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.
|A to C rounded dance movements, contrasted with non-round movements D to F. Image from Christensen et al 2016|
|Image from Christen et al 2016|
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."
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
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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