The science of good dancing

What makes someone a good looking dancer?
29 October 2018

Interview with 

Dr Nick Neave, Northumbria University


It’s all well and good for those on Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing with the Stars, who have a professional dancer helping them every step of the way, but are there some universal dancing rules that make something look good?  What is it that makes someone an appealing dancer? Adam Murphy spoke to Nick Neave, from Northumbria University, to learn about looking good on the dancefloor...

Nick - We took a sample of males; we asked for volunteers. We didn’t ask for people who were professional dancer we just wanted the normal guys off the street, and we were very interested in having people look at these videos of people dancing and not be distracted by anything else. Previous research that had been done on male movements had kind of used blurred images of people, and we realised that those images were still giving off information that might be distracting. So, for example, you could tell the size of the body, the shape of the body, the skin colour, how tall the person was, and we know those things are very important for mate perception so we wanted to remove all those things.

So in our methodology, we videoed people in a motion capture system. They were kind of wearing shorts and a t shirt and you stick these little reflective markers on them, which actually don’t hinder their movement at all. The cameras don’t actually see the person, all they see is these little markers that turns these people into kind of moving blobs of light. With some fancy software, we then recreate the people as computer generated avatars and, very importantly, those avatars are all exactly the same.

Adam - So what do these avatars look like? Could you describe them for me?

Nick - Yeah. Well you know, they’re standard little computer generated figures. Kind of shiny robots if you like. They’re humanoid, an action man type figure, but it’s very interesting that they are incredibly realistic in terms of the movement, so when a person moves in real life that movement is translated across into the avatars. And, of course, because the computer knows where all of these anatomical markers are, it means that we can then calculate very very precise biomechanical differences. So we can calculate movement angles, movement trajectories, movement velocities, all of these things that we can measure to kind of come up with a way of measuring a person’s movement.

Adam - And what kind of things did you find at the other end?

Nick - What we essentially found was that the quality of a male’s dance was very strongly associated with the movements of his upper body, so kind of shoulders, arms, head, neck, chest. Those things seemed to be what people focus on when they’re looking at male dancers. That was kind of surprising. We thought that there’d be a lot of leg action there that people would be very focused upon legs, how fast the legs were moving, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Women and men are focusing on men's’ upper bodies.

We then did some further research where we got our volunteers and we measured how strong they were. We used things like grip strength dynamometer test and, low and behold, what we found was that the strength of the male was accurately signified by their dance quality, so stronger men were rated as being better dancers.

Adam - You said upper body movements were important, what kind of upper body movements? What looks good, I guess?

Nick - Yeah. It is odd because if you think we say that these movements are very kind of vigorous movements and very big movements, and very kind of strong and powerful movements. But the guy that just stands there and kind of flings his arms around in kind of wild abandon, that’s kind of crazy. The males who were making bigger and stronger, and faster and more powerful movements with their arms and upper body, they were preferred but, after a certain point, that gets to be not preferred. There’s a very fine line being regarded as a poor dancer and being regarded as a good dancer, and then if you try too hard you then become a bad dancer again.

Adam - Is it moving the arms the same or up or down, or what is it that looks best?

Nick - In that initial study we weren’t able to tell. We just found that the kind of strength and the size and the speed of the movements seemed to be important. We then did a second study because we realised that there was bits here that we didn’t fully understand. This time we recruited females; we did exactly the same thing, and what we found in this case was that for female dancers, that upper body was completely unimportant, it was all about the legs and the hips, specifically the movements of the hips.

And what we did find in the female dancers was that there was a degree of asymmetry which seemed to be important. So, for example, if the left leg is doing something, the right leg should be doing something slightly different, but the optimum dance seems to be where the legs and the arms are working independently from one another but are still working together. We think that this demonstrates the kind of ideal physical state in that somebody who can do something with their left arm and their left leg, and something slightly different with their right arm and right leg. That seems to indicate a very good level of coordination, perhaps creativity, efficiency of the motor system. That’s what we think these honest signals are, are underlying these movements.

Adam - If someone felt they were a total no-hoper when it came to dance, what advice would you give them?

Nick - It’s very simple actually. What we found is, and we spoke to a lot of choreographers, we spoke to a lot of professional dancers, and it seems to be that the root of good dance is all about having a core strength in your body. So a person who hasn’t got that strength isn’t going to be a good dancer at all, so start off with things like yoga classes, pilates classes. Develop that core body strength and then by taking dance classes you can very very quickly develop rhythm and timing and you can learn to do these things properly. Now, they’ll never win Strictly, but they will be able to achieve a very good level of dance.


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