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The psychology of dance: personality through body movements

The moonlight plays along their intense features. The movement of their feet along the floor sounds in the ears of their captive audience. Locked in a close embrace the pair skirt the edge of the dance floor capturing the attention of all around them with their elaborate movements. A skilled couple will create an air of tension when performing an Argentine Tango.

Tango: the dance of passion. Courtesy of Nation.

Relying heavily on improvisation this dance represents lust and desire . The intricate leg flicks emulate the passion felt by the dance partners and their sharp movements create a subtle erotic atmosphere. The sexuality of the tango is covert and the dancers merely hint at their attraction, rendering it all the more intense. Compare this with a couple dancing a salsa and the atmosphere changes completely. The tension evaporates and the mood is more playful. It is still a sensual dance of passion but the performers are more vibrant and extravagant. Rather than conveying restrained desire, the dancers openly flirt with each other through their quick leg and hip movements. Salsa is a dance which celebrates the enjoyable things in life.

Both dances tell love stories, though in different ways. The tango represents attraction that is passionate and intense and sometimes forbidden. The dancers create a sense of lust and desire through their movements. The salsa portrays the flirtatious and playful elements of sexual attraction and makes it into something fun. The performers in both dances deliberately set out to convey a certain set of emotions. The same is true in other types of dance. The fluid movements in a rumba create a feeling of romance and sensuality while there is a sense of power and aggression in a Paso Doble. Its roots lie in the culture of the bullfighters in Spain so it is sometimes even more evocative when it is performed by two men. These dances were founded in the Afro-Latin tradition of South and Central America. In these cultures, dance is as much a part of social interaction as speech is. In some ways it is a more effective way of expressing emotion, which raises the question if body movement can be seen as an accurate indicator of personality.

Some psychologists have argued that the way people dance might be influenced by their hormonal and genetic make up. In other words, when a person is shaking their booty on the dance floor they reveal more about themselves than their sense of rhythm! What is of key interest here is how much someone shows their personality in the way they move their body. New research conducted in Finland suggests that dance styles provide an insight into individual personality traits. The study was lead by Dr. Geoff Luck and looks specifically at spontaneous movements to music. The research is built on other studies which look at the link between dancing and self-confidence. These work on the assumption that the key to personality and sexuality lie in the way a person moves their body. Evolutionary psychologists think that this has an important role in sexual selection and how a woman would measure a man’s attractiveness. The ideas laid out here could offer some explanation as to why some types of dancing appeal to certain people and not to others. These studies help to form a better picture of the psychology behind dance.

People of all cultures have an innate ability to enjoy or dislike dancing, depending on how they have evolved. Followers of Darwin would argue that individuals dance in order to gage the suitability of potential life partners. Women dance in order to encourage men to do the same so that they can learn more about them. Someone who can dance well is in good health, has a lot of stamina and strength, and can react quickly to movement. These are all indicators of how natural a fighter a man is and how fit he would be to protect his partner in a dangerous situation. That is not to say that a woman will be attracted to any man who gets involved in a pub brawl, quite the contrary. It is the ability to defend oneself that is desirable rather than actual fighting. In Brazil, Capoeira is a martial arts form of dance which allows performers to show off their acrobatic strength to onlookers. The dancers use sweeps and kicks to demonstrate masculinity and strength but there is very little contact and their movements follow the rhythm of the music as they dance around one another. There does seem to be a link between dancing and fighting ability. Patrick Swayze melted a lot of hearts with his smooth moves in the film Dirty Dancing but he also held a black belt in karate when he was alive. Bruce Lee, who is regarded as one of the finest martial arts experts of his time is also a Hong Kong Cha-cha champion. This explains why women fancy a lot of the sportsmen on Strictly Come Dancing- it is their smooth moves that we find so irresistible!

There is some science behind this theory, though. In June 1998, a university student in Stirling measured how much women rated dancing in attraction. It consisted of two parts. First, the women involved were given a questionnaire and asked to rank a variety of desirable traits in a potential life partner. There were sixteen in all and the top characteristics were the ability to defend oneself and his partner, and physical attractiveness. Being a good dancer came in at number fifteen which indicated that it is not very important in choosing a partner. Sometimes people judge athleticism and creativity indirectly through someone’s set of dance skills. Dance displays physical prowess and stamina. This coincides with the second part of the study which asked the women to rate the attractiveness of six men while they were dancing. Five out of six were rated as more attractive after the women saw their moves.

