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drb

Body Symmetry and Dance Ability

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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.com/nature/journal/v438/...ature04344.html

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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

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... 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."

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...

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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).

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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.

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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.ualberta.ca/palmer/asy...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.ualberta.ca/palmer/asym/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.

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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.

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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.

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?

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"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!

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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.

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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.washington.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.com/nature/journal/v438/...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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Thanks, drb, for posting your discoveries. It's interesting to see the way technology expands the manner in which you can present what are -- in effect -- footnotes and what used to be called "figures" in the graphics section.

I wish I could say I saw much of a difference. The choreography in 2 and 3 was not identical, which should -- I would think -- raise aquestions about the conclusions. (Eg., In video 2 the computer animation is clearly positioning one hand directly under his chin-cheek area for a short period of time. This is missing from video 2.)

The "symmetrical" dancer appeared to me to have one arm longer than the other. (??) I did not notice this in the "assymtrical dancer." Obviously I'll have to look again more closely when there is more time to focus and rewind.

Also, the "dance" elements were not something I was familiar with, consisting primarily of an in-place shuffle (kind of time step?), partial rotationof torso, and some arm movement. Wouldn't other kinds of dance have demonstrated this matter more clearly? For instance: Balinese or other Southeast Asian, with movements done to right and to left.

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"The choreography in 2 and 3 was not identical, which should -- I would think -- raise aquestions about the conclusions."

Dancing here refers to social dancing in Jamaica.

"The "symmetrical" dancer appeared to me to have one arm longer than the other. (??)"

What is being measured, "Fluctuating Asymmetry", involves Subtle Asymmetry (typically variations well below 1%, probably hard to see) and specifically excludes Conspicuous Asymmetry--some nice examples above, cited by Carbro.

They are looking for deviations from the tendancy of cells to seek bilateral symmetry, and how Natural Selection might lead to more symmetry in people. The second paragraph of the paper remarks on the connection between subtle asymmetry and various less desirable traits in a mate (lower developmental stability, for instance, which is associated with a lot of negatives, including earlier mortality). In a word, these virtually imperceptible differences are associated with real genetic problems.

The first finding, that the opposite sex finds people who lack subtle asymmetry to be better dancers, combines with social dancing being part of the way one choses a mate. This yields a long-term hypothesis (hence the long-term follow-up part of the study) that these people will marry according to matching dance skills and produce a generation of more symmetrical offspring. A by-product of this would seem to be a generation of better dancers.

It is interesting that such subtle lack of symmetry is associated with inferior dancing skill, moreso in men than in women. While they give some explanation in terms of known differences between the sexes in terms of the way they select mates, I wonder if they may be missing the fact that women are more likely to have had formal dance training. This training may have helped some women become better dancers despite asymmetries, and that could be one reason why less of female dance skill was attributed to symmetry (23% vs 48% for men).

Your last paragraph is very perceptive. A difficulty with this kind or research is statistical variation, which would blur distinctions if the study were not narrowly focussed. If you look at the paper itself, you'll see quite a jumble of math, even under these carefully controlled conditions. The way round this is further quite specific studies within individual groups such as those you identify. Some of the key biological understanding is quite cross-cultural, and dancing's importance in mate-selection is likewise. So generalizations from the study will probably not be implausible.

Perhaps for this forum, the most relevant idea coming from the work is that there may be a long-term human trend toward making people who will be able to dance better. Another may be that dancing, from the role it plays in mate selection, may contribute (and have already contributed) to long-term greater health and longer life expectancy for the human race.

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