5 Scientific Steps That Will Make You a Better Dancer

iStock/SolStock
iStock/SolStock

A good dancer can command a crowd. Louis XIV studied ballet as a means to elevate his status and influence, using his dance moves as a political tool. More recently, artists like Sammy Davis Jr. and Beyoncé achieved superstardom because their dance moves augmented the power of their music. Though learning how to dance well may seem dependent in talent, science has a few hints about what can make someone—even you—a great dancer.

  1. Step One: Tap Into Your Core

Basic ways of moving, such as the ability to crawl, stand, and walk, develop when we’re children and become second nature as our brains cement these actions in memory. By age 2, toddlers will attempt bobbing up and down to the beat of a song or try simple dance moves. Coordinating and practicing these grooves begins once we’ve mastered standing with a neutral pelvis—a position in which the head, shoulders, and hips align when viewed from the side with a slight curve in the lower back.

“Not only might [a] neutral pelvis facilitate body movements in general, but it also seems to improve specific action at [the] hip and lumbar spine,” write Clara Fischer Gam and Elsa Urmstom in an article posted on the International Society of Dance Medicine and Science’s website. This alignment stabilizes the core, which supports more dynamic movement.

To find your neutral pelvis, Dance magazine recommends lying on your back with your knees bent, allowing the natural curve of your spine to create a slight space between your lower back and the floor. In this position your hips should not tilt noticeably up toward the ceiling or into the floor; they should remain “neutral,” creating a plane level enough to balance a glass of water.

  1. Step Two: Warm Up

After achieving a neutral pelvis, stay put for some stretching.

One of the simplest ways to increase your body’s range of motion is to generate heat through low impact movement, says Marijeanne Liederbach, director of NYU Langone's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. This also helps protect against injuries.

"In order for [muscle] to have safe range of motion, it needs to warm up a little bit,” Liederbach tells Mental Floss. Once warm, muscles have more elasticity, which means you can twist and bend with greater ease. Stretching primes your body for more for strenuous activity and reduces the risk of injury.

  1. Step Three: Shift Your Weight

In 2013, researchers in the UK conducted a study in which a group of 48 men and women judged the quality of 30 male dancers’ moves. Their favored traits were bold and varied core movements, like bending and twisting from side to side or back and forth, while incorporating vigorous arm movements. In 2017, the same researchers published a similar study of 39 female dancers, all British university students, that suggested greater hip swings and asymmetric movements of the thighs and arms are considered desirable traits.

"Dance [is] a human behavior that everyone does,” Nick Neave, a co-author and professor at Northumbria University, tells Mental Floss. “We thought these movements would be honest signals—you can't fake them—so they're giving off information about your health, your age, your fertility, [and] your reproductive stages.” (Critics have argued that these findings are arbitrary because the sample sizes of the dancers were too small.)

So, stand up and practice leaning from one leg to another. Try deeply bending your knees or standing tall on the ball of your foot. Then, shake out your arms and legs. It might help to picture one of those inflatable tube people grooving in the wind.

Remember, the more you practice your moves, the more seamless your moves will become. “If people keep coming back to these basic elements of movement, then they can pretty much intelligently progress up to whatever movements they want,” Liederbach says.

As for synchronizing with music, for most of us, following the beat is intrinsic and natural. Being “beat-deaf” is rare, but a 2014 study of two such individuals suggested that some people have more difficulty than others synchronizing movement with external cues, like music.

  1. Step Four: Connect with Other Dancers

Breaking a sweat activates endorphins, which trigger a sense of pleasure and make dancing enjoyable, but there’s also evidence that dancing supports human connection. In an article in Scientific American, neurologist John Krakauer attributes some of this connection to cells called mirror neurons, which cause your brain’s movement areas to activate while dancing and while watching others dance.

“Unconsciously, you are planning and predicting how a dancer would move based on what you would do,” Krakauer writes. So, if you can’t perform a pirouette, watching ballet is still rewarding.

Mirroring movement also is powerful in action. “There is something about doing the same thing at the same time with other people that really bonds us and expands our sense of self,” Scott Wiltermuth, an organizational behavior professor at the University of Southern California, tells Mental Floss. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense we would derive pleasure from coordinating well with others: in early hunter-gatherer societies, collaboration meant survival, he says.

Ilya Vidrin, a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre For Dance Research in the UK and a Harvard Fellow, suggests that qualities that strengthen relationships in life, such as the ability to pick up on tonal shifts in voice and subtle shifts in body language, also strengthen partnerships in dance. “It’s clear that just because you’re making eye contact [and] touching … doesn’t mean that you’re connected,” he tells Mental Floss.

  1. Step Five: Be Authentic

According to Judith Lynne Hanna, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, it’s important to remember that aesthetic attitudes toward dancing vary by personal preference, genre, culture, and nation. For example, flamenco dancers exhibit a strong connection to the ground with rooted footwork, while ballet dancers strive to maintain a lifted frame and elevate the body.

Among the Ubakala, an Igbo group in Nigeria, movement patterns reflect a person's identity. It's common for women of child-bearing age to dance in circular formations, using more fluid movements, while men dance vibrantly in warrior-like patterns. Elders in the group tend to act like dance rebels, however; they often defy gender norms and dance however they like, Hanna says. The ability to connect through movement keeps these dance forms alive.

No matter where you source your style, be yourself. “If people are afraid to look stupid, if people are afraid to fail, then likely they’ll be more afraid to dance,” Vidrin says. There’s no need to fear the unknown on the dance floor.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.