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Psychology alumna raises the bar on health initiatives at Canada’s National Ballet School

Rachel Bar

Rachel Bar (Photo Credit: Sanjeev Kugan)

When professional dancer Rachel Bar decided to hang up her ballet shoes, she did not step away from dance altogether. She went on to study psychology, pursuing her Master of Arts (’15) and PhD (’20) at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), and now uses her knowledge in her role as the director of research and health at Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS).

Supporting the health and wellness of dancers

Bar, who graduated from NBS’s Professional Ballet Program and danced professionally, knew she wanted to study psychology, but didn’t know that she would return to dance. “As I had the opportunity and curiosity to explore research, that’s where I started to focus a bit more on dancer populations,” she said. “It’s what I know, and I also had a lot of questions about how what I was learning in school applied to what my experience had been, because the life of a dancer is quite intense and unique.” 

Her master’s thesis at TMU looked at eating disorder prevention in dancers and the long-term effects of these initiatives. Bar uses her learnings in her role managing the Artistic Health Department at NBS. Her team supports the health and wellness of the professional dance students who train there, helping them with access to on-site health-care professionals and navigating the health-care system outside of the school.

“The way that we support the students is more integrated now,” Bar said. “Dancers have very distinct needs, so to bring in health-care providers that can support them has been a big asset for the school.”

Exploring the benefits of dance for older adults

As a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient (external link, opens in new window)  (external link) , Bar’s research at TMU also explored the benefits of dance for older adults, including people living with Parkinson’s disease and people living with dementia. She continues to investigate this area in her other role at NBS, which is leading its research initiatives.

Bar’s initial research looked at the physical benefits of dance in people with Parkinson’s disease, such as improving balance, gait and posture, and later examined some of the emotional and social benefits.

She was also part of the group of artists, in partnership with Baycrest, who developed the Sharing Dance Older Adults (external link, opens in new window)  (external link)  at NBS — a safe, accessible program that engages older adults in meaningful dance activity. This led to a project that looked at how dance supports the social inclusion of people living with dementia and their carers. “Dance is something that they can do together,” she said. “Not as one caring for the other, but just as two people having fun.”

Bar says that this research helped drive the development of NBS programs and support why they need to make them a priority as a national arts organization. “How do we make what we do, what we know best, accessible? That’s been a big focus, and NBS has really committed to that,” she said. 

Sharing research findings

One research finding that Bar describes as both profound and unexpected was how dance can challenge dementia-related stigma. “People assume that if you have dementia, you’re the disease, not the person,” she said. 

“What we found though was carers began to see things in people living with dementia when they danced,” Bar explained. “We would get comments like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know she could move like that.’ It really speaks to these unconscious assumptions we make, that because somebody has dementia, they can’t be silly or experience joy, but that’s obviously not true.” 

Bar and her NBS team have shared their findings in a short documentary they created called “Dancer not Dementia (external link, opens in new window)  (external link) ,” funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada. “The film got a lot of attention, and we are now looking at whether it was an effective way to help challenge dementia-related stigma,” she said. 

As a former dancer, Bar noted, “I know what joy dance can bring. I’ve known that since I was a little kid, and that’s probably why I went into it. But it helps to disseminate it to different knowledge users.” 

Learnings from TMU

Bar is thankful for her time and experience at TMU for getting her to this point in her career. “I had two children when I was in graduate school, which extended my time at TMU, and I was met with an enormous amount of support and encouragement,” she said. “There was a real openness to make things work, which I really appreciated.” 

She adds that all of her psychology professors brought integrity to the learning. “I think in graduate school, you want that opportunity to have real conversations and real learning, because you realize that this is what I’m going to have to go out into the world to do if I’m going to work in this area. And I feel that’s what I had at TMU.”


The original version of this article was published in TorontoMet Today on October 17, 2023.