An Evening With Doctor Dance

On a wintry night a few weeks ago, I found my way through a quiet, bohemian London borough to the Old Finsbury Town Hall and climbed an Art Deco stairwell to the hall’s whimsically dilapidated ballroom.  There, I joined some fifty Londoners – young professionals and middle-aged couples, in groups of friends or on their own – on the dance floor, where we learned a cha cha routine, some charleston steps, a quadrille, and several country line dance sequences.  Between dances, we sipped wine and ate nibbles at velvet-clothed tables while listening to lectures about the psychology of dance.

This rather unusual evening was hosted by the School of Life, a London-based organization that puts on lectures, workshops, and other events about “good ideas for everyday life.”  The ideas that evening concerned how dance affects us, physically and psychologically, and our guide through these concepts was Dr Peter Lovatt, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire.  Lovatt started life as a dancer and performed professionally until he decided to pursue cognitive psychology, completing first a master’s in neural computation and then a PhD in psychology.  He now runs the Dance Psychology Lab at Hertfordshire.

What exactly does dance psychology entail?  In Lovatt’s case, the research focuses on four areas: the effects of dance on health; how dancing affects problem solving and critical thinking; the influence of hormones and genetics on people’s dancing; and the relationship between a person’s confidence as a dancer and their self-esteem.  Lovatt investigates these questions through surveys and controlled laboratory studies.  At the School of Life event, Lovatt described some of these studies to us – and even involved us in some practical demonstrations.

The first study Lovatt told us about examined how dance confidence changes across the life span.  Lovatt asked over thirteen thousand respondents to imagine themselves at a typical party and to rate their skill as a dancer in comparison to other people in their age group.  Dance confidence changes quite a bit as people age; interestingly, however, the pattern of change differs depending on gender.  In women, dance confidence was extremely high in the early teens, plunged at age 16, then climbed again in the early 20s to plateau until a drop around age 60.  Men, by contrast, began their dancing careers with extremely low dance confidence in their early teens, slowly increased in confidence across their adolescence and 20s, plateaued through adulthood, and then suddenly skyrocketed in the late 50s, passing women of the same age in their dance confidence score.  An intriguing finding, and one that begs further questions.  What pattern would dance confidence follow in cultures with different dance traditions or different gender roles?  It would be interesting to compare, for example, dance confidence in a culture where traditional dances are a routine part of community life with the Western model of relegating dancing to late-night (and, more often than not, alcohol-fueled) clubbing and parties.

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As research by Lovatt and other dance scientists shows, the type of dance we do, as well as the context in which we do it, influences the effects dancing has on us.  Effects on mood, hormonal levels, and problem solving vary depending on the style of the dance.  For instance, Lovatt found that when he taught people a structured dance, they performed better on tests of convergent thinking such as puzzle solving, whereas when he asked them to improvise, their divergent (i.e. creative) thinking improved.  Differences have also been found in the effects dance has on mood, even between styles that fall into the same dance category.  An assessment of mood in professional dancers before and after class found that, while a Martha Graham style class did not affect mood, a class in Jose Limon’s style increased vigor.  Both styles are considered modern dance, but their effects on mood were distinct – perhaps unsurprising to dancers who have experienced both Graham technique, which is characterized by dramatic “bounding” movements, and Limon technique, characterized by flowing movements.

The Dance Psychology Lab is still young, with only a few studies published to date, but it has already gained a good deal of public attention.  Lovatt – a charismatic man sometimes known as “Doctor Dance” whose enthusiasm for sharing his research on dance seems to know no bounds – has made good use of television, radio, and news media to publicize his work; indeed, he administered his survey on dance confidence through BBC4’s website.  A public presence seems appropriate for research on such a universal phenomenon as dance.  Dancing is an activity almost everyone engages in at some point in his or her life, but, as science has begun to demonstrate, the what, when, and where of our dancing matters when assessing its impact on us.  As studies like Lovatt’s accumulate, it will be interesting to see what conclusions we reach about dance’s ability to affect not just physical, but also mental, wellbeing and agility.

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Back in the ballroom of the Old Finsbury Town Hall, we explored these questions firsthand as we sampled different styles of dance.  Each dance did, indeed, have its own insights to offer.  Country line dancing was an experience of movement en masse – stomping in unison with a room full of people, you couldn’t help but feel the rhythm of the dance deep in your bones.  The quadrille – the sort of dance done at balls in Jane Austen novels, and one Lovatt used to help a struggling rugby team improve their spatial awareness – allowed for more interactive dancing, as we repeatedly changed partners while navigating the complex pattern of the dance.  But it was the end of the evening that made me appreciate the best experience dance has to offer.  The grand finale was a free-for-all rock-out to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and we danced our hearts out, uninhibited, laughing, just enjoying the music and the movement.  We headed back into the London night with flushed cheeks and smiles on our faces.  Whatever other effects dance might have on our brains, I think it’s safe to say that a night of dancing is one of the best mood boosters around.