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Body Symmetry and Dance Ability


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#1 drb

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 10:52 AM

An anthropological study of dance and symmetry in Jamaica appears in the December 22-28, 2005 issue of the respected scientific journal Nature. While it is not specific to ballet dancing in particular, it does pose interesting questions on the importance of body symmetry to success in dancing.

A quote from the paper:

"Here we report that there are strong positive associations between symmetry and dancing ability, and these associations were stronger in men than in women. In addition, women rate dances by symmetrical men relatively more positively than do men, and more-symmetrical men value symmetry in women dancers more than do less-symmetrical men. In summary, dance in Jamaica seems to show evidence of sexual selection and to reveal important information about the dancer."

1. How crucial is body symmetry to performing classical ballet? Is it more crucial for classical ballet than for modern ballet or dance?

2. Are there dancers who lack body symmetry and have overcome this "disadvantage" to become successful in ballet?

3. Does the reported symmetry-likes-symmetry selection lead to offspring of dancer-dancer parents tending to become good dancers?

The link to Nature:
http://www.nature.co...ature04344.html

#2 bart

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 11:17 AM

Fascinating article. I can't speak to the relevence to dance, but -- coincidentally -- this week's Economist contains a long "survey of human evolution" which refers to the issue of symmetry.

The quote below is in the context of a comment that, while females of many species "value high status in a mate in a way that men do not," males are much more likely to go for the physically attractive.

QUOTE:
"Randy Thornhill, of the University of New Mexico, has shown that physical beauty is far from being in the eye of the beholder. In fact, those features rated beautiful, most notably bodily symmetry, are good predictors of healthy, desirable attributes such as strong immune systems -- in other words, aesthetic sensibilities have evolutionary roots."

Example: "... female swallows prefer their mates to have symmetrical tails."

The Economist, double Christmas issue, Dec. 24, 2005 - Jan. 6, 2006

#3 drb

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 11:28 AM

... this week's Economist contains a long "survey of human evolution" which refers to the issue of symmetry....
and
".... In fact, those features rated beautiful, most notably bodily symmetry, are good predictors of healthy, desirable attributes such as strong immune systems -- in other words, aesthetic sensibilities have evolutionary roots."

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Interesting, in light of another quote from the article in Nature:

"One measure of quality in evolutionary studies is the degree of bodily symmetry (fluctuating asymmetry, FA), because it measures developmental stability."

Do you happen to have a web link to the Economist's article?

#4 carbro

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 11:42 AM

I wonder to what degree symmetry affects ambidexterity, so important to dancing. Clearly, individuals who have a very strong dominance to one side will be somewhat asymmetrical due to differences in muscle development, but then we get to chicken-and-egg issues.

#5 Paul Parish

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 02:16 PM

Fascinating thread--

Dancers have a heightened sense of their own a-symmetry. Even very great dancers have a good sde and a bad side, less turn-out on one leg, a side they can't turn nearly as well to, a leg they'd rather jump from. People who look fantastically at ease and beautifully balanced says they don't feel that way.

But that's partly because ballet training emphasizes TRYING to develop equally, so you can do a combination to the left and to the right AND REVERSED.

I remember a lecture demo in which i wayan Dibia showed a Balinese dance that had something of the nature of a prayer and made a big point of saying that certain features of it were done both to the left and to the right, otherwise there would be a big flaw in it -- the dance ITSELF had to be symmetrical. SO this applies to classical forms in quite other cultures than that of ballet.

I'd be very surprised if this didn't apply to the classical dances of Africa. From the West-African dances I've learned, the dances go left and right almost obsessively -- like the Electric Slide.

My hunch is that the ability to change directions economically increases markedly the more symmetrically your body is made and operates.... from my own experience (and i'm very lop-sided at the moment), that is the case. and the ability to change directions economically is a prerequisite for graceful movement, sine qua non.

#6 bart

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 02:26 PM

drb, the websitge is www.economist.com/print. Unfortunately you must be a subscriber to get access this article. There is, however, an interview with the author, who's also the Science Editor.

