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Watching a Dance Performance – Our Brain is Dancing Along

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The curtains open and on stage begins a spectacle of human beauteousness. Bodies play a game with tension and relaxation, arms and legs become a part of a transforming ornamentation, women and men step, jump, fly. We are in the ballet sitting ourselves in a chair being spectators. We are enjoying. Fairly certain.

But what does this special enjoyment of a dance performance consist of in contrast to other kinds of art? And which dance moves are valued particularly beautiful compared with others? The neuroscientists Emily S. Cross et al. wanted to know and so they carried out a trial with 22 participants who had limited dance experience. Their brains were scanned while watching 64 short dance videos.

The results confirm several neuroaesthetic studies, which show the existence of an embodied simulation account of aesthetic experience. That means, in case of dance perception, that we are simulating the movements, articulated by the dancers within our own motor system while sitting in our chair. In no other art perception the motor system is involved to that extent.

Moreover, Cross proved the connection between aesthetic appreciation and observers’ physical ability. She asked the participants after each of the videos how much they liked the dance moves and how well they thought they could reproduce them. In the scanner, the parts of the brain responsible for the “liking” of the moves showed most activity, when moves where classified as difficult to execute. The “disliking” parts were most active, while observing the easy moves.

So, in fact, we most appreciate the beautiful dance moves that we are not able to execute ourselves. But thanks to our embodied simulation account, at least we can experience a tiny bit of the joy of dancing – while sitting in our chair.

Cross ES, Kirsch L, Ticini LF, & Schütz-Bosbach S (2011). The impact of aesthetic evaluation and physical ability on dance perception. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 5 PMID: 21960969

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