AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 29, Number 1, 2020


Dance and Neurosurgery: Parallels in Art and Science

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The reader may be surprised to find dance highlighted amongst other sports. At first pass, the mention of dance might conjure thoughts of tutus and sugar plum fairies. Many consider a sport to not only involve athleticism, but also a team, a ball and maybe a field or court. The modern world of dance is an intersection between athleticism and performance art. There is physical prowess, requisite technical mastery and competitions abound in the dance scene. 

Ballet as Passion

I started training in classical ballet “late” by the usual standards – at age seven, rather than the traditional age three. My formal training involved four or five classes and rehearsals per week for several hours each. I auditioned for a pre-professional ballet company at age 13, starting with a year as an apprentice in the company – the ballet equivalent of applying for residency and starting intern year. Eventually, as my interests evolved, I explored jazz dance, high school and college level dance teams and ballroom dance. 

Ballet was my passion as a child, and I obsessively read dance books, watched videos and practiced at home. I was dedicated to the art of movement and the science of bettering my technique. Dancers suffer from a fanatical competition with themselves and, admittedly, also with their peers. Many of us in neurosurgery are similarly self-critical, constantly striving to better ourselves compared to a perfect ideal of technique and outcomes – though formalized competitions are rare. Private dance competitions are hosted by numerous organizations across the world for dancers at all levels and genres. Though seemingly disparate, there are similarities abound between the world of dance and neurosurgery – both are fusions of art and science. 

Art and Science in Ballet

The artistic part of dance is readily apparent. The dancer’s movement tells a story and conveys emotion. The science of dance is largely physics coupled with neurobiology.

  • How does one rotate on a single leg for a turn without falling or becoming vertiginous?
  • What degree of anteropulsion or retropulsion will be tolerated without losing balance en pointe?

In the modern era, professional dance companies, like the Royal Ballet of the Royal Opera House in London, employ teams of scientists to support their dancers. In this highly regarded ballet company, dancers are suffering an average of 6.8 injuries per year, which is comparable to other professional sports, like football. The company now seeks to use force-sensing platforms, EMG, cardiac monitors and oximeters to both protect dancers from injury and to increase their athleticism.  

Art and Science in Neurosurgery

In contrast, the scientific aspects of neurosurgery are obvious. But once the science of diagnosis, evidence-based treatment and technical aspects of the case are complete, the art of caring for the human takes the stage. The art lies in the human experience as we meet another person in their moment of need and in how we creatively adapt to an unpredictable environment in the operating theater.

Training for Optimal Performance

A lifetime of training goes into each singular dance performance or into each procedure in the operating room. The steps in the procedure or the dance might be routine, seemingly simple after years of practice. Repetition of the movements imprints into motor pathways, and pattern recognition prompts anticipation of problems. In dance and in surgery, conveying a sense of ease in the midst of a challenge conveys to our audience, whether the public ready to be entertained or the team we lead in caring for a patient, that we are professional and capable. The goals are constant – to be stronger, technically perfect, “textbook” and make it look easy. Professional dancers begin each day with a technique class to practice the fundamentals and to chase the perfect ideal. As neurosurgeons, we sharpen our practice with self study, review of the latest literature and educational courses throughout our careers.  

While pirouettes are ill-tolerated in the operative theater, years of dance training informed my approach to neurosurgery by shaping a sense of dedication to one’s craft and intolerance for the status quo. When all else fails, go back to the barre – or the textbook, the lab, the operative theater – to revisit the fundamentals and rediscover the joy of the art. 

Further Reading

Bailey, M. (2018, July 15). Raising the barre: How science is saving ballet dancers.


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