let’s stop maybe talking about
it and do it.”

At City Ballet, she’s more assertive now, too. It used to be that if she was
asked to give up a performances in favor of another dancer, she would
agree to it, but be upset. “I feel like this is my time,” she said. “I had to
wait for things and people can wait for things, too.”

She paused for a moment. “Now,” she added, “I stand up for myself.”

The artistic landscape has changed at City Ballet. Peter Martins, the
company’s longtime ballet master in chief, resigned earlier this year after
allegations of physical and sexual misconduct. Ms. Peck and some of her
fellow dancers, she said, “are the ones carrying the company, not
necessarily the interim team.”

The current and former dancers Craig Hall, Rebecca Krohn, Justin Peck
and Jonathan Stafford make up that interim group. “But we’re the ones
onstage still having to dance the way we dance, and it feels like it’s up to
us to teach the younger dancers,” Ms. Peck continued. “We are the ones
that have to carry these ballets forward.”
Ms. Peck is also branching out. This summer, at the 2018 Vail
International Dance Festival, directed by Damian Woetzel, Ms. Peck is
trying something new: She’s choreographing a ballet for herself and fellow
City Ballet dancers Roman Mejia and Harrison Coll. Before Mr. Woetzel
gauged her interest, she had already been considering it. Her first ballet
teacher was her mother; and Ms. Peck, who comes from Bakersfield,
Calif., grew up choreographing at her studio. (Her father was a college
football coach, and Ms. Peck remains a fan of the game.)

“Now’s the time,” she said about choreographing. “This whole year feels
like, just go for it.”

So why not apply for the directorship of City Ballet? Ms. Peck laughed and
stuttered. “It’s hard to say,” she started, before composing herself and
explaining her thinking.

“There’s that sweet spot of when your technique and artistry meet, and I
feel like that’s happening, “ she continued. “I just feel, right now, that I
still want to dance. I’m not ready for that to be over. If that weren’t an
issue, then yes. Let me put it this way: Nothing would be an issue.”
How the body (and mind) learns a
NEW YORK — Last month in a studio at American Ballet Theater, Angel Corella
was studying the former Ballet Theater star Gelsey Kirkland as she showed him
sequences from the second act of "The Sleeping Beauty," a new production at the
Metropolitan Opera House.

One of the world's finest dancers, whose powerhouse technique and dramatic
intensity propelled him from his native Spain to American Ballet Theater when he
was still a teenager, Corella also has a rare, less visible gift: he is able to reproduce a
dance simply by seeing it once - not only his part, but everybody else's too. After
observing Kirkland, he was soon following behind her, humming as he mirrored
her movements. Forty minutes after they began, he had the hundreds of steps down

But for Corella and the other Ballet Theater dancers, knowing the steps of a dance
is just the first phase in perfecting it. They must also convey the intention and
feeling of the works they perform, which, in a repertory company like theirs, run
from classical to modern to brand new. During the 2006-07 season alone, the
dancers have rotated regularly through 21 works by choreographers as varied as
Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jerome
Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Lar Lubovitch.

That dancers can remember such a wide range of steps, roles and styles is
sometimes forgotten in the awe produced by a great performance; the seeming
effortlessness of it all suggests that each phrase and combination is spontaneous
and not a memorized series of steps. But in getting to that point, most dancers
share a relatively similar path, first learning the choreography and then adding
layers of detail and color. Finally, they absorb the work so completely that its
elements literally become automatic, leaving the dancer's brain free to focus on the
moment-by-moment nuances of the performance.

Dancers call it muscle memory. And while it obviously manifests itself physically as
far as dance is concerned, what actually happens, according to neuroscientists, is
that the movements become thoroughly mapped in the brain, creating a shorthand
between thinking and doing. We may speak of a musician's fingers or a
winemaker's nose, yet the resulting product is all the brain's doing, explained
Daniel Glaser, a neuroscientist who works at the Wellcome Trust, a philanthropic
organization devoted to health care based in London. "Of course you need a body to
dance," he said. "But as dancers transition from conscious awareness of a newly
acquired routine to the automatic performance of it, the brain is not doing any less

Glaser is one of a handful of neuroscientists who have studied dancers as a way to

understand the body's relationship to the brain, and vice versa, better. Because
classical ballet relies on certain discrete movements that a dancer must repeat
thousands of times throughout a career, the brains of dancers, it turns out, are
exquisitely sensitive to seeing movements they've rehearsed. If they see someone
performing an arabesque, for example, certain motor areas of their brains respond
as if they were themselves performing the step.

