From Shakira to Travolta, some people just know how to shake it on the dance floor. What’s their secret? A study published in Scientific Reports has identified some of the common body movements that seem to characterize the best female dancers—in a social setting at least: hip swings, plus some coordinated asymmetry in the arms and legs. The study’s authors also offer up some theories about why these particular moves get dancing queens noticed. (Hint: it’s about sex.) This study was launched as a follow-up to an earlier experiment.
In 2011 they examined which male dance moves proved most attractive to the opposite sex. It turned out women favored men who varied their neck and torso movements when they danced. (Forget the monotonous head bob, boys.) The women also took note of the speed at which male dancers moved and flexed the right knee. This time around 39 young women, ages 18 to 30, were asked to dance to a drum pulsing at 125 beats per minute, which they stripped from a Robbie Williams pop song. None of the subjects was a professional dancer. The researchers used motion-capture technology to record the dancers, and then turned them into identical on-screen avatars with noticeably female figures but no other identifying traits. They asked 200 crowdsourced viewers—57 men and 143 women—to rate the dancers on a seven-point scale from extremely bad to extremely good. And as it turned out, the best dancers all had certain moves in common.
For one thing, they swung their hips more than the lower-rated dancers did. This finding probably is not so surprising to anyone who has watched people dance, and evolutionary psychology explains why: sex and dance are closely linked. Dancing in a social setting is commonly viewed as a courtship ritual. From an evolutionary standpoint, dancing women are showing off femininity with hip movements. They’re also showing off to other females what good quality they are. The top dancers also seemed to throw more pleasing shapes, striking a balance of asymmetrical arm and thigh movements. If all the limbs are moving in exactly the same way, it looks very robotic and very odd. There’s no doubt self-confidence has a lot to do with dancing ability as well. The worst-rated dancers looked noticeably more shy and uncomfortable.
Studies like this help us build a more complete picture of how we, like many birds and other animals, can use dance to attract attention from the other sex: the hips don’t lie. Dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music. Let’s dance!■