Academic Research on Dancing

1. A fascinating research study was done in Jamaica that showed there is a correlation between dance ability (skill), people having a high degree of body symmetry, and overall attractiveness. These links have more info.

2. An article about the view of Salsa dance across cultures was written by Bowdoin College music professor Joanna Bosse.  She found that Americans think of Salsa focusing on the hips and sensuality.  Members of other ethnic groups are more likely to focus on other aspects of the dance such as its value in staying physically fit.

3.  A medical doctor named Rita Hargrave who is associated with the University of California at Davis' Department of Psychiatry, has spoken at a medical meeting about the health benefits of Salsa dancing. She gave a talk titled: "Mambo Madness: Salsa Dancing as an Intervention for Depression.”   Hargrave said "Social dancing has been associated with a decreased incidence of dementia and significant reduction in depression. Salsa, the most popular form of social dancing, holds a special spiritual/cultural importance for many African American, Afro-Caribean, and Hispanic elders. In this talk…. Salsa dancing as an intervention to reduce depression will be discussed."

4.  The link below has an interesting article by Stanford instructor Richard Powers on the health benefits of dance.  In an article from The New England Journal of Medicine,  he summarizes the findings on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging.  

5. Listed below are some good texts on Latin and Cuban music, as well as the brain's chemistry while listening to music.

Tango: the Art History of Love by Robert Farris Thompson. (Pantheon). 

Atlas de los Instrumentos Folklorico-Popular de Cuba (Atlas of the Folkloric-Popular Instruments of Cuba)  Note: the link below gets you to info on the author, Olava Rodriguez, who is also director of the Center for the Study and Development of Cuban Music

Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, by Ned Sublette

Sublette, who lives in NYC, is one of the foremost authorities on the history of Cuban music. He's quite a good speaker, too.

Caribbean Currents by Peter Manuel

Merengue by Paul Austerlitz

Bachata by Deborah Pacini Hernandez

This Is Your Brain on Music and The World In Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, both by Daniel LevitinThe books are fabulous, and have a vast reach.  The first addresses how music affects the brain's chemistry.  The second discusses, among other things, the thesis that music made civilization as we know it possible, by enabling people to work together cooperatively in large groups, and more!  

He points out that the most primitive languages don't distinguish between the concepts of music and dance.  Initially the words for these concepts were one and the same.  And in studies on the brain, if someone is lying down listening to music, it is the motor cortex (which controls movement) that is activated.  

6.   There was a nice article in The Economist in May, 2008 about the effects of Salsa on the economy that made some interesting points.

Just seeing Salsa referred to as an "export" was a bit startling. Here is the article below. Note that I added the bold in the first paragraph.

Selling rhythm to the world

Mar 27th 2008

From The Economist print edition; link at:

Cashing in on a global dance craze

ASKED to mention exports to Europe or the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean, many people might mention coffee, bananas or, less happily, cocaine. Now add to that list a hugely successful cultural export: salsa has become the biggest international dance craze since the advent of rock'n'roll in the 1950s, and dwarfs even the popularity of tango during the 1920s. It has spawned a new niche for the tourist industry, as stiff-hipped northerners fly south to learn to loosen up.

Salsa has also helped to fuel a revival of interest in tango. But whilst tango, with its slow, strenuous movements and melancholy music, remains a minority interest, salsa's worldwide appeal shows no sign of weakening. Almost every city in Europe now has a cluster of clubs offering classes at all levels, with Britain, Germany and Scandinavia especially well-served. Salsa is also a passion in Japan, and is taking hold in India and China.

Salsa's history is much disputed. As the name implies, it is a "sauce" of several ingredients: Cuban son and mambo figure, but so do moves inherited from American jitterbug and jive. A style broadly identifiable as salsa (though the name came later) evolved among Puerto Rican and Cuban exiles in the United States in the late 1960s, and then moved back to Latin America.

Its appeal spread outside the region in the 1990s, for reasons that are not hard to divine. A fast, intimate couple dance, it allows much contact between partners, generating sexual frisson. Salsa music is intricately textured, offering rich melodies and virtuoso musicianship at a time when its main European consumers, the over-30s, see mainstream pop music as bland.

Cuba, with its hunger for tourist dollars, has been quick to see salsa's earning potential. "Lady Salsa", a musical featuring spectacular dance routines dramatising a government-sanctioned potted history of Cuba, has toured the world since 2000. British, European and Japanese tour operators now offer salsa holidays in Havana, including two hours of dance tuition daily with professional dancers and nightly visits to clubs. It is also easy to arrange private lessons in a cramped apartment; though technically illegal, these will earn the instructor a month's white-collar salary in two or three hours.

Cuban salsa is vigorous and athletic, with much clockwise circling, its African roots clearly evident. Puerto Ricans prefer the "New York style" developed in the 1980s. This involves straighter movements, the dancers moving to and fro as if on tracks. Many Americans go to Puerto Rico for salsa lessons; a few European operators now market it too. 