Dr. Geoffrey Luck, a music psychologist, claims that the movement involved in dance can also be seen as indicators of personality as well as physical ability. The dance floor is the perfect place to learn about someone. “People use body motions as reliable indicators of others’ personality types”, he says. “Music is known to evoke strong emotions in people and emotions can be expressed through bodily movements”. The research looks at the way people dance to music in nightclubs and to what extent this can be used to gage their personality. The study was done in Finland and involved sixty volunteers. These had been chosen out of an original nine hundred who had all taken a personality test. The test is commonly known as the OCEAN test because of the five traits it measures: openness of mind, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The people who scored strongest on these characteristics were carried through to the second part of the study. “We watched the volunteers dance spontaneously to thirty different music tracks from six genres of music including rock, techno, Latin, jazz, funk and pop”, Dr. Luck explains. “We then analysed the movements of each individual and weighed them up against their scores on the OCEAN test. We found strong correlations between certain dancing styles and each personality”.

So what should someone look out for when a person shows off in

How you move may reflect your personality. Image from Pure Energy.

the night club? Extroverts seem to be vigorous and animated when they’re getting their groove on. They tend to move their body all around the dance floor and use a lot of exaggerated arm and leg movements. These are the people most likely to crash into others around them when they are dancing. Rock music really gets an extroverted person going with lots of head-banging and jumping around. So the chances are if someone has a strong sociable personality off the dance floor it will shine through on a night out! Rock music also brings individuals of a neurotic disposition out of their shells. Otherwise, these people tend to be as nervous when they are dancing as they are in everyday life. Their movement is characterised by sharp jerks of their hands and feet and often they practice “shuffle” dances. They move as little of their body as possible for fear of drawing attention to themselves in a crowd. A neurotic dancer will often sway awkwardly to the music for a while and then try to find an escape route off the floor as quickly as they can.

If someone in the room has a smooth dance style with soft yet elaborate hand movements, they probably have an agreeable personality. These people move from side to side across the floor and usually dance with their whole bodies. As the term suggests, these personality types are generally good natured and courteous and this is often reflected in their dance etiquette. An agreeable person will move around the room without getting in the way of any other dancers. I recognise this dance style in myself and when I hear a Latin rhythm I can’t help moving to the beat. This is the type of dancing which agreeable personalities show the most confidence in. The opposite is true of those who score high on openness of mind. Generally curious and creative, these individuals stick to moving up and down in time to the music and do not take up much floor space. Someone who enjoys dancing with their entire body in a limited space is likely to value new experiences and be very inventive and original. Techno is the genre of choice for a lot of these people and they really let loose with rhythmical limb movements. Conscientious people tend to move to this style of music in a jerky fashion, however. These normally self-disciplined and reliable individuals free themselves in a night club. They make as much use of the dance floor as possible and elaborate hand movements allow them to move greater distances. This is in contrast to their usually careful disposition. Dancing seems to be an outlet for them to let go, particularly when it comes to jazz music.

Having said all that, these are all generalisations and of course there will be variations. Some people may be quite extroverted but be restrained in their movements. A person who is normally introverted may feel more relaxed on the dance floor than they do anywhere else and really give it lots of energy. It all depends on the individual. Nevertheless, the points raised by the study are valid and it is worth keeping in mind. If you think back to the idea of dance as a form of communication and social interaction, it makes sense that a person will reveal elements of their personality in the way they move. In many tribal communities, dancing is often used by men as a way of attracting women. The link between dancing and fighting ability is vital in these cultures. A man who can dance well indicates the capability of protecting his family. This argues the case that there is an evolutionary reason why some men seem to be uncomfortable with dancing. In sexual selection a woman would normally determine how reliable a man is by measuring his fighting ability. If this is indicated by good dancing then there is a risk that someone who is a bad dancer will not get the chance to pass on his genes. It is safe to say that this is not of huge concern in this day and age but it could account for an innate prejudice some men have against dancing. No one likes to show themselves in a bad light, especially when they are trying to attract someone of the opposite sex. So the next time you are out in a night club, it is worth taking a moment to look at the movers and shakers around you. It is interesting to think about how much they may be unconsciously revealing about themselves. Think about your own dance style and see if it is an accurate reflection of your personality. You never know, you could discover something about yourself you were never aware of before.


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