5 Scientific Steps That Will Make You a Better Dancer

iStock/SolStock
iStock/SolStock

A good dancer can command a crowd. Louis XIV studied ballet as a means to elevate his status and influence, using his dance moves as a political tool. More recently, artists like Sammy Davis Jr. and Beyoncé achieved superstardom because their dance moves augmented the power of their music. Though learning how to dance well may seem dependent in talent, science has a few hints about what can make someone—even you—a great dancer.

  1. Step One: Tap Into Your Core

Basic ways of moving, such as the ability to crawl, stand, and walk, develop when we’re children and become second nature as our brains cement these actions in memory. By age 2, toddlers will attempt bobbing up and down to the beat of a song or try simple dance moves. Coordinating and practicing these grooves begins once we’ve mastered standing with a neutral pelvis—a position in which the head, shoulders, and hips align when viewed from the side with a slight curve in the lower back.

“Not only might [a] neutral pelvis facilitate body movements in general, but it also seems to improve specific action at [the] hip and lumbar spine,” write Clara Fischer Gam and Elsa Urmstom in an article posted on the International Society of Dance Medicine and Science’s website. This alignment stabilizes the core, which supports more dynamic movement.

To find your neutral pelvis, Dance magazine recommends lying on your back with your knees bent, allowing the natural curve of your spine to create a slight space between your lower back and the floor. In this position your hips should not tilt noticeably up toward the ceiling or into the floor; they should remain “neutral,” creating a plane level enough to balance a glass of water.

  1. Step Two: Warm Up

After achieving a neutral pelvis, stay put for some stretching.

One of the simplest ways to increase your body’s range of motion is to generate heat through low impact movement, says Marijeanne Liederbach, director of NYU Langone's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. This also helps protect against injuries.

"In order for [muscle] to have safe range of motion, it needs to warm up a little bit,” Liederbach tells Mental Floss. Once warm, muscles have more elasticity, which means you can twist and bend with greater ease. Stretching primes your body for more for strenuous activity and reduces the risk of injury.

  1. Step Three: Shift Your Weight

In 2013, researchers in the UK conducted a study in which a group of 48 men and women judged the quality of 30 male dancers’ moves. Their favored traits were bold and varied core movements, like bending and twisting from side to side or back and forth, while incorporating vigorous arm movements. In 2017, the same researchers published a similar study of 39 female dancers, all British university students, that suggested greater hip swings and asymmetric movements of the thighs and arms are considered desirable traits.

"Dance [is] a human behavior that everyone does,” Nick Neave, a co-author and professor at Northumbria University, tells Mental Floss. “We thought these movements would be honest signals—you can't fake them—so they're giving off information about your health, your age, your fertility, [and] your reproductive stages.” (Critics have argued that these findings are arbitrary because the sample sizes of the dancers were too small.)

So, stand up and practice leaning from one leg to another. Try deeply bending your knees or standing tall on the ball of your foot. Then, shake out your arms and legs. It might help to picture one of those inflatable tube people grooving in the wind.

Remember, the more you practice your moves, the more seamless your moves will become. “If people keep coming back to these basic elements of movement, then they can pretty much intelligently progress up to whatever movements they want,” Liederbach says.

As for synchronizing with music, for most of us, following the beat is intrinsic and natural. Being “beat-deaf” is rare, but a 2014 study of two such individuals suggested that some people have more difficulty than others synchronizing movement with external cues, like music.

  1. Step Four: Connect with Other Dancers

Breaking a sweat activates endorphins, which trigger a sense of pleasure and make dancing enjoyable, but there’s also evidence that dancing supports human connection. In an article in Scientific American, neurologist John Krakauer attributes some of this connection to cells called mirror neurons, which cause your brain’s movement areas to activate while dancing and while watching others dance.

“Unconsciously, you are planning and predicting how a dancer would move based on what you would do,” Krakauer writes. So, if you can’t perform a pirouette, watching ballet is still rewarding.

Mirroring movement also is powerful in action. “There is something about doing the same thing at the same time with other people that really bonds us and expands our sense of self,” Scott Wiltermuth, an organizational behavior professor at the University of Southern California, tells Mental Floss. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense we would derive pleasure from coordinating well with others: in early hunter-gatherer societies, collaboration meant survival, he says.

Ilya Vidrin, a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre For Dance Research in the UK and a Harvard Fellow, suggests that qualities that strengthen relationships in life, such as the ability to pick up on tonal shifts in voice and subtle shifts in body language, also strengthen partnerships in dance. “It’s clear that just because you’re making eye contact [and] touching … doesn’t mean that you’re connected,” he tells Mental Floss.

  1. Step Five: Be Authentic

According to Judith Lynne Hanna, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, it’s important to remember that aesthetic attitudes toward dancing vary by personal preference, genre, culture, and nation. For example, flamenco dancers exhibit a strong connection to the ground with rooted footwork, while ballet dancers strive to maintain a lifted frame and elevate the body.

Among the Ubakala, an Igbo group in Nigeria, movement patterns reflect a person's identity. It's common for women of child-bearing age to dance in circular formations, using more fluid movements, while men dance vibrantly in warrior-like patterns. Elders in the group tend to act like dance rebels, however; they often defy gender norms and dance however they like, Hanna says. The ability to connect through movement keeps these dance forms alive.

No matter where you source your style, be yourself. “If people are afraid to look stupid, if people are afraid to fail, then likely they’ll be more afraid to dance,” Vidrin says. There’s no need to fear the unknown on the dance floor.

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

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