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Ballet Fans Truly Know How to Feel the Moves

reposted from New York Times Science

Ballet lovers may “truly feel that they are dancing” when they watch a performance, researchers have found after measuring the brain activity of experienced spectators.

In findings published in the current issue of the journal PLoS One, the scientists report that the spectators showed muscle-specific responses in their brain as if they were expert dancers — even though “they were clearly not capable of doing the actual movements,” in the words of one author, Corinne Jola, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Surrey in England.

The researchers focused their work on a muscle called the extensor carpi radialis, which connects the upper arm to the hand. It is one that ballet dancers presumably rely on, Dr. Jola said.

They used a method called transcranial magnetic stimulation to measure brain activity in the dance spectators.

They also studied the brain activity of experienced spectators of the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam. That dance uses intricate hand gestures, so they measured responses of muscles in the fingers.

But with the Indian dance form, there was no muscle-specific motor response, Dr. Jola said.

It’s not clear why this is so, but it may have to do with differences in the styles of dance, she said.

“Ballet dance is a formal dance form,” she said. “Indian dance, though it is classical, has a lot of gestural actions, so you may have the feeling that you easily understand the narrative through this.”

Also, the Indian dance spectators, though experienced, often saw the dance performed in more casual settings — on television, or at parties, Dr. Jola said.

Ballet, on the other hand, is most often enjoyed live. A set-up with live dance may not have accurately simulated what Indian dance spectators are used to.

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(image by Chris Gash)

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