This Is Why We Dance
BBC Focus - Science & Technology|Christmas 2016

As Strictly reaches its climax, millions of people will be tuning in to watch. But why are we such dance-lovers? Science might just have the answers…

Dr Peter Lovatt

Dancing is in our DNA. It is found in every culture around the world throughout history, and is enjoyed by people of every age, from toddlers to the elderly.

From a scientific perspective, dance is an important human activity. Actually, from any perspective dance is an important human activity. It’s important for enjoyment, for interpersonal communication, for social bonding and for our general health and wellbeing as well.

Scientists have long been interested in dance because it can tell us about our innate responses to music, about why some people get dizzy and others don’t, about how we find a mate and about the very essence of being human. Dance is something that only we can do (no other animals on the planet can dance creatively like us), and which every human being is equipped for. If you love to dance, welcome to the club. Now let’s find out why we dance…

BOOGIE BRAINS

It all begins in our brains. The human brain is specialised for the control of movement – it needs to be, in order to manipulate our 600-plus muscles. The motor cortex, located at the rear of the frontal lobe, is involved in the planning, control and execution of voluntary movements. Meanwhile, the basal ganglia, a set of structures deep within the brain, works with the motor cortex to trigger well-coordinated movements, and may also act as a filter by blocking out unsuitable movements, such as that ill-advised funky chicken. The cerebellum, at the back of the skull, also performs several roles, including integrating information from our senses so that our movements are perfectly fluid and precise.

Just lifting a cup of tea to our mouths involves an unimaginably complicated sequence of nerve impulses, so how can our brains cope with a full-blown dance routine? In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio asked amateur tango dancers to perform a basic dance step known as a ‘box step’ while lying in a PET (positron emission tomography) scanner. The researchers saw activation in a region of the brain called the precuneus, which is associated with spatial perception. They suggest that this region creates a map of our body’s positioning in space, helping us to keep track of our torso and flailing limbs as we plot our path across the dance floor.

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