Dance psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt thinks dancing can solve real-life problems. Time Out’s dance editor Lyndsey Winship tries it out – in the supermarket.
Dancing. It makes you feel good, right? But why? ‘People say, “Oh, it’s the endorphins,”’ says Dr Peter Lovatt, ‘but it’s so much more than that.’ Lovatt is an expert in such matters, a former professional dancer and now the world’s only academic dance psychologist. He investigates the invigorating effects of dance on our mood, health, love life, learning capacity and even our decision-making, with some surprising results.
Did you know that improvised dancing can help boost your creativity? Or that copying a dance routine can speed up your convergent thinking? Or that a woman changes her dancing style in synch with her menstrual cycle?
To find out more, I met Lovatt in his Dance Lab at the University of Hertfordshire. The Dance Lab doesn’t have a flashing dancefloor, sadly, and looks suspiciously like a normal office. This is not new-age quackery, the enthusiastic Dr Lovatt is quick to point out. ‘What I’m looking for is facts and evidence,’ he says. His studies range from looking at how dance can help people with Parkinson’s, to whether making the shapes of Chinese characters with your body could help you learn them more quickly.
Lovatt’s just made a pilot for Channel 4, ‘Dr Dance’, helping people solve their problems – such as a rugby team’s spatial awareness and a couple’s intimacy issues – through dance. But could I apply some of Dr Dance’s lab findings to my everyday life? Could I improve my life through dance? Let’s find out.
The science In one of Lovatt’s experiments, participants were given tests in ‘convergent thinking’ – coming up with a single, ‘correct’ answer – and ‘divergent thinking’ – generating lots of ideas. Half the group then learned a simple dance routine, the other half did a dance improvisation. When they were tested again, the group which learned a routine had got much faster at answering the logical questions, and the ‘improv’ group scored much higher on creative thinking.
The location Supermarket.
The reality Being the world’s most indecisive person, just choosing a bottle of wine can consume most of my evening. Hmm, rioja, pinot noir, special offer… Lovatt has given me a little disco routine to learn, which should help with rational choice. The problem is, it’s inconvenient to bust out moves in public every time you’ve got a problem to solve. In the red wine aisle I casually mark a few steps from the routine. A fellow customer looks at me funny. To avoid further embarrassment, I grab a bottle on special offer and get out of there. So it worked… in a way.
The verdict The inherent difficulties in recreating lab conditions in the field saw this challenge effectively scuppered. The wine I chose was nice though.
The score: 5/10
The science When it comes to creative thinking, Dr Dance recommends improvising, rather than learning a dance routine. Improvise with the body and the brain gets better at improvising too. ‘People find improvisation – in life, not just in the dance studio – really, really difficult,’ Lovatt says. Can dance free my mind?
The location Office.
The reality I’m at my desk and towards the end of the day my brain has gone into slo-mo. I have one more piece to write and need a last boost of creative energy. Now’s the time to try some improv. I look around the brightly lit, open-plan office… not here though. I find an empty meeting room on the top floor, switch the light on and realise I have an audience – in the office block opposite every cubicle is lit up. I can see people’s faces. I can see old Christmas cards still pinned to their walls. They can definitely see me. I pull down the blind and start jigging a bit on the spot, but quietly, so no one walking past the room will hear. So far the fear of being discovered is counteracting any positive vibes I might be getting. It does feel good to stretch out a bit, though, after sitting hunched over a keyboard. I start swirling my arms and swaying to a little tune in my head; soon I’m bopping and twirling (quietly, mind). Hell, this is fun! Back at my desk I sit down and rattle off 200 words, no bother. Much better and healthier than a fag break. And free.
The verdict It’s official: improv can boost your creativity and save you from boredom. Now try to get the rest of the office to join in. We dare you.
The score: 7/10
The science When watching the wildlife in nature documentaries or in overpriced W1 nightclubs, we’ve all seen how dance is a vital part of the mating ritual. And while we like to think we’re more sophisticated than a blue-footed booby, evolutionary psychology might tell us otherwise. Studies have found that men are most attracted to women who are at the most fertile part of their menstrual cycle, and that those women dance differently to usual, moving just their hips and not other parts of their bodies. So girls, if you want to keep someone’s attention on the dancefloor, stop flailing your arms about and get wiggly with it. A whole world of booty-focused R&B videos would suggest that’s not far off the truth. I’d really hoped there was more to me than my vagina, but there you go.
The location Madame JoJo’s
The reality Sadly, in a quiet club in early January, there’s not much action. For an extrovert dancer, this ‘hips only’ thing is boring. I catch a few eyes, but a combination of British reserve and New Year’s sobriety means that even if someone is finding me attractive they’re not doing anything about it. Bloody British reserve!
The verdict Hips do lie, apparently.
The science We’re familiar with the idea that physical activity produces endorphins – chemicals in our brain that give us a natural high – but Lovatt’s findings go deeper. To have a really beneficial effect on our wellbeing, you need a dance that is active but also social and cognitive (ie you’re learning something new), but not competitive or judgmental.
The location Dance night
The reality I decide that a barn dance ticks the boxes and drag some friends to a London Barndance Company night at Cecil Sharp House. It’s a mostly older crowd (I’ll keep the hips in check here, I think), which supports another of Lovatt’s findings: men’s ‘dance confidence’, which is low for most of their lives, rockets after the age of 65. You hardly get through the door here before being pounced on by pensionable gents eager to get you on the floor. We learn American contras and square dances, desperately trying to keep pace, resulting in that state of giddy hilarity that comes with clinging on tightly and being swung around in endless circles. Compared to more trendy dance nights I’ve been to, there’s no judgment, no one to impress, no pulling, no rejection, just great sweaty fun. We leave with pink cheeks, bright eyes and big grins.
The verdict When all else fails, get someone to swing you round in circles. A better natural high than any dodgy internet buy.
The score: 9/10
Dance Night with Peter Lovatt at Old Finsbury Town Hall on Fri Jan 25.. theschooloflife.com.
Five feel-good dance classes to try out these theories…
This regular Celtic shindig is hosting some Burns Night specials. Swing your partners!
Hammersmith Town Hall. Fri Jan 25, Sat Jan 26, Feb 2. For info, see ceilidhclub.com.
A dance class based on choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Gaga method. Suitable for all, regardless of experience, it works like a guided improvisation. There’s no wrong or right, no looking in the mirror, no judging. Quite liberating.
For info, see danceworks.co.uk.
DANCE DANCE PARTY PARTY
One for the girls. Sweaty jump around disco/dance session where the lights go off, the music goes up and everyone rocks out for an hour. You don’t learn any steps, but it is joyous fun.
Dalston, Vauxhall and Camden. For info, see dancedancepartyparty.com.
Busy ’40s/’50s night in a gorgeous 1950s ballroom in Brockley. Starts with a beginners’ class and, while there are lots of accomplished dancers, newbies are welcome.
Rivoli Ballroom. Third Saturday of the month. For info, see jiveparty.com.
MUSIC VIDEO DANCE CLASS
Fun class teaching music video moves from Jacko, Beyoncé and others. Unconfident dancers can join a beginners’ class so there’s zero pressure.
Frame, Shoreditch. For info, see moveyourframe.com.