Trilobites: What Makes a Woman a Good Dancer? Watch the Hips, a Study Says



If you’re reading this at home, pause and put on a song you can’t resist dancing to. Go on, bop your head to the beat. Let yourself wiggle a bit. Throw in some arms and legs. If you’re reading this at work, maybe imagine these things at your desk.

As you’re dancing, pay attention to where and how you’re moving. How much are you swaying your hips? Are your legs moving together or independently of each other? How vigorously are you moving your torso?

You should note those movements, because very specific patterns may make some people appear to be better dancers than others. That’s the conclusion of a study published on Thursday in Scientific Reports, in which researchers asked 200 people to rate 39 female dancers. A few features stood out as contributing to higher-quality dance: big hip swings, and the right and left limbs moving independently of one another (which the researchers describe as asymmetric arm and thigh movements).

The researchers speculate that those moves serve two purposes for heterosexual women. “One is, they’re showing off their reproductive quality, perhaps their hormonal status, to males,” said Nick Neave, an associate professor of psychology at Northumbria University in England and an author of the paper. “Another is, they’re showing off how good they are to female rivals.”

In 2011, the same researchers reported that women preferred certain dance moves by men, especially exaggerated movements in the upper body. In other studies, Dr. Neave and his colleagues have found links between male dance attractiveness and risk-taking, as well as handgrip strength, a marker for overall body strength.

“We know that dance moves are signaling strength and vigor in males,” Dr. Neave said. “Now we’re beginning to do the same research with females.”

In the study, his team asked 39 female university students in Britain to dance alone to a drum beat. The researchers used a motion-capture system to track the women’s moves. They animated each dancer as an avatar to try to make sure that only the dance movements — and no other physical features — would affect ratings. Then they recruited 57 men and 143 women to watch 15-second clips of the avatars and rate them each on a numeric scale.

Hip movements were the key predictor of how positively a dancer was rated in this study, perhaps because they’re an indicator of femininity. “When you look at males and females walking, the key difference is, males have this shoulder swing and females have this hip swing,” Dr. Neave said. Asymmetric limb movements, meanwhile, may signal good motor control.

Dancing may have first developed as a form of courtship display in humans.

But it may not be about just sexual attraction and competition, though research tends to focus on that lens, said Helena Paterson, a psychology lecturer at the University of Glasgow who was not involved in this study. “It could also be about affiliation, friendship or bonds to other people,” she said. “When someone shows confidence through dancing, they might attract you as a friend or someone you want to spend time with.”

The study is part of a larger field called social cognition, which aims to understand how people use small bits of perceptual information to make large inferences about their social world, said Frank Pollick, a psychology professor at the University of Glasgow whose laboratory is running its own, crowdsourced experiment on dance attraction.

“You see somebody dancing, or hear their voice, and you make a lot of detailed judgments about their personal properties,” he said. “Those inferences often go far past the information that’s truly there, yet they seem to exist for some reason.”

Dr. Neave and his team say they now want to see if dance attractiveness correlates with personality, health, age or hormonal status in women. Other questions are how culture and sexual orientation affect dancing and perceptions of dancing.

As for practical advice from his research, “there is no harm in trying to throw different moves at the disco,” he said. But beware of drinking too much before hitting the dance floor, he added. That “could help with causing asymmetry in arms and legs — but obviously that could also be disastrous.”

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