Study examines the emotions that result from observing someone dance

Extensive research has been conducted regarding the effects of various types of art on spectators, namely music and painted artwork. There is also a large body of evidence connecting dancing to specific emotions. However, little research examines the effect of dance on the spectators.

A 2016 study published in Acta Psychologica aimed to answer some questions about what happens to an observer’s emotions as a result of observing a variety of types of dance.

“The aim of the present work was to contribute to the understanding of the mechanisms which underlie to the emotional and aesthetic experience when watching dance,” said Julia Christensen, corresponding author of the study.

For the study, 97 “dance-naïve” participants viewed a total of 203 video clips of different dances. To prevent fatigue, each individual participant viewed no more than 15 video clips in total.

The data showed that participants rated felt affect differently than perceived affect. In other words, the emotions participants felt differed from the emotions they thought the dancers likely felt.

Participants perceived the dancers’ emotions as more intense than their own, regardless of whether the emotions were positive or negative. These findings are consistent with previous research regarding other art disciplines.

Interestingly, dancers with “rounded” movements were correlated with positive mood and emotions, while those who used edgier movements were more likely to elicit negative emotions. This is also consistent with findings from other art media, especially paintings.

“Sharp shapes may activate threat detection responses due to their basic perceptual features – and similarly for body positions such as body language and dance,” said Christensen.

The findings spark an intriguing discourse on the merits of skill and ability in dance versus the emotional impact on enjoyment.

“What we like when we see a dance is not necessarily the beautiful – but especially the honest and authentic,” Christensen said.

“The beauty expressed in the movements of the [dancers]does not come from the perfection of the movements, but from the quality of the expressive intention in the movement,” she continued.