Why do people dance?
And what makes some more confident than others?
Dr Dance has the answers
The office party is in full swing, you've knocked back a few glasses of bubbly and edged on to the sticky dancefloor where Fred from accounts is looking strangely attractive as he struts out some wild moves. Nearby, Ian from IT is boogieing like nobody's watching. What makes them so confident while your feet are shyly shifting from side to side? According to Dr Peter Lovatt, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, it's to do with age, gender and genetic makeup.
Lovatt – who is known around campus as Dr Dance – has just completed a major piece of research into dance, analysing 13,700 people's responses to an online video of him, a former professional dancer, strutting his stuff. Lovatt demonstrated various dance movements, then asked respondents to rate them. He also asked people to imagine they were dancing at a wedding or disco, and say how good they were compared with the average dancer.
Peter Lovatt, aka Dr Dance, struts his stuff to help you discover your dance style Link to this video
The research was part of his investigation into "dance confidence" (DC) – the factor that makes the difference between you sitting glued to the bar seat and actually going for a boogie – and how it changes with age and gender. "First things first if deep down you think you're a better dancer than most, you're not alone," Lovatt laughs. "The average DC level was significantly higher than expected, meaning most people thought they were better dancers than the average person of their own age and gender."
The findings also show a significant difference between how women and men develop DC. The highest level was recorded in girls under 16. "At this stage, dancing is for fun. They do it on their own, with friends or in formal dance classes, and do so to enjoy it," explains Lovatt. But once girls pass their 16th birthday, there is a big drop. "Teenagers are likely to start dancing publicly in front of members of the opposite sex, and as dance starts to play a part in the sexual selection process for the first time, that may contribute to a significant reduction in dance confidence."
From then until 35, however, women's DC levels increase steadily. "They are likely to be moving through the mate-selection and reproduction cycle, so they will be more confident in the behaviours which form part of this process, like recreational dancing," says Lovatt. But that pattern reverses after 55. "From then on, DC drops steadily and significantly. That's not surprising if perceptions of dance ability are related to fertility-based courtship displays, because this is a post-menopausal life stage."
It's a different story for boys, however. They did not show the pre-16 peak seen in the female data, instead increasing DC every year until middle age, then flattening before rising sharply at 65. "The significant increase in rates for older men could be because in partner situations women's DC has gone down, so men might be less intimidated by women's confidence. Also, separate research findings show that optimistic people are less likely to suffer from life-threatening conditions than pessimistic people. So it might be the case that our sample of older men includes those optimists who have outlived their pessimistic contemporaries."
But it's not just genetics that make your legs itch to hit the dancefloor. "People dance for social bonding and mate-selection purposes," Lovatt says. "It's also good for your health and fitness, and people dance to enjoy themselves. Some dance because they are told they have to, and it has been used to show strength and fearlessness, like the traditional Maori haka dance."
Lovatt says his own experience proves dance can provide confidence that spills into other areas of life. Suffering from profound reading difficulties at school, he left with no qualifications, and was unable to read until he was 23. "I taught myself to read while working as a dancer in theatres," he says. "I was surrounded by talent and thought it was ridiculous that I couldn't read, so I just sat down and, very slowly, learned."
Next, Lovatt studied A-levels, then a degree in psychology and English at Roehampton Institute, ultimately gaining a PhD and taking a senior researcher post at Cambridge University. Now, he combines dancing "nearly every day" with dance research at Hertfordshire University, where he teaches the psychology of performing arts.
There, in his onsite dance laboratory, Lovatt flags up more interesting research. "Beautiful women of high genetic quality with symmetrical features have been shown to innately select men with equally high-quality genetic features," he says, "even when they were only shown videos of the men dancing, and couldn't see the men's faces." Women of a lower genetic quality who watched the same videos, by contrast, "thought all the men were great", Lovatt explains.
He says there is good news for everyone from that research: "It means the best way to attract a compatible mate is to relax and just move naturally to the rhythm."
Lovatt also has some specific findings for men to make women fall at – rather than trip over – their feet this Christmas. "My research showed women find men who use medium-sized, complex movements to be the most attractive. If a woman is looking for an attractive and dominant man, she'll go for one doing very large, complex movements, but if she wants an attractive yet submissive man then she'll go for one doing smaller, complex movements." Simple, small movements are considered unattractive, submissive and feminine, apparently. But don't head straight for a dance studio to learn a new routine. "Dance lessons are a bit like plastic surgery," says Lovatt. "They mask the true expression of your genes."
