A recent research study from Switzerland explored how ballet dancers manage to make so many turns in a row. They discovered that not only does it help them to try to keep their head still and forward as much as possible, they turn better if they have a visual reference to keep their eyes on.
Experienced ballet dancers don’t just do a single pirouette turn, but they can rapidly turn several times in a row. These types of turns are called “Fouetté” or “à la Seconde”. They’re slightly different but both involve multiple rapid turns in a row.. It’s inevitable that during these repeated turns the dancers shift a bit to keep their balance, but that they’re able to do it at all is a remarkable feat. In an older research study researchers in Sweden and Norway tried to program a robot to do similar turns and realized that it was much more complicated than simply repeating a single turn.
For the dancers, the goal is to keep in the same place as much as possible and to continue to face forward after the completion of every turn. One trick they use to ground themselves to their starting location is called “spotting”.
To spot while doing a turn in ballet, the dancer starts by looking at the wall in front of them (or another visual cue). They then hold their head still and keep making eye contact with that reference point while they start the turn. Once they’ve turned so far that their head can’t stay in that forward-facing position any longer, they quickly whip their head around in the direction of the turn and immediately face forward again, focused on the same spot, while their body finishes the turn.
But how important is it to have a clear visual reference point when spotting? Can’t dancers just keep their head forward as long as possible without keeping their eyes on a fixed spot? That’s what researchers at the University of Bern tried to find out.
They recruited 12 expert dancers (8 men and 4 women) and asked them to perform a series of repeated turns for them. The men did twelve à la Seconde turns followed by a double pirouette and the women started with a double pirouette followed by twelve Fouetté turns. All of them first did this exercise in front of a white wall with no obvious visual reference points they could use for spotting. They were then asked to do it again, but this time a camera was filming them from the front. Unbeknownst to the dancers, this camera wasn’t just put there to film, but to give them a clear visual reference point that they could use for spotting.
The researchers then compared several measurements between the repeated turns done with or without a reference point. They discovered that when the dancers had a clear spot on the wall that they could keep their eyes on, they were better able to hold their balance and to face the front after every turn. The more turns they took, the more important the visual spotting reference was. That’s why the researchers also suggested in their paper that theaters and dance studios should make sure there’s a visual reference point to help the dancers.
So all it takes for ballet dancers to improve their performance on consecutive turns is a little spot on the wall for them to focus on. It’s a trick that many ballet dancers already intuitively use, but now there is research to back it up.