Explore / The brain / Starting Young

September 2001

Last week, I went down to Bristol, to visit 'Explore'. Built with Millennium lottery money and opened last year, it's an interactive exhibition centred around four themes: the power of movement, the forces of nature, the digital revolution and the human brain. The things I discovered were fascinating: did you know, for instance, that all the eggs necessary to create the earth's 6000 million people could be packed into a single shoe box? Or that the average brain has around 100 000 000 000 brain cells? That's more individual cells than the number of years since the dinosaurs walked the earth. (Or something like that – it was hard to take it all in.)

I'm becoming increasingly interested in my brain. It all started when I was rehearsing Vaslav Nijinsky's 'Jeux', trying to retrain my body into unfamiliar positions antithetical to classical ballet. I know dancers are supposed not to have a brain, but the more I delve into it, the more I realise that, in fact, the brain is just as important as the body when it comes to producing the feats of movement we call dancing. It's not just the ability to remember all those complicated steps. None of the smooth control, the speedy footwork, or the ability to coordinate the movement of arms, legs and head in different directions all at the same time would be possible without highly refined neural pathways sending super efficient and pin point precise messages to the muscles. But something else I discovered in Bristol set me thinking. Brain cells reach their numerical peak at around the age of six. From then on, their numbers start to decline. So if you want to develop the sort of motor skills necessary for world class ballet dancers, or concert pianists, for that matter, you have to start young. Add in the fact that the potential for extreme flexibility (another absolute must for ballet dancers) diminishes beyond school years and you begin to realise that for pre-pubescent wannabe ballerinas, once a week ballet lessons are not just a bit of fun. They're a downright necessity.

Which brings me to my point. Like most little girls who want to be ballerinas, I started to dance at the age of seven. Some of the ballerinas I've rubbed shoulders with since began much younger – five, four, even three. I've come across late-starter males, but until recently, men have been in short supply and besides, they aren't generally required to be quite as flexible as the ladies. I can't instantly call to mind a single professional female ballet dancer who started her training beyond single figures.

If you're hoping to make it your career, ballet – or music, or gymnastics - demands an adult commitment at a very early age. To be up there among the greats, would-be ballerinas have to make life decisions at a time when they're not capable of choosing between teddy bears. And it's not going to get better. As technical standards go up and up, starting ages will go down and down. In gymnastics, the Federation Intemationale Gymnastique tried to put the brakes on in 1997 when they realised that every so-called 'women's' champion was only fifteen. But although they raised the minimum age limit for international competition to 16, they didn't impose a ban on starting young. So some gymnasts still begin training at three and four years old. They just wait a bit longer to start competing internationally.

There is, of course, another way, and it's the old fashioned one. Encourage children to enjoy a variety of activities which build a range of mental and physical skills: dancing, a musical instrument, bike-riding as well as games which challenge the intellect. That way, they would develop general skills of coordination, rhythm, balance, flexibility and problem solving, but they would also keep their options open until they are in a position to choose what they would really like to do with their lives.

Of course, it wouldn't produce world beaters, but I'm beginning to wonder if it might not be a more reasonable approach.