• Peter Lovatt is carrying out more research into dance – take part in his latest survey at bit.ly/WhyDance. Find out more on his website DanceDrDance.com
Article from http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/dec/15/research-why-people-dance
Four Facts of Dance
1. Everyone can dance
2. Dancing is good for your health
3. Dancing is good for your well-being
4. Dancing is fun
Dance & Testosterone
Dancing ability is thought to be influenced by biological and evolutionary factors. Fink, Seydel, Manning and Kappeler (2007) asked women to rate the freestyle dance movements of men for dominance, masculinity and attractiveness. They found that ratings varied as a function of the amount of prenatal testosterone to which the men had been exposed at an early stage of prenatal development, such that the freestyle dances of men exposed to high levels of prenatal testosterone were rated as more dominant, masculine and attractive than the freestyle dances of men exposed to lower levels of prenatal testosterone. Fink et al. suggest that prenatal testosterone may have an organising effect on male body movement, which is perceptible to women. Levels of prenatal testosterone can be estimated by measuring the ratio of the length of the index finger (the second digit) and the ring finger (the fourth digit). This is known as the 2D:4D ratio (see Manning, Scutt, Wilson & Lewis-Jones, 1998). A low 2D:4D ratio suggests high levels of prenatal testosterone and a high 2D:4D ratio suggests a low level of prenatal testosterone.
Brown, Cronk, Grochow, Jacobson, Liu, Popovic and Trivers (2005) observed a relationship between physical symmetry and perceived dance quality in men and women, such that people who are more physically symmetrical, in terms of the relative size of each of their wrists, knees, ankles, feet, fingers, and ears, were rated as better dancers. Brown et al. found that women rated symmetrical men as better freestyle dancers than asymmetrical men. Brown et al. draw conclusions based on a bio-evolutionary perspective and suggest that physical symmetry is an indicator of quality within a species, such that symmetrical individuals are higher quality specimens, and that high quality individuals are important and in high demand for reproductive success, particularly from other high quality individuals. As perceived dancing ability is related to physical symmetry these authors suggest that dance movement is an innate transmitter of an individual’s quality.
In both of these studies people were asked to dance individually in a laboratory setting and their dances were filmed and then manipulated so that individual differences in physical attributes, such as gender, height, frame size, attractiveness, symmetry and fine motor movements, were not visible. Fink et al. (2007) manipulated the dance video clips by applying a Gaussian smoothing technique, which blurred the images, and Brown et al. (2005) converted video recordings into 3-D animations.
It is clear from both of these studies that there is a relationship between people’s perception of dance, in terms of its quality, and perceived masculinity, dominance and attractiveness and the dancer’s genetic make up, in terms of their indicators of testosterone and physical symmetry. However, it is not clear whether the same factors would predict perceptions of attractiveness etc. when people are dancing in a natural environment. It seemed logical to us that if we dance as part of a mate-selection process then we will dance differently depending, for example, on who is watching us dance, where we are dancing, what our motives are for dancing, and who we are dancing with. We therefore set out to extend the studies of Fink et al. and Brown et al. to examine these factors.
What we did
In January 2009 we took over a nightclub at the University of Hertfordshire and we filmed people dancing in a naturalistic setting. However, before we filmed people dancing we asked them to fill in a series of psychological questionnaires. We asked them about their relationship status and whether they were looking for a new partner. We asked them questions about their personality and their mood, we measured their fingers and ears to work out their prenatal testosterone levels and we asked the women to tell us about their menstrual cycle status, so that we could work out their “fertility risk”, that is, the risk of them getting pregnant if they were to have unprotected sex. When people had provided all of this information they were “released” into the nightclub, which was full of people enjoying themselves.
We let things get hot and sweaty and at about 11.30pm started to film people dancing. We did this in two ways. First, we filmed people dancing in the club as part of a big group of dancers on the dance floor. Second, when people were dancing on the main dance floor we asked them to move onto a separate dance floor, which was right next to the main dance floor, and carry on dancing on their own for 30 seconds while we filmed them again. The second dance floor was just as lively and noisy as the main dance floor. We finished filming in the early hours of the morning.
The next stage of the research was to blur all of the videos of each dancer, and then ask people to rate them for attractiveness, dominance, masculinity and quality. We found two things.
When women rated the men’s dancing they rated the highest testosterone men as the most attractive and the lowest testosterone men as the least attractive.
When men rated the women’s dancing they rated the lowest testosterone women as the most attractive and the highest testosterone women as the least attractive.
High testosterone men dance differently to low testosterone men. High testosterone men make larger movements and their movements are more complexly coordinated than low testosterone men. High testosterone men express more energy in their movements and they take up more space on the dance floor.
Low testosterone women dance differently to high testosterone women. Low testosterone women make more subtle and isolated movements with their hips than high testosterone women. High testosterone women move more body parts while they are dancing and their movements are less controlled.
We interpret these findings to suggest that one function of social freestyle dance is to communicate genetic fitness as part of the sexual selection process.
From Psychologist and Dancer
Dr Peter Lovatt is an academic Psychologist and a Dancer