Sexual Politics of Dancing: The Secrets of Looking Good on the Dance Floor

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Why do some clubbers shake it like a Polaroid picture while others prefer to perch on a bar stool? British psychologist Peter Lovatt, who has conducted rigorous field work in nightclubs, believes he can explain why some booty shaking is hot -- and some is not. It's all about your hormones.

University of Hertfordshire

The people next to the bar are clutching their drinks tightly. A little closer to the dance floor, people are swaying to the beat and nodding their heads, while under the disco ball others are letting loose, showing creativity and coordination -- or at least trying to.

It's a familiar scene in every disco. But what exactly happens to us when the beat kicks in? Why are some folks bursting with confidence on the dance floor, when others appear to be stuck to their barstools? And perhaps most importantly: What dance styles are most likely to find you a potential mate?

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor

If one is to believe psychologist Peter Lovatt, three factors influence how confidently an individual moves on the dance floor -- and how attractive the other gender finds the performance. Those factors are age, gender and genes.

Lovatt, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire near London who is widely known as "Dr. Dance," bases his conclusions on rigorous field work. In January 2009, Lovatt visited a nightclub at his university -- for purely scientific reasons, of course. His mission was to find out which style of dancing was most attractive to the opposite sex, and why.

Strutting Their Stuff

First of all, his students measured clubbers' ring and index fingers. The relationship between the two fingers is believed to be related to how much testosterone an individual was exposed to in the womb. If the ring finger is longer than the index finger, it suggests a high level of prenatal testosterone.

Lovatt and his team observed the dance floor closely and took certain dancers aside for a solo performance. Those selected groovers were then filmed for 30 seconds on a separate dance floor which was, according to Lovatt, "just as lively and noisy as the main dance floor." Then the team headed back to the lab with their videos.

Lovatt then applied a filter to the footage so that the dancers could only be seen in silhouette, which meant that any viewer had to focus solely on their movements. He showed these films to students, who had to rate the dancers on a five-point scale from "very attractive" to "very unattractive."

The results showed that women gave the highest attractiveness ratings to men with the highest levels of prenatal testosterone. The men with the lowest testosterone in turn got the lowest attractiveness ratings. "Men can communicate their testosterone levels through the way they dance," Lovatt told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And women understand it -- without noticing it."

Subtle Is Better

The men who got the female students hot under the collar danced with large movements which were "complexly coordinated." But it's a fine line between hot and not, however: Those men who made big moves but who were less coordinated came across as dominant alpha males -- and were unlikely to win women's hearts. The researchers also found that the size and complexity of the dance moves decreased in parallel with testosterone levels.

In women, the link between dancing style and testosterone levels were similar -- but the reaction of men was just the opposite. Dancers with high levels of testosterone moved more parts of their body, with their movements being somewhat uncoordinated, while those with lower testosterone made more subtle movements, especially with their hips. The male students found the latter style most appealing.

Lovatt says that he has entered uncharted territory with his research. "There are many people who work with things like dance therapy, but there is currently no one who is studying the psychological aspects of dancing using an experimental approach," he says.

From Theory to Practice

Lovatt knows his subject matter well -- he himself was a professional dancer until the age of 26. He performed in musicals in large venues around England and also worked on cruise ships. The thought of an academic career barely entered his head at the time. He wasn't even able to read until he was 23, having left school without any qualifications. When he looked at a page in a book, "all I saw was a big black block."

Lovatt decided to teach himself to read. "I thought it was ridiculous that I couldn't," he recalls. At the age of 26, he took his A-levels, the standard entry qualification for universities in England, and gave up his career as a professional dancer. He studied English and psychology and went on to conduct research at Cambridge University. He was working on memory and language -- "very theoretical stuff," as he describes it -- when he had a Damascene conversion. "One day I was walking across campus and I thought to myself: This is not me, I don't want to do this anymore."

He realized he missed dance and physical movement. He decided to combine both his interests and started to study the psychology of the performing arts. He found a position at the University of Hertfordshire and set up the course "The Psychology of Dance." But Lovatt didn't just speak about his research -- he also danced in his lectures. He became more and more popular with students and the course was a resounding success.

Nowadays Lovatt is much in demand as a speaker. Last October, he was a guest at the Science Museum in London, where he delivered a series of lectures entitled "Dance, Hormones and Sexual Selection." At the end of each session, the whole room was dancing.

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