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All the right moves

Grad student, Dance Ensemble combine art and research

Does dancing change the way we think? For countless centuries, human societies have used dance-from the Catalan saradana, to Hopi rain ceremonies, to American Shaker dances, to the all-night Raves of the nineties-to build a sense of community and reach higher states of consciousness. And dancers themselves spend countless hours mastering intricate steps and complex patterns and rhythms.

Dartmouth Dance Ensemble members Mary Chris DeBelina '05 and graduate student Emily Cross
Dartmouth Dance Ensemble members Mary Chris DeBelina '05 and graduate student Emily Cross (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Does this leave measurable changes in the brain? Emily S. Cross, a Dartmouth graduate student in Psychology and Brain Sciences, has been working with student dancers from the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble to answer this question. Cross has been researching the dancers as they master Sky Light, a demanding 25-minute work by the distinguished American choreographer Laura Dean for their upcoming spring concert, Amplitude.

"The purpose of study is to investigate changes that occur in the brains of dancers as they learn difficult movement sequences," said Cross, who is conducting her research in the Lab of Action at Dartmouth's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. "Because brain activation is associated with changes in blood flow, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which measures changes in blood flow over time, can be used to learn more about brain processing."

The Dartmouth dancers had an fMRI scan of their brains taken once a week for 20 to 30 minutes over six consecutive weeks of the rehearsal process. During each of the scanning sessions, they watched the same 36 five-second movie clips of their instructor performing either movements taken from Sky Light or improvised movements not related to the Sky Light choreography. The lab research took place from the middle of October to the end of November 2004, as the dancers learned the piece.

In her study of the dancers' fMRI scans, Cross looked at brain areas responsible for thinking through movements and actions. She hypothesized that the dancers would show different types of brain activity when watching movements they were learning in rehearsal than when they watched improvised dance movements they were not attempting to master.

"My prediction is that brain areas involved in action planning and execution will demonstrate distinct patterns of activation," explained Cross, "depending on whether the observed movement is from Sky Light or is movement the dancers are not currently rehearsing. Additionally, I expect the distinction between these two patterns of brain activation to become more pronounced over the six weeks of testing."

In other words, if Cross' theory is borne out by her research, she will have shown that dancing really does change the way our brains work. If she is right, dancers' brains will automatically pick out and respond to movements they are learning themselves and the responses will grow as they master the material.

The use of Sky Light (1982), one of Laura Dean's most admired works, is an interesting choice as the basis for a brain study. "As one of the dancers in the Ensemble," Cross said, "I am very vested in the piece. When we began rehearsals, I was struck with how irregular and difficult the piece was. Motor control studies are usually done with very simple movements, like bending a finger. As someone who has danced for years and years, I was more interested in how the body observes and produces more complex movements.

"Laura Dean's style is one of the most challenging I've worked with personally. The counts are very different from what you usually find in ballet or modern dance. At first, in rehearsal, we were baffled over the unusual counts and the changes of time signature.

"I was just sure that as we drilled the movements every day and the piece began to make sense, brain changes were taking place. So I spoke to my advisor,   Scott Grafton, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Director of the Dartmouth Brain Imaging Center, and he said, 'Go ahead and do a study.'"

One of America's leading modern choreographers, Laura Dean studied at the School of American Ballet in New York and worked with a number of distinguished modern choreographers. She began choreographing on her own in the late 1960s. 

Sky Light begins with a consecration ceremony in which dancers enter one at a time to perform a salutation to each of the four directions. Dance critic Marilyn Hunt has called the result "the dance equivalent of world music, because it works with the universal, basic building blocks of dance." Hunt finds the essence of Dean's style in "the simple repeated steps, geometric floor patterns and sense of community."

Dean, who disbanded her own ensemble in 2000, now choreographs for other groups, including the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and even ice dance companies. 

As Cross analyzes her data from her Sky Light study, she is sure she will find many surprises. "It's fun to speculate where this sort of research might lead," she says. "For a dancer or athlete, just watching practice or rehearsal may affect the brain in different ways from other people-in a kind of mental rehearsal."

If dance is like music, dancers may have distinctive brain patterns, just as brain research has shown trained musicians do. "We might be able to watch a person's brain activation patterns while they are watching dance and say, 'Yep, that person is a dancer' because their brain is making a lot of sense of the movement."

Sky Light will appear in the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble's Amplitude: Winter Concert, to be performed on Friday, March 4 and Saturday, March 5, at 8 p.m. in the Moore Theater, Hopkins Center. Tickets are $12, Dartmouth students $3, all other students $5. Call 646-2422 for ticket information.

By PETER WALSH

Last Updated: 9/13/13