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  • Helen Fields is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.
 

These Dance Moves Are Irresistible

7 September 2010 7:03 pm
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Hey, guys, want to impress ladies on the dance floor? Keep your head and torso moving, and don't flail your arms and legs. This useful advice comes courtesy of a new study, which finds that women are more attracted to computer avatars that rock these moves.

Humans aren't the only animals that move in special ways to lure females. Male fiddler crabs wave an outsized claw to show off, and male hummingbirds display their flying prowess with a flamboyant mating dive. These moves probably show off their strength and motor skills. Evolutionary psychologist Nick Neave of Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne wondered whether there was something about male human dancing that impressed females as well.

Neave and colleagues couldn't just round up a bunch of men and ask them to gyrate in front of women, however. That's because it's hard to separate a man's physical appearance from his dancing skills. "You could be the best dancer in the world, but if you've got an awful haircut or something like that," women may still find you unattractive, says Neave. So he and colleagues cut out the effect of physical appearance by using motion-capture technology, like the techniques moviemakers use to make digital characters.

The researchers stuck 38 reflective markers to the joints and other body parts of 30 male students at Northumbria University. Then they asked the guys to dance for 30 seconds as if they were in a nightclub, while a thumping drum beat played over speakers. Twelve video cameras recorded the action. A computer used data on the location of the markers to construct an avatar of each man (see videos). The avatars are "not quite James Cameron [quality], but they're pretty good," says Neave. In a video of a bad dancer, the avatar trudges in a circle, awkwardly moving his arms. An avatar made from a good dancer moves his whole body from side to side, mixing up his moves with impressive creativity.

bad dancing

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Wrong moves. A bad dancer trudges in a circle, swinging his arms.
Credit: Northumbria University

good dancing

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Nice moves! A good dancer mixes up his moves and keeps his head and torso shakin'.
Credit: Northumbria University

Heterosexual women watched the videos and rated them according to whether the man was a good dancer or a bad dancer. (Neave says pilot studies by his group found that asking women who's a good dancer is the same as asking who's attractive.)

The most important factor to the women was how much the man moved his head, neck, and torso, the researchers will report online tomorrow in Biology Letters. Better dancers are "nodding their head, they're turning the head to one side, they're turning their head to the other side, there's a large nod, there's a small nod, there's a nod to the left," Neave says.

The team expected to see a lot of action in the hands and feet. "Legs and arms we thought would be really important, and they're not, apart from the right knee," says Neave. He thinks that's because most people are right-footed—so they use their left leg for balance and execute fancy moves with the right. He and his colleagues think dance is an honest signal to women of the man's strength and health, just as it is in crabs and hummingbirds; in future studies, they'll look at the health of the good and bad dancers.

It makes sense that women would care about men's ability to dance, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "For millions of years, a man with well-coordinated movements of the head, neck, and trunk [which he used when throwing weapons] probably signaled his ability to provide," she writes in an e-mail. Varying his dance moves shows creativity, a trait associated with energy, optimism, and daring.

Judith Hanna, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies dance, calls the use of avatars "brilliant." She says it would be interesting to replicate the study with different populations; in different cultures, different dance moves may be seen as attractive.

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