Colombia and Venezuela share an elegantly restrained style, with much back-stepping, smaller hand-movements and little use of the elaborate, arm-tangling moves beloved of Cuban dancers. Despite a profusion of world-class bands and venues, neither country has yet attracted many salsa tourists. Cali, Colombia's third city, boasts perhaps the densest concentration of dance clubs in Latin America. Residents of Juanchito, a Cali suburb, are said to learn salsa as soon as they can walk. At weekends the clubs hold contests where dancers as young as six don glittering tuxedos, or high heels and lipgloss, to compete in frenetic dance routines.

The Dominican Republic is an anomaly. It has produced several top bands but salsa is barely danced except by tourists. The locals prefer merengue, at carwashes equipped with bars. At weekends the forecourt is filled with tables and a live band. Salsa may come, but for now if you want to spend Saturday night at the carwash you'll need to dance merengue.

7.  Below is an article about research linking how someone moves to criminals' perception of how easy a victim the person would be.  The Laban Movement Analysis method was used by professional dancers to assess how coordinated people were, and criminals in prisons were asked to rate who would make an easy victim—all based on the way they walked....  The bottom line is that people who dancers rated as slightly awkward in their movement were also rated as easier targets of crime by the criminals! Very interesting.  

“How the way we walk can increase risk of being mugged”   by Tom Stafford

5 November 2013.  
The way people move can influence the likelihood of an attack by a stranger. The good news, though, is that altering it can reduce the chances of being targeted.
How you move gives a lot away. Maybe too much, if the wrong person is watching. We think, for instance, that the way people walk can influence the likelihood of an attack by a stranger. But we also think that their walking style can be altered to reduce the chances of being targeted.

A small number of criminals commit most of the crimes, and the crimes they commit are spread unevenly over the population: some unfortunate individuals seem to be picked out repeatedly by those intent on violent assault. Back in the 1980s, two psychologists from New York, Betty Grayson and Morris Stein, set out to find out what criminals look for in potential victims. They filmed short clips of members of the public walking along New York's streets, and then took those clips to a large East Coast prison. They showed the tapes to 53 violent inmates with convictions for crimes on strangers, ranging from assault to murder, and asked them how easy each person would be to attack.

The prisoners made very different judgements about these notional victims. Some were consistently rated as easier to attack, as an "easy rip-off". There were some expected differences, in that women were rated as easier to attack than men, on average, and older people as easier targets than the young. But even among those you’d expect to be least easy to assault, the subgroup of young men, there were some individuals who over half the prisoners rated at the top end of the "ease of assault" scale (a 1, 2 or 3, on the 10 point scale).

The researchers then asked professional dancers to analyze the clips using a system called Laban movement analysis – a system used by dancers, actors and others to describe and record human movement in detail. They rated the movements of people identified as victims as subtly less coordinated than those of non-victims.

Although Professors Grayson and Stein identified movement as the critical variable in criminals' predatory decisions, their study had the obvious flaw that their films contained lots of other potentially relevant information: the clothes the people wore, for example, or the way they held their heads. Two decades later, a research group led by Lucy Johnston of the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, performed a more robust test of the idea.

The group used a technique called the point light walker. This is a video recording of a person made by attaching lights or reflective markers to their joints while they wear a black body suit. When played back you can see pure movement shown in the way their joints move, without being able to see any of their features or even the limbs that connect their joints.

Research with point light walkers has shown that we can read characteristics from joint motion, such as gender or mood. This makes sense, if you think for a moment of times you've recognised a person from a distance, long before you were able to make out their face. Using this technique, the researchers showed that even when all other information was removed, some individuals still get picked out as more likely to be victims of assault than others, meaning these judgements must be based on how they move.

Walk this way

But the most impressive part of Johnston’s investigations came next, when she asked whether it was possible to change the way we walk so as to appear less vulnerable. A first group of volunteers were filmed walking before and after doing a short self defense course. Using the point-light technique, their walking styles were rated by volunteers (not prisoners) for vulnerability. Perhaps surprisingly, the self-defense training didn't affect the walkers’ ratings.

In a second experiment, recruits were given training in how to walk, specifically focusing on the aspects which the researchers knew affected how vulnerable they appeared: factors affecting the synchrony and energy of their movement. This led to a significant drop in all the recruits' vulnerability ratings, which was still in place when they were re-tested a month later.

There is school of thought that the brain only exists to control movement. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that how we move can give a lot away. It's also not surprising that other people are able to read our movements, whether it is in judging whether we will win a music competition, or whether we are bluffing at poker. You see how someone moves before you can see their expression, hear what they are saying or smell them. Movements are the first signs of others’ thoughts, so we've evolved to be good (and quick) at reading them.

The point light walker research a great example of a research journey that goes from a statistical observation, through street-level investigations and the use of complex lab techniques, and then applies the hard won knowledge for good: showing how the vulnerable can take steps to reduce their appearance of vulnerability.