Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways:
Performances Are Bonding Time
Because we crave social connection, we love watching a performance in a crowd and picking up on other audience members' reactions and emotions. Experiencing a show together helps us bond.
David Ragusa, Unsplash
We're Suckers For a Good Story
Our brains love narratives. Since we're primed for empathy, watching the trials and tribulations of characters onstage is a safe way to learn through their experiences without having to suffer the consequences.
Sofiane Sylve in Prodigal Son. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB.
We Can Literally Feel A Dancer's Movement
Since movement is essential for survival, our brains are highly stimulated by watching people dance—their motions, body language, facial expressions and gestures pull us in. And according to the mirror system theory, we can vicariously feel a dancer's movement in our own bodies. According to The Washington Post, "Many scientists believe we map other people's actions into our own somatosensory system, which conveys sensation through the brain and body and helps us feel the emotions we perceive in others as if they were our own."
Different body shapes trigger different emotions. A team of neuroscientists in London found that watching a ballet dancer's soft, round shapes can generate positive feelings, while sharp, asymmetrical shapes can alarm us.
Isabella Boylston in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT.
Music + Movement = Magic
When the mood of the music matches the mood of the dance, they combine to create an even more powerfully emotional effect, taking the performance-watching experience into overdrive.
The cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise in rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed
Akram Khan loves to dive into genres he is unfamiliar with. While his own movement vocabulary is a hybrid of kathak and contemporary dance, he has choreographed a new Giselle for English National Ballet, collaborated with flamenco artist Israel Galván and made a dance theater duet with film star Juliette Binoche. Now, in between touring Xenos, his final full-length solo, and several other projects, he's found time to tackle kung fu. Khan is part of the collaborative team behind Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a blockbuster musical based on themes of migration and the fight for survival, running June 22–July 27. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a score that remixes songs by Sia, it's part of the inaugural season of The Shed, a new venue in New York City.