Dancing in your Genes

26 October 2008

Interview with 

Peter Lovatt, University of Hertfordshire


Kat - Time to get your dancing shoes on!  It seems that the way you dance could say something about your genetic fitness - in other words, how good your genes would be to pass on to the next generation.  Joining us now to explain how dancing could broadcast your fitness is Dr Peter Lovatt, from the University of Hertfordshire. Good evening...

Peter - Good evening.

Kat - Well, Peter, tell us a bit about why is it important to actually study dancing?

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.Peter - Well because there's a very clear relationship between people's level of testosterone and what's called their genetic quality and the way in which the dance. Now it's thought to be that dancing might be, as Darwin suggested, some kind of courtship ritual so that like other birds and animals we may display ourselves in a particular way to find a mate which is compatible with us. That's not quite scientific but it becomes more scientific when you realise that they way in which you move might be determined by both our level of prenatal testosterones and also by our physical symmetry. That is, how physically symmetrical we are in terms of our ears and our fingers and knees and ankles.

Kat - How does that work?

Peter - Two earlier studies have shown that. They asked men in to dance, they filed them into a lab. They filmed them dancing and then blurred the images out so you couldn't see anything about the physical attributes of the men at all. Then these videos were shown to a large group of women and the women were asked to rate which movements were the most attractive and dominant and masculine. What they found was that the movements of men who have the largest amounts of prenatal testosterone, all men who had higher levels of physical symmetry were rated as more attractive, more dominant and more masculine than the dances of the opposite men.

Kat - Does this mean that some people then are basically born dancers.

Peter - What it suggests is that according to the original research is that the testosterone has an organising effect on the body movements. The men don't even know they have high or low testosterone but it influences how they move. It might influence their level of coordination in terms of their movement, or might influence their natural rhythm and how different parts of their bodies move together.

Kat - We know there's loads of programmes on TV here at the moment - you know - 'Strictly Come Dancing' and 'Tap Dance Your Way to Success' or whatever they're called. Can people actually learn to dance well or is there always going to be this genetic barrier to it?

Peter - I think that people can learn. It might well be the case that your genetic make-up might predetermine the range of your dancing abilities so it might suggest that you're more rhythmic or you might use more complex movements. Of course then we can teach people a different, wider range of movements or a set of movements that might make them appear more dominant and attractive.

Kat - Well, we're going to try this experiment live now. Are you ready for this Peter? We have our dancing monkey here, Ben Valsler who's going to do his dance for us.

Peter - I'm more than happy. Peter, I know that at the moment you are running a survey online and I've watched your video about the different styles of dancing and you want people to let you know - classify their dancing and let you know how they dance. We will link to this from the Naked Scientists.com so people can join in. I think it's only fair that seeing as Kat hasn't seen the video that I demonstrate for her in the studio. So please could you describe to Kat the sort of movements that we're looking for and I will do the movements for you?

Kat - So run the music...

Peter - So the first set of movements is you just step from one foot to the next foot. Stepping right and touching left. The normal kind of disco movement you see at discos.

Kat - It's what you did at school!

Peter - Now keep that quite small and keep the top half of the body doing the same as the bottom half.

Kat - This looks brilliant.

Peter - Now that is the most unattractive dance that we could do.

Kat - You're telling me!

Peter - Now what you can do now, if you keep doing that same thing but do something different with your shoulders. Roll your shoulders backwards slightly and move your arms up. Move your elbows around a little bit.

Kat - Ben's now doing a dancing like your dad kind of dance.

Peter - Ooh. As long as your top half is doing something different to your bottom half and it's in time with the music and there's a rhythm going on. If there's a rhythm going on and it's coordinated then that would be more attractive to women. Apparently. Now f the top half of his body was a bit more random them it wouldn't be quite so attractive.

Kat - Yes, he's doing some very random things with his arms - over the head - swimming motions.

Peter - That's interesting. If he's doing all that they might be a bit too big. The bigger the movements are the more dominant they're seen by people. If they're large moments and largely coordinated but unthreatening then they could be seen to be attractive and masculine. If they get too big and too random movements then those ones are seen as highly dominant, highly unattractive.

Kat - So you've got the hands waving over the head now - windmill style.

Peter - Yeah, you're not going to attract any mates that way, I'm afraid.

Ben - I'm taking up most of the studio, I think.

Kat - I really wish the webcam was working, this is great! Are there any other moves we can get Ben to do or is that the repertoire?

Peter - Make the side-to-side a bit bigger so they're quite small steps but make the bigger. Step about a metre from side to side.

Kat - It's like the Hulk.

Peter - And now get the arms swinging out wide.

Kat - It's like he's doing aerobics.

Peter - That's right. A bit like a star jump. What he's doing now is making his movement a lot more dominant.

Kat - It's not attractive.

Peter - It's not, is it. It's interesting you say that because some women do find it attractive. The ones who do that are the younger women - 16-18-19 year-olds often find those movements quite attractive.

Kat - So any of our teenage listeners out there, Ben is now the man of your dreams.

Peter - He might well be. He might be now - obviously it's a bit too stylised at the moment. What he needs to do is put a bit more randomness into it.

Kat - More randomness. Yep, he's doing waving his arms now.

Peter - Now if you think of being a hip hop dancer and do some big hip hop dancing.

Kat - Yeah he's got some hip hop moves - a bit of arm crossing. He's doing a little sign with his hands there.

Peter - Now all those movements are making him much more obvious on the dance floor. As you're doing those movements you're much more likely to see him. As long as he's not too threatening the younger girls would go for those kinds of moves. They would be impressed.

Kat - There you go, Ben. Next time you're down the teenage disco. The final thing I'd really like to know is, all your studies seem to have focussed on men dancing. In my experience, men don't dance that well. Is it really true that girls are better dancers than men?

Peter - What we've done is we've just - on the survey we've got online at the moment - women are rating themselves as much better dancers than men. The problem is so many girls have had some kind of formal dance training, even if it was only a few years in jazz, tap or ballet when they were much younger. Whereas men often don't have formal dance training. When we are looking at natural dance - the real sort of dance that's coming out in their genes it's less contaminated by training.

Kat - So men may be naturally very proficient dancers but they may not know.

Peter - Yes, a lot of them might be. Once they relax a bit more you really see some fantastic moves in men. Even if they're not formally recognisable moves you really see some great rhythm in men.

Kat - How long are you conducting this survey for?

Peter - We wanted to conduct this survey for as long as we possibly can, really. The survey we are doign at the moment we want to find out how good people think that are at dancing and we want to find out what sort of movements they characterise by their dancing. What we found is that with men under the age of 25, their level of testosterone predicts how good a dancer they say they are. The high testosterone men say they're good dancers. The low-testosterone men are bad dancers. In the over 25s the pattern goes away but the men are still very good. We want to know what sort of movements men are using with all different ages through their life.

You can classify your own dance moves by watching Peter's videos

Then tell him how well you thinkyou dance on his survey,


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