Rebecca Barnstaple to Present her Neurobiological Research in Dance Studies as Part of the Institute for Dance Studies (IDS) Practice Pop-Up Series

October 29, 2019 by Emily Allison

What does it mean to dance? A simple answer is that dance is a fleeting and ephemeral art form only existing in the moment. For Rebecca Barnstaple, a PhD student doing a joint degree between York University’s Dance Studies and Neuroscience Graduate Programs, dance represents the potential to enter a world where one is both in control over their agency, but also free to lose themselves in the pleasure of unrestricted self-expression.

“I have always felt that dance is a transformational practice, from my own experience and from the observation of groups I have worked with,” said Rebecca.

Rebecca will present her research on November 1st as part of the Institute for Dance Studies (IDS) Practice Pop-Up Series that began in 2017 by Drs. Xing Fan and Seika Boye and “offers an opportunity to explore infinite potentials of practice in dance studies. The Pop-Up Series welcomes and encourages creative definitions of, open interpretations of, and in-depth reflections of practice and invites proposals that ask questions that require bodies to answer.”

Rebecca’s presentation, Imaging Movement - Neurobiological Research in Dance Studies will delve into the infinite possibilities of dance studies, exploring the potential of dance beyond the frame of performance, which also reflects the IDS’s mandate. This special presentation is also an opportunity for Rebecca to share her research with other University of Toronto communities. The IDS is committed to advocating for the value of dance within research.

As a lifelong student of dance, Rebecca has an intimate fascination with the therapeutic capabilities of dance, which she is exploring in her research. “If we consider that any instance of dance, whether performative or cultural, requires a commitment on the part of the dancer to learn and train, it is evident that dancing has an effect that extends beyond the moment of its production,” said Rebecca. “Dancing changes us, and it is this trace, which I seek to investigate and define through biological research.”

If you have ever taken a dance class, it becomes apparent that dance not only asks for the physical manipulation of the body, but also for mental balance and concentration. This is what Rebecca describes as the “multimodal and complex” character of dance, as it “involves physical and cognitive coordination, uniting motor control with memory, attention, and artistry.” This realization has assisted Rebecca in her neurobiological research, as her goal is to discover how dance can combat conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The symptoms of these conditions may affect one’s memory, mood, or ability to move and independently carry out daily tasks. Although there is no cure for either of these diseases, Rebecca believes dance’s multimodal complexity “provides a potent environment for health and healing; it mobilises all our faculties while challenging us on so many levels.”

Although Rebecca’s impressive biological research may suggest she has always been focused on the scientific underpinnings of dance, her BA in theatre studies demonstrates how multifaceted her understanding of dance is. For CDTPS students, the inclusion of dance numbers in productions is far from outlandish, but are the characteristics of dance really so distinct from those of movement in performance According to Rebecca, “The body is the instrument of both, and performing either theatre or dance requires extensive training in body techniques. Fundamentally, these disciplines explore and experiment with the basic condition of humanity: having a body that finds itself in situations of varying degrees of complexity. In many ways, both are an exploration of degrees of freedom — what is possible in a given environment.”

CDTPS students more commonly have access to the benefits of bodily expression — their productions, verbal, emotional, and physical performances allow the body to experience a release. . However, experiencing the benefits of dance are not exclusive or restricted to CDTPS students. University students often sit in the silence and confinement of classrooms and libraries, engaging in intellectually draining work that can take a toll on mental health. In this way, the therapeutic abilities of dance may provide students with a creative and socially engaging outlet for mental challenges such as loneliness, anxiety, and feelings of powerlessness.

“Participating in dance pushes us to learn new ways of moving, offering a sense of control, agency, and eventual mastery,” said Rebecca. “Dancing is a great way to get in touch with the fundamental ground of existence that is your body, and what it can do. Dance provides opportunities to move together with others creatively, expressively, finding pleasure and enjoyment.”

Dance may sometimes seem indistinguishable from other forms of physical exercise or therapy. However, one cannot interpret dance at its face value as an outsider looking in — truly understanding dance is experiencing it. Rebecca, as an academic researcher and lifelong dancer, interprets dance as, “an exploration of, and interaction with, the fundamental aspects of our embodiment of time and space, and our agency in relation to these. Dancing is more than movement — it is not just the what, it is the how. From a more ontological perspective, dance is a form of worldmaking. All dance occurs in, and refers to, a world, whether that be related to culture, style, movement or musical choices, or imagery. To dance is to speak to, and of, a world we inhabit, however temporarily and this is the basis for the transformational nature of dance.”

The IDS Practice Pop-Up Series with Rebecca Barnstaple will take place on November 1st from 3 to 4:30pm at the Performance Studio in the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse at 79 St. George Street. For questions about Rebecca’s presentation or the Institute for Dance Studies contact

Visit the CDTPS events page to learn more about this event. 

Emily Allison is a third-year student at the University of Toronto working on her degree in political science and minoring in sociology and communications. Emily is passionate about writing and currently works at the CDTPS as a Communications and Events Assistant.