Research explores the role of music in ballet dancers' experience of flow

Posted on July 29, 2016

A research interest in the concept of the well-being of performers led Dr Clorinda Panebianco, senior lecturer in the Department of Music, to conduct a qualitative study with professional ballet dancers to investigate the role of music in their experience of flow.  

Dr Panebianco explains that the study started about four years ago. 'My daughter is a ballet dancer and I also started ballet lessons as an adult beginner. I was intrigued by the movement to music in standard ballet exercises and by the varied musical interpretations by the teacher and other dancers. This led me to ask the question, 'What role does music training play in the experience that ballet dancers have of the art form, which is virtually completely dependent on responding to and interpreting music and timing?'

She coupled this with the concept of flow, which is an optimal performance experience. She was curious as to how dancers with musical training experience this 'altered state of consciousness' while simultaneously processing both complex, physically embodied movement and music. Her curiosity is grounded in music psychology research – specifically music and neuroscience, psychology of performance, and talent development – which has shown that, over time, musical training structurally and functionally alters a musician's brain.

During her research, Dr Panebianco interviewed professional ballet dancers from the Johannesburg Ballet Theatre and the Cape Town City Ballet. Her data collection took place during major productions so that the dancers could draw on recent experience to describe the phenomenon.

The findings were fascinating, albeit preliminary. 'In short, I found that ballet dancers generally experience dimensions of flow in a similar way to elite athletes in gymnastics, figure skating and athletics, but the results also suggest that ballet dancers with musical training experienced flow more intensely, and more frequently than those without music training. The correlation between musical training and flow, however, needs further investigation.'

The results of the study were presented at an international conference in Korea and published in a local journal. Dr Panebianco now plans to explore these findings in more depth by including a quantitative, standardised flow scale, which she hopes to administer to local professional ballet dancers, as well as dancers from leading international ballet companies. She also wants to investigate the phenomenon of flow and its correlation with health behaviours in undergraduate music students. 


- Author Faculty of Humanities

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