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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.