My closest friends know that I love dancing. They also know I dance crazy: I like jumping up and down, jiggling my legs as if I’m having a seizure, and spreading my arms wide in a dance move I call “the bird.” Mainly, I do all these things because I have fun dancing this way. And if I’m out on a dance floor, I want to have fun.
Earlier this month I saw a scientific study that made me really mad. It was about female dance moves that are considered sexy, at least according to “science.” Several respectable news outlets like The New York Times and Scientific American reported on the study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
There are a few things I hate about this study. First of all, it’s the way it was designed. Researchers at Northumbria University in the UK asked 39 young women, ages 18 to 30, to dance to a drum beat taken from a Robbie Williams song. They then used motion-capture technology to record the dancers and render their movements onto a computer avatar. That was done to remove “all information about their individual appearance,” the study says. In other words, they didn’t want men and women judging the dance moves to focus on the dancers’ looks. The problem is, the avatar they came up with is an over-sexualized woman with impossible body proportions. I mean, look at that tiny waist and big breasts.
The researchers then asked 200 people — 57 men and 143 women — to watch the avatars dance for 15 seconds and rate them from extremely bad to extremely good. Here’s what contributes to “high-quality female dance,” according to the study: big hip swing, and your arms and thighs moving independently of one another. The researchers provide a few reasons why these movements might make for hot dancing: swaying your hips is a sign of femininity, and it might signal your fertility to a potential partner. Moving your limbs in an asymmetric way is also a sign of finely tuned motor skills. Those are all things we expect men to want from us, right?
Well, I don’t dance like this. Before writing this article, I asked my boyfriend — who’s a big fan of my dancing — what he likes about the way I bop around the dance floor. “I love how much fun you have, and how wild you are,” he answered. “It always makes me smile.” Is it possible the science is wrong?
As I suspected, the study has some big limitations — and its explanations may be more of a “just-so” story than science. The dancers were all heterosexual female college students, rated by all heterosexual men and women. So the study doesn’t speak for people who identify with any other sexual orientation. All those women were also recruited from a university in northeastern England, and we know that dance and sexiness are cultural. So while this study might tell us something about hot dancing in the UK, it’s not some kind of universal statement on sexy dance worldwide.
The study also comprises of only 39 dancers — that’s not a lot of people, and as Slate columnist Daniel Engber points out, that means the findings might not be definitive at all. In fact, the same Northumbria University researchers published a similar study in 2010 analyzing male dancing. That study, published in Biology Letters, showed that twisting your right knee real fast would make a man a sexy dancer. That was a pretty weird finding, and a follow-up study in 2013 failed to replicate the result. The lead researcher told Engber that was because the first study only had 19 subjects; to answer certain research questions, he would need to study at least 200 subjects. So why did the study on female dancers only include 39?
The clips rated for dance quality in the Scientific Reports study were also super short: 15 seconds. That’s a pretty short time frame to judge whether someone is a good dancer — aka a good partner you’d choose for mating. And do we want to even talk about how scary-looking that avatar is? It gives me nightmares.
Personally, I believe that any dancing performed with conviction is sexy. Take the topical dance scene in the movie Hitch. Will Smith asks Kevin James to show him how he dances — and off James goes, starting the fire and making the pizza, using the Q-tip at the sound of “Yeah!” by Usher feat. Lil Jon. You might disagree with me, and I will disagree with Will Smith. That dancing is sexy to me — because he’s so sure of himself and he’s having fun. Or, in James’ words in the movie, “Just expressing myself.”
When I first moved to New York, a friend of mine was trying to teach me how to sway my hips to the rhythm of hip hop music. I’d never danced to hip hop in Italy, which is where I’m originally from, and I sucked at this new style of dance. I felt like a piece of wood trying to move smoothly and — worse — I was consumed by self-consciousness. I quickly decided to give up the sensual hip waving to go back to the crazy dancing style I had mastered in high school. I was self-confident again, and dancing was again fun. And isn’t having fun the real point of dance?
So please ignore the headlines that scream, “What Makes a Woman a Good Dancer? Watch the Hips, a Study Says” and “What Makes for the Hottest Dance Moves? Hips Don't Lie.” You know what makes a woman a sexy dancer? A woman who’s having fun.