Yearning on the Dance Floor … and in the Science Lab

By Karen K. Bradley and Karen A. Studd

Have you noticed how popular we in dance are lately? Not only are we linked to “Dancing with the Stars,” flashmobs, and YouTube videos, those scientists with bulging left brains have turned their usually male gaze our way, too. We’ve gone from seeing earnest young engineering majors show up after student dance concerts, holding one wistful rose for the object of their romantic desires, to these same earnest young men signing up for dance classes, hoping that proximity leads to dinner. Off campus, in the professional world, we’ve seen recent projects like Liz Lerman’s Ferocious Beauty: Genome, which explored genetics and the mapping of DNA with top-flight scientists from various universities and the Institute for Genomic Research, to Karole Armitage, whose Three Theories took on relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. And who can ignore the increasingly popular academic contest “Dance Your PhD”?

And now, brought to our attention, one hopeful, yearning, and odd study, published in 2010: Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye. A group of researchers from the UK and Germany (five men and one woman) developed a study in which 30 men danced to a beat (so as not to be influenced by musical taste). The researchers used motion-capture technology to record these men. That data was then applied to an avatar, but not a recognizable avatar. Oh no, this avatar chosen was a “featureless, gender-neutral humanoid character.” Clearly a dance partner to die for. Thirty-nine hapless heterosexual women were then asked to observe the 30 dancing avatars, and rate them for “dance moves.” On a seven-point scale, these women (hopefully paid for this excruciating experience), rated the dance moves from “extremely bad” to “extremely good.”

We are not making this up.

The results are fascinating, in a watching-a-train-wreck kind of way; having read this far, you cannot avert your eyes. Here it is: The researchers state,“We found significant positive correlations between dance ratings and the central body region. Key components comprised of: neck flexion/extension (head nodding), trunk flexion/extension (forward/backward bending) and trunk abduction/adduction (sideways bending).”The results are fascinating, in a watching-a-train-wreck kind of way;
having read this far, you cannot avert your eyes. So here it is: The
researchers state,“We found significant positive correlations between
dance ratings and the central body region. Key components comprised of:
neck flexion/extension (head nodding), trunk flexion/extension
(forward/backward bending) and trunk abduction/adduction (sideways

Travel with us and try to imagine yourself watching an avatar — a genderless, featureless humanoid virtual figure — gyrating to a regular beat (no accented moments here). What is your criteria for “extremely good” dancing? As trained and certified movement analysts, we feel deeply for these women, who appear to have rated anything that consisted of torso or core movement as noteworthy.

There is an exception in the study to the trunk movement’s higher ratings. Women preferred the movement (flexion) of the right knee. Really.

It is unclear as to whether the left knee was engaged in any movement, so we have no comparison. One can only imagine what the elbow was doing. Or the right big toe.

The discussion is the most compelling part of this scintillating study:

By using cutting-edge motion-capture technology, we have been able to precisely break down and analyze specific motion patterns in male dancing that seem to influence women’s perceptions of dance quality. We find that the variability and amplitude of movements in the central body regions (head, neck and trunk) and speed of the right knee movements are especially important in signaling dance quality. A ‘good’ dancer thus displays larger and more variable movements in relation to bending and twisting movements of their head/neck and torso, and faster bending and twisting movements of their right knee.

Please envision this breaking news phenomenon and do try this in your living room:

Remove all features from your dance; be “genderless.” Put on some metronomic music; be careful not to accent any movement. However, do vary the speed and amplitude of your bending/twisting torso and get that right knee going like a house-afire.

Take that to your nearest dance club and writhe away. You should have a date within minutes!

We hope you have enjoyed this peek into the fantasies and yearnings of scientific researchers as much as we have. We actually found the study quite tender, full as it is of wishful thinking of the scientifically minded; the romantic dreams of a population of intelligent and probably altogether nice people who are spending way, way too much time in the lab.

And we have some suggestions for them. Researchers, scientists, nerds-who-yearn: Although you are very good at Likert scales and the technology of gross motion capture, we feel that an actual dance/movement experience might be useful, especially if you plan to try out your results in the presence of actual humans. Dance classes abound; we recommend salsa and tango as a place to start. Look for a contact improvisation group nearby; they will help you find sensation in your body, and that would be instructive.

Here are some of our additional, less facetious thoughts, from dancers:

  1. Instead of thinking of courtship as a win/lose situation, where the “right” moves attract the “right” partner, think of it as an actual dance in which each partner responds to the other; it is an interaction involving complex dialogues, both verbal and nonverbal.
  2. The body is not a machine, although that metaphor has driven the technology of motion capture from the beginning. When you eliminate the expressive range, the breath rhythms, the skin, the gaze, the context, etc., what you get is unreliable, at best. More likely, you will be alone. For a long time.
  3. Courtship dances are both personally significant and culturally embedded. We are not all looking for the same thing in a partner. And many aspects beyond simple moves influence and modify our behavior when we are flirting. The olfactory sense, for example, plays a large role in attraction or repellence. The ability to adapt to another, to adjust one’s pacing and distance also matter. The expression “it takes two to tango” does not come from nowhere. So, take a shower, comb your hair, and put on deodorant.
  4. Scientific research often seeks to discover the universal from micro-bits of data. As useful as it can be to follow this path when doing pharmaceutical testing, the chemistry of drug interactions is one thing; the chemistry of human interaction is something quite different. One needs variability, innovation, creativity, and a clear sense of one’s self in order to engage in authentic relationship building, which is never a unidirectional process.

It is laudable that scientists try to remove any and all potential confounding variables. However, in this study, the quest for successful “biological” movement eliminated many of the variables that contribute to authentic and successful seductions. Better to turn on the soft music, get a little swing in the hips, and look into his/her eyes. Light some candles, get out the chocolate. Touch.

We all know what to do from there — dance!

Karen K. Bradley is associate professor of dance and director of graduate studies in dance at the University of Maryland, College Park, a Certified Movement Analyst, author, choreographer, and researcher. She teaches internationally in the certification program in Laban Movement Studies and comments regularly for the media on the movement behaviors of prominent political and business leaders.

Karen A. Studd teaches in the School of Dance at George Mason University and for the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in national and international training programs in movement analysis. A teacher of movement analysis, somatics and dance, her interest is in promoting awareness of the body of knowledge of human movement across all disciplines. She is frequently sought out as a body language expert in the observation of the movement style of political pundits.


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