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Everyday Poise: A Dancer’s Resistance to Dizziness

by Ellen on September 15th, 2016

Last week we discussed the vestibular apparatus, and how the structures of the inner ear help us to sense the motion of the head in relationship to the rest of the body and to gravity. Today we’re going to look at a highly-specialized use of the vestibular apparatus, in the form of the dance technique known as ‘spotting.’

For starters, take a look at ballet virtuoso Gillian Murphy doing a classical ballet trick known as “32 fouettes.”

The 32 fouettes are a staple in almost every classical ballet. The reason, at least according to legend, is that the ballerina who invented the technique of ‘spotting’ was the principal dancer in one of the largest ballet companies at the time. She was the only person able to complete these turns without getting dizzy and falling over, and the resident choreographer of her company (who is responsible for most of the classical ballet repertoire of today) was so impressed with her ability to turn without dizziness that he put the fouettes into every one of his ballets, just to let her show them off. And of course, that means every ballerina of today has to learn this once-impossible trick!

‘Spotting’ as a technique involves fixing the gaze on a specific object for as long as possible, leaving the head stationary while the body rotates below it. When flexibility of the neck does not allow for any more rotation, the head is quickly snapped around to the other side of the body and the eyes find the same object in advance of the body rejoining the head at the end. Watch the video again, and pay attention to Murphy’s head in relation to her body. You’ll see her head spends much of its time facing the audience with brief jerks of quick movement, while her body moves at a consistent speed.

The reason spotting works is because of the nature of the vestibular apparatus. By holding the head relatively still as long as possible, the dancer minimizes the sloshing of the fluid in the vestibular structures. Minimal slosh equates to minimal sensation of movement, which translates to minimal perception of being off-balance (more so if the dancer is successful at remaining poised over her supporting leg so that there is little to no lateral shift as well).

But that might not be all. A study from 2013 published in the journal Cerebral Cortex suggests that in addition to decreasing the sensory feedback from the vestibular apparatus, dancers may actually be training their brains to selectively ignore that feedback, causing their vestibular sense to effectively shut off in very specific ways. When spun around in a chair in a dark room and then asked to wind a handle in time with how quickly they felt they were still spinning after they were stopped, the dancers’ eye reflexes and perceptions of spinning stopped more quickly than those of non-dancers. The study also found, through brain scans, that the area of the cerebellum responsible for processing vestibular sensory input was smaller in dancers than in non-dancers.

The AT teacher in me sees this as a fascinating example of the mind/body connection, in a reversed relationship than we usually think about. This is the body influencing the mind on an anatomical scale. The dancer in me finds it fascinating that we have trained ourselves to ignore our vestibular sense in very particular ways, and is curious to look for other contexts in which we ignore our vestibular sense.

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

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