I checked bugmenot.com, but access is restricted there, too.

This issue also has a leader (editorial) which makes the interesting point: "Of the three great secular faiths born in the 19th century -- Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudianism -- the second died swiftly and painfully and the third is slipping peacefully away. But Darwinism goes from strength to strength."

Thanks, Paul, for the following insight.
____________________

Fascinating thread--
Dancers have a heightened sense of their own a-symmetry. Even very great dancers have a good sde and a bad side, less turn-out on one leg, a side they can't turn nearly as well to, a leg they'd rather jump from. People who look fantastically at ease and beautifully balanced says they don't feel that way.

But that's partly because ballet training emphasizes TRYING to develop equally, so you can do a combination to the left and to the right AND REVERSED.

____________________

Working to create symmetry -- and relying on the mirror, first, and increasingly one's interior sense of one's own body, to accomplish this -- is a great joy of beginning ballet classes, for me at least.

#7 drb

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 04:12 PM

Trying to put things together so far, it seems that both spiritual practice and natural selection are conspiring to make symmetric people. While we sometimes worry about the state of dance for the immediated future, perhaps for the long term, humanity is destined to be a race of dancers!
Thanks to Paul and Bart for the dancer input. It seems that for some great dancers, lack of body symmetry can be overcome, at least to some extent. Perhaps this is why we sometimes will see a star turn in the opposite direction from the choreography.
Not all beauty is symmetric: consider the crack in a Zen bowl...

#8 Paul Parish

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 07:20 PM

I THINK I've got this right.
For many right-handed people, the left side -- arms and legs both -- is the stabilizing side, which provides a platform against which the right side can do a lot of expressive gesturing (hammering, writing, ronde de jambe en l'air); such people usually turn best (en dehors) to the right and leap best off the left foot onto the right.

Something they didn't mention is front-to-back balance -- we're only symmetrical bilaterally, but something like it is very important front-to-back and also above and below the waist -- an "upstanding" person (or as my friend becky puts it a "stand-up sort of person') is generally admired in most cultures, and that implies an ideal carriage of hte head above a straight back -- a body neither shortened along the front line (which is actually very common among American urban folk, from all the driving and and reading and sitting in front of computer terminals peering forward in our lives) nor swayed too far back.

Let me recommend to anybody who hasn't read it Edwin Denby's rhapsody on Nijinsky's neck.

People who're disproportionate above and below the waist have serious difficulties in life and would be bad bets for a life of physical work; it's a structure with LOTS of mechanical problems -- esp people with a big superstructure set on spindly legs, Danny de Vito style (actually I've never seen deVito's legs, and in fact, he moves well and has a kind of wonderful style of his own, and funny as he is, he'd probably rank rather high on the marriageable scale, given the value most people set by a sense of humor).

#9 Hans

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 09:47 PM

Symmetrical how?

If your legs are both exactly the same length, but you can raise one higher than the other, is that symmetrical or not?

All dancers will tell you that not a single person on earth has perfectly symmetrical ability in every joint, but when standing still, their bodies would often be considered symmetrical.

I think one famous example that completely disproves the "symmetrical people dance better" idea is Suzanne Farrell--her feet were completely different as the result of one being broken during her childhood.

#10 drb

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 11:00 PM

Amen re Suzanne, Hans! She is surely the most wonderful dancer I have ever seen. Remember Mr. B's very painful test of that foot? But she had to work all the harder because of her "asymmetry."

From what I understand, symmetry (in this area of biology) refers to bilateral symmetry (which requires a slightly peculiar way of visualizing in 3-D, but is pretty intuitive):
http://www2.biology....es/symmetry.htm

They used video of people in the study, so my guess is that they would would find some asymmetry in your example of two legs of equal length but not equally raisible (sic). But this isn't my field, so I can't be sure.