But before they get anywhere near muscle memory, dancers must first, as they like
to say, get the dance into their bodies. This was uppermost in the minds of Ballet
Theater's dancers last month as they prepared for the current Met season. Some
were learning new roles; others were refreshing their memory of works they had
already performed.

In one studio, Marcelo Gomes led David Hallberg, the company's newest principal
dancer, and his fellow principal Gillian Murphy through their opening entrance
and the pas de deux from Ashton's one-act "The Dream." The pair were to play the
regal fairies Oberon and Titania, and Gomes, who has danced only Oberon, knew
both parts. As they followed behind him, sketching his moves, Gomes gave a
master class in cognitive learning - or so it seemed to an outsider.

First he demonstrated each role, calling out verbal cues ("You look at the moon"),
ballet positions ("Put her in fourth") and movements ("You're doing bourrées and
saying 'no' at the same time"), and then described in more detail the impetus for
the movement ("As you back up, you're scheming, and we see it on your face"), all
the while humming the Mendelssohn score and counting the beats.

Within the hour they had learned most of it. The next day they rehearsed with the
ballet mistress, Georgina Parkinson, adjusting movements as she called out visual
images and described the intention of a particular moment. The 10-minute duet
requires great stamina, and the quality of any step can vary depending on its speed
and texture: fast, slow, honey or molasses.

Parkinson wanted to see more lushness and amplitude in the lovers' sensual
choreography. "You need to explode," she told Murphy, advising her to rely more
on her back muscles as she flitted her arms madly about. Hallberg, who does not
have Corella's gift of being able to learn steps from sight alone, looked on. "It's not
in my body yet," he said. "I'm just trying to get the feeling of it."

Where initially dancers see one move and then another, eventually they merge the
steps into phrases and then into longer sequences. Brain scientists refer to this
process as "chunking." Glaser likens it to learning to tie a shoelace. First you think
"left over right, right under left," and then you make a bow. But once you've learned
the steps, they become one seamless movement.

"What dancers are able to do, which you and I cannot," he said, "is to take a set of
those moves and turn that into one long phrase and then take a dozen of those
phrases and put them into one long movement."
Karen Bradley, a movement analyst who directs the graduate dance program at the
University of Maryland, said: "No two dancers chunk the same way. Some do it
rhythmically, some consider spatial configurations, some think about weight shifts,
some rely on imagery, and some follow an inner monologue."

After his third rehearsal for "The Dream" - about three hours of studio time -
Hallberg could run through the pas de deux with Murphy nonstop. "This means
that it's not only in the body," he said. "But it's nowhere near performance value.
Now you can add yourself into the performance." For that, the dancers rely on
Ballet Theater's coaches, many of whom have danced the works themselves and can
help the dancers create a performance that resonates with an audience.

"You work your muscle memory in rehearsal so that when you get onstage it's only
your brain and your emotions working," Corella said. "You don't think about what
the body is doing anymore. When I go into the wings, I can't remember what I've
done. I don't remember if my foot was pointed."

But not all dancers achieve this every time, he added: "They stay in the rehearsal
period. You can see that they're thinking if their leg is in the right place."

Scientists say motor learning like Corella's can actually be observed in the brain. To
know precisely where our bodies are in space at any given moment - an ability
called propioception - our brain receives signals about the length of each muscle
and the angle of each joint and "does a kind of mental trigonometry," said
Professor Patrick Haggard of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University
College, London. Haggard, who has measured the brain activity of ballet dancers
using brain scanners, observes that dancers "have better propioception than the
rest of us."

"Those brain signals seem to be of a particularly high quality in dancers," he said.