It is 2023, I am sitting in my living room in London, as a 23-year-old mental health researcher, and I am scrolling on Instagram. I see a post from my ballet school about their yearly student auditions, and I am immediately transported back to 2005, in Mumbai.
I have vivid recollections of 5-year-old me telling my parents that I wanted to start ballet lessons. Even though ballet was still an up-and-coming dance form in India, we began our search for classes. A few rounds of auditions later, I was enrolled in the first ballet school in India, The School of Classical Ballet and Western Dance, a place that would shape me, give me some of the most wonderful memories and most of all, teach me some of the most important life skills I carry with me even today. Above all, I was lucky to have been taught by the wonderful Tushna and Khushcheher Dallas, the Founders and Directors of the school and my other amazing teachers.
I have written this piece as a reflection of my journey through 15 years of ballet, for the occasion of World Ballet Day, celebrated on the 1st of November this year. The celebration of this day marks it’s 10th year in 2023, and allows viewers all over the world to watch the work of leading dance companies across the world (you can get access for free to this content here). Today, I hope to share with you a glimpse into the life lessons which ballet taught me, that I keep with me to this day.
Discipline and commitment go a long way
I must admit, the girls in my grade and I had the reputation of being quite a naughty bunch to teach. However, while it didn’t seem so in the moment, the discipline that was instilled in us went a long way, and subconsciously to this day, it has seeped into my work ethic, which I am happy to say I am proud of.
Ballet also taught me the concept of commitment. As I advanced from grade to grade, ballet routines got harder, and I was simultaneously adapting to more intense workloads from high school. I took a break from ballet for a year while I prepared for the dreaded Standard 10 high school exams, but the following year, I jumped right back into dancing.
The pointe milestone
Every young child starting ballet someday sees themselves standing on their "tippy toes", that is, being "en pointe (a position in which the body is balanced on the extreme tip of the toe, wearing special pointe shoes)." This is a major career milestone for someone learning ballet, this happened 13 years after I started ballet, when I was 18. The day my pointe shoes arrived, I sat with them and had a few mindful moments, reflecting on how these shoes were a symbol of how far I'd come, and what I'd learnt along the way. And even though I don’t dance any more in London, I have carried my pointe shoes with me. They serve me as a reminder that consistency, passion, and hard work will help me to achieve my goals.
My go-to during the COVID-19 lockdowns
When COVID-19 hit, my ballet lessons moved online. Though my space was limited, and I had my bedroom instead of a large studio for adage sequences, my bi-weekly classes on Zoom were my outlet, breaking the monotony of staying at home and watching Netflix. Getting into my leotard, tights, and shoes, and seeing my teacher and peers — though through a screen — helped me in more ways than one. Above all, we had the chance to understand our bodies better, and it was during this time that I felt my most confident and most flexible, as I was committed to being proud of getting closer to my fitness goals.
The story of friendship
I have waited until this moment to tell you that I haven’t been alone in my ballet journey. My best friend and I began our journeys together as 5-year-olds, looking up to all the older ballerinas in our school, twinkly-eyed, aspiring to be as graceful as them. And now, as adults, when we look back, we fondly remember the car rides to and from class, which brought us even closer. We've laughed, we've cried, we've listened to our favourite songs, and it is these memories that I will always remember.
A little bit of science
Upon reflection, I have come to realise that ballet taught me a set of transferrable skills I use in my work as a researcher. The perseverance, attention to details, and teamwork I learnt through dance allow me to keep going whenever I face a roadblock in my work (particularly with statistical software!), and all in all, shape me to be a better researcher.
I will now shift the gears a little bit and wear my researcher’s hat to share with you the research that exists linking dance with mental health. One arm of the Scaling-up Health Arts Programmes: Implementation and Effectiveness Research (SHAPER) study is the Dance for Parkinson’s programme, which involves a 12-week programme developed by the English National Ballet and researchers from King’s College London and University College London. This study aims to investigate the application of ballet as an adjunctive therapy for Parkinson’s (you can learn more about the SHAPER study here).
In addition to Dance for Parkinson’s, numerous research exists on the effectiveness of Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) on physical and mental health conditions. For example, this 2014 meta-analysis found that DMT interventions led to moderate improvements in quality of life, and body image, and also highlighted the decrease in the level of depressive and anxiety symptomology. In addition, studies have shown the effect of DMT on biomarkers such as cortisol (one of the stress hormones in our body, and one of the most studied biomarkers investigated in the context of stress and mental health). For example, this 2019 randomised study found that healthy older adults who participated in DMT sessions three times a week for three months had lower values of cortisol (meaning that participants had lower levels of stress) as measured from saliva collections compared with participants who engaged in aerobic exercise (a form of physical exercise which makes use of our body's large muscle groups, and is rhythmic) and those who were part of the waitlist control groups.
Where am I on my journey today, you may ask?
I have now hung up my ballet shoes, and, while I have bid farewell to the active learning of ballet which has always been part of my life, I am incredibly grateful for the life lessons it has taught me. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been an integral part of my journey, especially all the teachers and staff at my ballet school. This piece is dedicated to each of you, and I hope this goes on to show the level of impact they have had as pioneers of classical ballet in India.