The symmetry (or its lack) that they are studying is called fluctuating asymmetry, FA, which considers only "subtle asymmetry," excluding "conspicuous asymmetry":
http://www2.biology....m/asymmetry.htm

It is interesting that Paul mentioned the role played by handedness in dancing. In humans, as explained in the above link, handedness would fall into the subtle asymmetry classification. A higher FA (greater lack of symmetry) would correspond to a greater degree of handedness. Carbro also has an interesting remark re ambidexterity (I suppose we could say a lack of handedness) being a plus for dancers, earlier in this discussion.

What scientists look for in this kind of study are trends, where the averages are going (where, perhaps, evolution is taking us as a species), and not causation.

Great dancers are exceptional human beings, far from averages. Thank the human genome for people of genius and magic and very hard work.

#11 carbro

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Posted 28 December 2005 - 11:50 PM

A conspicuous example of asymmetry is Heather Watts, whose spine clearly does not run straight down the center of her back. In spite of this, and most improbably, she was still a pretty strong turner.

When it comes to feet, Virginia Johnson's were even more disparate than Farrell's. One had a very pronounced, rounded arch, and the other was nearly flat.

#12 drb

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Posted 29 December 2005 - 12:04 AM

A conspicuous example of asymmetry is Heather Watts, whose spine clearly does not run straight down the center of her back.  In spite of this, and most improbably, she was still a pretty strong turner.

When it comes to feet, Virginia Johnson's were even more disparate than Farrell's.  One had a very pronounced, rounded arch, and the other was nearly flat.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


One would surely call these individuals successfull dancers. Would you include them as examples of positive anwers to question 2 at the beginning of this thread?
Did they find ways to compensate for, or even mask, their disparities or did they (try to) make them a coherent part of their organic presentation?

#13 ViolinConcerto

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Posted 29 December 2005 - 05:00 AM

"Here we report that there are strong positive associations between symmetry and dancing ability, and these associations were stronger in men than in women. In addition, women rate dances by symmetrical men relatively more positively than do men, and more-symmetrical men value symmetry in women dancers more than do less-symmetrical men. In summary, dance in Jamaica seems to show evidence of sexual selection and to reveal important information about the dancer."


Maybe we have an innate need for symmetry -- in any form. In cultures where the body is obscured by costume, such as most forms of Indian dance, symmetry in the choreography could compensate for the fact that we can't really see what natural symmetry there is in the body. Bharata Natyam, for example, is rigorously symmetrical in the "pure dance" segments (though not in the dramatic sections).

And don't forget makeup!

#14 Hans

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Posted 29 December 2005 - 10:34 AM

One would surely call these individuals successfull dancers. Would you include them as examples of positive anwers to question 2 at the beginning of this thread?


I would.

Did they find ways to compensate for, or even mask, their desperities or did they (try to) make them a coherent part of their organic presentation?


I don't think it's possible to really mask that type of thing. As Martha Graham said, "the foot is either pointed or it is not," and if one foot points more than the other, that's life, although it probably made buying pointe shoes a bit of a pain.

#15 drb

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Posted 06 January 2006 - 08:20 PM

I've managed to track down more detailed information on the study, including video comparing symmetric vs asymmetric dancers. Symmetry was assessed with measurements of wrists, ankles, elbows, third digit, fourth digit, fifth digit, ears, feet, knees. Where assymetries occur they tend to be differences of less than 1%. They aren't of such magnitude as to be readily spotted, yet turn out to have notable association with quality of dancing.
The official paper from Nature:

http://lazowska.cs.w...gton.edu/zp.htm

which is full of technical statistical analysis.

Maybe the most striking result was that symmetric males were evaluated (by females) as significantly better dancers than asymmetrical males, the degree of symmetry accounting for 48% of the variance in dance ability. Even though (as evaluated by males) symmetrical females were significantly better dancers than asymmetrical females, female symmetry only accounted for 23% of the variance in dance ability.

They supplied three videos:

http://www.nature.co...ature04344.html

The first shows how they removed individual dancer's features so that other visual cues for attractiveness would not mask the effect of symmetry: in effect you see an actual dancer's dancing reduced to it essence (click supplementary movie 1).
The second shows dancing of a dancer with high body symmetry (click supplementary movie 2).
The third shows dancing of an assymmetric dancer (click supplementary movie 3).


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