A Day in the Life of a Dance Psychologist
By Peter Lovatt
I am a dance psychologist. People often ask me what Dance Psychology is and what a Dance Psychologist does. Well, amongst other things, Dance Psychology is about watching dance, it’s about understanding the characteristics of dancers, it’s about engaging with the scientific literature on dance, and it’s about understanding how people feel when they dance. For me dance psychology is about dancing, whenever and wherever I can.
Dance Psychology is the study of dance and dancers from a psychological perspective. I have always been struck by the power of dance. Before I was a Psychologist I was a professional dancer. Dancing made me feel relaxed and stress free, it helped me to think more clearly, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do. As an academic psychologist I am trained to use experimental research methods to question hypotheses and to test the validity of theories in psychology. Dance Psychology is all about turning these research methods onto questions and theories about dance. So, what sort of questions do dance psychologists ask?
What do you “see” and “think” when you watch dance?
Dance Psychologists are interested in understanding how people communicate through dance and body movement. Communication is a two-way street, such that we have to be able to transmit (or communicate) something and someone else needs to be able to receive and make sense of what has been transmitted. How do we do this in dance? Scientists have been interested in how we recognise emotions as they are expressed in movement and we are also interested in how stories and narratives are understood through dance. Do all people see and understand the same thing when they watch dance? Are some dances like languages, such we are able to understand some and not others? Do you need to be an expert in dance to understand it. Watch this piece of dance. There are no right or wrong ways of seeing it. Does it wash over you passively, what is your conscious mind doing while you watch it? Do you get it, enjoy it, understand it, hate it, feel something, or nothing?
Does dancing change a person’s self-esteem?
I think dancing had a positive effect on my self-esteem. It made me feel confident, I was reasonably good at it when I was younger and I defined myself as a “dancer”, I was proud of that. When I talk about dance and self-esteem people always say the same, that dancing increased their sense of self-worth. But the scientific literature tells us a different story. Some of the scientific studies have found no evidence that dancing increases a person’s self-esteem and other studies have concluded that dancing can actually have a negative impact a person’s self esteem. The jury is, therefore, still out. We are undertaking a very large study into the relationship between dance and self-esteem in people of all ages and across all dance styles. You can be part of this study by following the link below. Once we get a critical mass of people who have taken part we’ll share our findings.
The Scientific Literature on Dance
Is it possible to dance inside a brain scanner?
Researchers want to understand what happens in the human brain when people dance, watch dance or learn to dance. One way to do this is to get people to dance, watch dance and learn to dance as they lay in a brain scanner. Now, it’s easy enough to watch dance laying flat on your back, with a needle in your arm, while you stay perfectly still and wear a thermo plastic mask over your face, but these conditions are not always conducive to actually dancing. Here is an academic research paper by Brown, Martinez and Parsons (2006) called The Neural Basis of Human Dance. It is, clearly, an excellent research paper. The method is carefully controlled, the findings are informative and the conclusions are theoretically interesting. I just have one nagging thought. Were the participants actually dancing while they were laying in a brain scanner? You decide. Click on the link to download the full paper.
Feel like dancing?
How does dancing make you feel?
Some people love to dance and others hate it. Some people would rather pull out their own fingernails than dance. I have danced for most of my life and I still attend several dance classes a week. I’ve done a bit of ballet, contemporary, national, character, tap, pas de deux, jazz, ballroom, Latin and many other forms of dance. I find the sub-culture associated with different styles of dance fascinating. Some are formal and exclusive, others are young, some are old and some are enthusiastically welcoming. Some forms of dance make certain requirements of you, such that you must have a partner, or you have to wear certain clothes or be of a particular gender. Your experience of dancing may depend on your exposure to these different dance sub-cultures. Thousands of people have told me why they dance (or don’t dance). Some people say they danced when they were younger but now they feel too old to dance. A man told me that he stopped dancing because his wife laughed at him when he danced. If you’d like to tell me, in your own words, either why you dance or why you don’t dance, click on this link.
Hit the Floor
If you’d like to give dancing a go there are many dance studios in London (and around the country) that offer a variety of drop in classes for adults. I first went Pineapple dance studios about 30 years, I still take about five classes a week there now. When I was a professional dancer I went there for advanced classes, auditions and rehearsals. Now I steer clear of the professional classes and I dance for pleasure. Why not give it a go? There really is something for everyone. I’m a big fan of Fleur’s jazz classes.