Can Ballet Teach Wisdom?

Can Ballet Teach Wisdom?

A new study suggests that classical ballet might lead to increased wisdom in much the same way as meditation does.

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We associate wisdom with meditation, and ballet with tutus and aching feet. But a new study suggests that classical ballet might lead to increased wisdom in much the same way as meditation does.

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology looked at the kinds of experiences that are related to increases in wisdom, looking at somatic practices. Somatics is a field of movement studies where the focus is on internal perception. For this study, that included the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, classical ballet, and meditation. This study was unique because previous studies have not “examined whether physical practices are linked to the cultivation of personal wisdom, nor have they theorized that this association might exist,” the study stated.

“As we learn more about the kinds of experiences that are related to wisdom, we can gain insight into ways of studying the mechanisms that mediate wisdom,” wrote Howard Nusbaum, a professor of psychology involved in the study. “This also lets us shift from thinking about wisdom as something like a talent to thinking about it as something more like a skill,” he said. “And if we think about wisdom as a skill, it is something we can always get better at, if we know how to practice.”

Participants were surveyed on how long they had practiced their somatic activities, both in number of years and hours of practice per week, and about characteristics involving aspects of wisdom, such as empathy and anxiety.

Those who practiced meditation—vipassana, mindfulness, Buddhist and other styles—scored highest on the wisdom scale. Ballet practitioners had the lowest levels of wisdom; however, the more they practiced ballet, the higher they scored on the measures of the psychological traits that are associated with wisdom.

The researchers were surprised, as they had included ballet in the study “not expecting to find that it was associated with wisdom, but rather for comparison purposes,” wrote Patrick B. Williams, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology. “The link between ballet and wisdom is mysterious to us and something that we’re already investigating further.” This includes ongoing studies with adult practitioners of ballet, as well as among novices training at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet. Williams wants to track novices and seasoned practitioners of both meditation and ballet for months and years to see whether the association holds up over time.

If somatic practices can indeed lead to more wisdom, the study concludes, “their applications should be explored across settings such as in the classroom or workplace with the goal of creating not only wiser people but also a wiser society.”

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!

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