Ballet on the stage and brain

I recently attended a performance of the Swan Lake ballet by the Universal Ballet of Seoul at the Palais des Congrès in Paris. While watching the ballerinas execute perfect pirouettes and fouettes, all I could do was watch in amazement as I remembered my struggle to even do adequate double turns in ballet class. It was not just me either; it seemed that everyone in the audience was just as enthralled at every dizzying turn and every gravity defying leap. When the performance concluded, the applause reverberated around the hall as the principal ballerinas bowed repeatedly. This moment of collective audience admiration made me think of a moment that contrasted dramatically. In Paris of 1913 at the opening performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with an accompanying ballet performance, audience members were so shocked at the strange, stamping movements that they began to riot. While we mainly discussed the auditory elements of the performance in class, it was actually the dance choreography that provoked the scandal (Chua, 2007). I wondered what made people react positively or negatively to dance and whether there was a science behind this.

Graceful and well-balanced ballerinas from Swan Lake


A 2012 neuroimaging study investigated the brain responses to dance that one perceives as aesthetically pleasing vs unpleasing. The images demonstrated that the active engagement of sensorimotor brain areas, which are those covering the primary sensory and motor areas of the brain, is more implicated with observing dance movements perceived as pleasing. This suggested that the motor system plays a role in the appreciation and enjoyment of dance (Cross and Ticini, 2012). This link between motor system and aesthetic perception was further investigated in a 2015 study by Kirsch et al. of how motor familiarity relates to a viewer’s aesthetic appraisal of it. Twenty-two participants were trained for 4 days with difference dance sequences. Every day they had to physically rehearse one set of sequences, just passively watch a second set, listen to the music of the third set, and were unexposed to a fourth set. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, which detects brain activity based on blood flow in areas of the brain, was obtained prior to and directly after training as participants watched videos of dance stimuli videos. They were then asked to aesthetically rate the observed dance (“How much did you like the movement you just watched”) and also to assess their physical ability to reproduce the movement (“How well could you reproduce the movement you just watched?). Results indicated that participants reported increased enjoyment for movements they had themselves physically practiced or even just passively observed for four days. The left superior temporal gyrus (STG), which is important in the interaction of the auditory and motor system, had the most change in activation, suggesting that STG activation may reflect how auditory, visual, and motor experience become associated with each other to produce a more enjoyable experience. These results also suggested that with increased exposure to a movement sequence, whether it be through physical performance or just listening to the soundtrack, people reported greater aesthetic perception of the dance movements (Kirsch et al., 2015).

A potential confounding variable I thought of after reading about this experiment was their use of only hip-hop dance and pop songs. I think the personal feelings people may have regarding this genre of dance and music may influence the degree of activation in the brain. For future directions, I believe that it would be interesting to look into a variety of dance styles and music for greater confidence that results are accurate. As a future direction, I wonder whether they’d be able to stimulate the STG to create greater preference for certain dance movements over others. This would indicate the STG plays a role in creating pleasant experiences linked to watching dance.

Area lit up in image on the left shows the STG where brain activation corresponds to increased liking


This finding of how perception of dance is influenced by what people are exposed to was investigated in another study that looked at how ballet has evolved between the 1960s to 2000s. The same ballet poses were extracted from productions of The Sleeping Beauty and transformed into a standardized form of either stick figures based on principal body segments or quadrilateral shapes which connected the endpoints of each limb. Twelve dance naïve volunteers, meaning without significant experience of performing or attending dance, viewed the stick figure and polygon images and then judged which images they preferred. Results showed that there was a significant tendency for production year and aesthetic evaluation to be correlated, meaning subjects were most likely to prefer the forms from the most recent ballet production possibly due to inadvertent exposure to media within their culture (Daprati et al., 2009).


The standardized forms (B) shown to subjects based on ballerina (A)

All in all, I think that the research into dance preference can serve to inform us about why the audience reacted so vehemently to the performance of Rite of Spring all those years ago; they had never been exposed to such a form of dance before and were not comfortable with how dance was being represented on stage as much of our aesthetic perception comes from what we have seen or been exposed to before. Perhaps this is why as modern performances became more commonplace, the Rite of Spring became an iconic performance that was replicated countless times to audiences that began to applaud instead of riot.




Chua, D.K.L. (2007) Rioting with Stravinsky: a Particular Analysis of the Rite of Spring. Music Analysis, 26, 59-109.

Cross, E.S. & Ticini, L.F. (2012) Neuroaesthetics and beyond: new horizons in applying the science of the brain to the art of dance. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11, 5-16.

Daprati, E., Iosa, M. & Haggard, P. (2009) A Dance to the Music of Time: Aesthetically Relevant Changes in Body Posture in Performing Art. PLOS ONE, 4, e5023.

Kirsch, L.P., Dawson, K. & Cross, E.S. (2015) Dance experience sculpts aesthetic perception and related brain circuits. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1337, 130-139.

Image 1:

Image 2: Kirsch et al., 2015

Image 3: Daprati et al., 2009

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