5 Scientific Steps That Will Make You a Better Dancer

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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.

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Winter is Coming: Why Some People Seem to Feel Colder Than Others

Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
Work blanket? Check. Hot tea? Check. Writing gloves? Check.
shironosov/iStock via Getty Images

For a few weeks a year, as winter turns into spring, or summer gives way to fall, people in heavy coats coexist with those in sandals and shorts. Similarly, in an office where the thermostat is set at 74°F, some workers will be comfortable in short sleeves, while others will be wearing sweaters and scarves.

Underlying this disagreement are the different ways people perceive cold—and scientists are still trying to understand them.  

Men, Women, and Metabolism

In work settings, men and women often have different opinions about the ideal temperature. A 2019 study found that women performed better in math and verbal tasks at temperatures between 70°F and 80°F, while men did better below 70°F. The researchers proposed that gender-mixed workplaces might boost productivity by setting the thermostat higher than the current norm (which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests should be between 68°F and 76°F).  

The discrepancy has a known physical basis: Women tend to have lower resting metabolic rates than men, due to having smaller bodies and higher fat-to-muscle ratio. According to a 2015 study, indoor climate regulations are based on an “empirical thermal comfort model” developed in the 1960s with the male workers in mind, which may overestimate female metabolic rates by up to 35 percent. To compound the problem, men in business settings might wear suits year-round, while women tend to have more flexibility to wear skirts or sundresses when it's warm outside.

Culture and the Cold

Cultural factors are also involved. European visitors are habitually alarmed by the chilly temperatures in American movie theaters and department stores, while American tourists are flabbergasted at the lack of air conditioning in many European hotels, shops, and offices. The preferred temperature for American workspaces, 70°F, is too cold for Europeans that grew up without the icy blast of air conditioners, Michael Sivak, a transportation researcher formerly at the University of Michigan, told The Washington Post in 2015.

The effects of cultural change on the human ability to withstand extreme temperatures can be dramatic. In the 19th century, 22 percent of women on the Korean island of Jeju were breath-hold divers (haenyeo). Wearing thin cotton bathing suits, haenyeo dove nearly 100 feet to gather shellfish from the sea floor, holding their breath for more than three minutes in each dive. In winter, they stayed in 55°F-57°F water for up to an hour at the time, and then warmed up by the fire for three of four hours before jumping back in.

In the 1970s, haenyeo starting wearing protective wet suits. Studies conducted between the 1960s and the 1980s showed that their tolerance for cold diminished [PDF].

Blame Your Brain

Beyond the effects of cultural practice and body composition, scientists have started to identify the cognitive factors that influence our temperature perception. It turns out that what feels unpleasantly cold versus comfortably chill is partly in our own minds.

One example is the phenomenon described as “cold contagion.” A 2014 study asked participants to view videos of people immersing their hands in visibly warm or cold water. Observers not only rated the hands in cold water as cooler than those in hot water, but their own hands became cooler when watching the cold-water videos. There was no comparable effect for the warm water videos, however. The findings suggest that we may feel colder when surrounded by shivering people at the office than if we're there by ourselves, even when setting the thermostat at the same temperature in both cases.

Other studies highlight the psychological aspects of temperature perception. Experimental participants at the Institute of Biomedical Investigations in Barcelona, Spain, watched their arms become blue, red, or green by means of virtual reality, while the neuroscientist Maria Victoria Sanchez-Vives and her team applied heat to their actual wrists. As the temperature increased, participants felt pain earlier when their virtual skin turned red than when it turned blue or green.

Subjectivity in temperature perception has led to some creative treatments for burn patients. In the 1990s, Hunter Hoffman, David Patterson, and Sam Sharar of the University of Washington developed a virtual-reality game called SnowWorld, which allows patients in hospital burn units to experience virtual immersion in a frozen environment. Amazingly, playing SnowWorld counteracted pain during wound care more effectively than morphine did.

“The perception of temperature is influenced by expectations,” Sanchez-Vives tells Mental Floss. “Putting one’s hand inside a virtual oven is perceived as ‘hot,’ while sticking one’s hand into a virtual bucket filled with iced water is perceived as ‘cold,’ despite being at room temperature in each scenario.”

In other words, if you expect to feel cold walking into the office or out on the street, chances are that you will.