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A preliminary psychology of how we’re moved by watching dance

Study makes attempt to uncover the hidden and unknowable connection between a dancer and their audience.

22 June 2016

By Christian Jarrett

If you're after chills down the spine, you might find that watching professional ballet dancers does the trick just as much as listening to music. Yet whereas the emotional effects of music are well researched – indeed, there are conferences and journals aplenty devoted to the psychology of music – scientists still know very little about the ways we are moved by watching dance.

Now one of the first ever investigations into the emotional effects of dance has been published online at Acta Psychologica and the researchers found that rounded dance movements, rather than edgy ones, made watchers happier, as did more impressive moves, up to a point. The research also showed that, like music, watching dance can provoke visual imagery and personal memories in the viewer.

Julia Christensen and her colleagues created 203 six-second black and white, silent clips of a world class female ballet dancer taken from her live performances. The woman's face was blurred in the clips so the focus was on her dance moves. The clips were then shown to 83 participants – their average age was 21 and they were mostly women – who rated them for how positive they made them feel and how energized or calm.

The researchers found that the participants reported feeling more positive emotions in response to clips that involved the dancer performing the attitude position (front and back; A and B in the picture below) than to clips that did not involve any rounded movements. This actually complements research in the domain of architecture and design that's found people feel more positive in rooms that contain more rounded furniture.

The researchers also compared the effects of clips featuring different leg movements – either no leg raise, bent leg raised at 90 degrees, straight leg at 90 degrees, or straight leg raised at over 90 degrees (see image below). Participants felt more positive emotion when the leg was raised at all compared with not being raised – a more impressive feat – but there was no increase in positive emotion for leg raises that were higher and more difficult. The researchers said this suggests that, in contrast with gymnastics, "affect is induced from dance through the quality of the expressive intention of the movement – not just by its quality (e.g. how stretched or extreme)".

Research published a few years ago found that Covent Garden dancers have been raising their legs progressively higher over the years, possibly in response to changing aesthetic tastes. This provides a reminder that the current research was focused on people's emotional reactions to dance, not their aesthetic appreciation of it. It's possible that progressively higher and more difficult leg raises provoke more aesthetic appreciation without adding any extra emotional impact.

Another part of the current investigation involved presenting 15 of the dance clips to 12 undergrad students and then interviewing them about how the clips made them feel (it was emphasised to the students that if they felt nothing, this was just as important as reporting any felt emotion).

Even though the clips were just a few seconds long, some of the students reported feeling emotional reactions in response to them, and two of the students described experiencing visual imagery and triggered memories: "I even told myself stories about why the dancer made sad movements and felt sorry" said one participant; "When I felt that an emotion was negative it was because the sad clips made me think of situations where I'd been sad," said another. This means that 17 per cent of the small sample reported imagery or memories, which is similar to the rates seen for music. Another parallel with music was that the participants often reported experiencing sad emotions, but they nonetheless said the experience was pleasurable.

This study makes a laudable though highly tentative first attempt to study what many may consider the hidden and unknowable connection between a dancer and her audience. "A dancer may dance without the aim to transmit anything to anyone, but follow an internal expressive intention, like an inner dialog" the researchers concluded. "S/he may dance just what's on her/his mind. Yet that intention will be visible in the dance, and grasped by a spectator. Thus what we like when we see a dance is not necessarily the beautiful – but especially the honest and authentic."

Further reading

Christensen, J., Pollick, F., Lambrechts, A., & Gomila, A. (2016). Affective responses to dance Acta Psychologica, 168, 91-105 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.03.008