Can dance training make you more aware of your emotions?
Study showed ballet clips to dancers and non-dancers to gauge their reactions. Results may suggest link between dancing and empathy, says author
A series of scientific studies may reveal why audiences like certain dance moves more than others, and they suggest that dancers are more emotionally sensitive than the rest of us. The results may also point to a role the arts can play in empathy training.
When a ballerina sweeps her leg up high behind her, with her body arching like a sail full of wind, audiences get a thrill. This soaring arabesque pose can be found in just about any ballet, from Swan Lake and The Nutcracker to more contemporary works.
But what is it about the pose that has attracted choreographers and audiences through the years? Does the spectator’s pleasure in seeing it stem from the accompanying music, from the story being told through the dancing, or simply from the shape of the dancer’s body?
One study isolated dance moves into very brief, silent, black-and-white video clips. With no context to go by other than the shapes of the moving bodies, participants were asked to rate their emotional response, whether they liked or disliked the moves, or found them happy or sad. Participants rated the video clips containing the rounded movements, such as the upward-curving arabesque, as significantly more positive than the clips with sharp, edgy movements.
“There must be some type of universal mechanism where our perceptual system understands that roundedness is good, and edgy might be dangerous,” says Julia Christensen, a research fellow in the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit at City University London, and lead author of the study “Affective Responses to Dance.” She points to other studies showing that when people see sharp objects, this engages danger-detection mechanisms in the brain.
“A lot of this work confirms what artists already know intuitively,” Christensen says. Her findings in a similar study with professional ballet dancers reflect this. In that study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, the brief ballet video clips were shown to two groups of people – the dancers, and a control group of those with no dance experience.
Both groups “read” the emotions of the ballet clips correctly. But the dancers had much stronger reactions to the emotional content.
“The very cool thing about this study is that the dancers not only recognise the emotions better, but their bodies would also respond more sensitively to the displayed emotional movements. Dancers’ bodies differentiated between different emotions that were expressed in the clips, where the controls didn’t,” says Christensen.
But isn’t this what we’d expect from those with expertise in what they’re looking at? That is exactly the point, she says: The evidence suggests that training in these physical expressions made the dancers more sensitive to them. And this indicates an interesting potential, that the neurocognitive mechanisms that make people more sensitive can be trained.
Christensen, who trained in dance before injury forced her to stop, believes that her research shows “why everyone should dance. Our research indicates that dance training might be a way to make you more aware of emotions.”
“You could even hypothesise that dance makes you more empathetic,” she says, “because it seems that you learn to react automatically and more sensitively to others’ expressions.” But this still needs to be tested, she adds.
The Washington Post