If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you know one hard truth: Some people just can’t dance.
Sure, nobody expects a dance floor full of Fred Astaires, but is there any real, scientific reason why some people just can’t feel the beat? (Sort of!) And can you fix it? (Yep!)
So if you fall more to the Drake end of the dancing scale (I’m using the almost-scientific Drake to Baryshnikov scale here), there’s hope. Scientists and dance professionals have some insight on how to be a better dancer, even if you think you have two left feet.
The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
Globally, pretty much every culture has incorporated some form of dance. That’s because rhythm naturally affects us. When you hear music you like (or music you hate that still has a pretty catchy beat), your body wants to move in time with the rhythm. You might not break out into a moonwalk, but almost all people will nod their heads or tap their toes unconsciously with the music.
And that’s true even as a fetus! Moms talk about babies kicking around when certain songs come on (my youngest sister was apparently really into that Chipmunk Christmas song in utero), and a study from Duke University found that babies can detect rhythm in the womb.
But it’s not quite so simple. Musicians from Pharrell to Justin Bieber have complained about audiences clapping off-beat to their songs. As a person who’s taught musical improv, I know firsthand that finding the beat is not always natural. And that doesn’t even include all the dads on dance floors who look like they’ve never encountered the concept of rhythm.
For a small portion of people, this lack of rhythm has a name: beat deafness. A study from McGill University found that three percent of people suffer from congenital amusia (…which might become my drag name), and that means they can’t perceive music through either pitch, timing, or rhythm.
An even smaller percentage of the amusical are considered “beat deaf.” As in, they cannot find the beat in any form of music. The study found two such beat deaf individuals. Though they could keep time with a metronome, once actual music entered the picture, they were lost.
Are you (or your dance-impaired friend) beat deaf? Probably not. It’s extremely rare. Though nearly all humans have some sense of rhythm, i.e., they can tap their feet to the beat, that doesn’t mean they have a good sense of rhythm. Remember those bad clappers Justin Bieber yelled at? They were clapping to the beat—just not the right beat for the style of music. As soon as he stopped the song and corrected the audience, they were able to do it correctly. Sorry to reference the Biebs so many times: He just actually proves a point.
Yes, there are people with a bad sense of rhythm. From my experience, those people thought I’m just not good at rhythm and never tried to learn. But with a little guidance, they could find a basic beat.
If you’re not inclined to trust an improv teacher/freelance writer on the art of dance, here’s an actual professional’s POV. “If you give yourself enough time and are dedicated to the learning process, even the most challenged can develop their rhythm at any age,” says Preston Li, an instructor at the Beijing Dance Academy. Sure, not everyone will tap out Whiplash-style syncopations, but even the rhythmically challenged can find a beat… with practice.
She Blinded Me With (Dance) Science
So, if most people aren’t beat deaf, and rhythm isn’t the only answer, what else makes a dancing so hard? Well, Northumbria University and others finally decided to study dance because it’s a form of courtship and attraction that’s gotten relatively little scientific love—especially since people sometimes evaluate mate potential based on their moves alone. The studies aimed to find the moves that make women and men more attractive to one another. Note: All the studies in this section were based on heterosexual attractiveness. Sorry.
For women, dances that involved hip swings and asymmetrical movement of the arms and thighs were considered most appealing. So, maybe something like this.
The study concludes that hip movement may indicate fertility and increase attractiveness to males. Fertility does seem to get guys going since another study found that strippers made more money per lap dance when they were ovulating. So, ladies, if you really want to get a guy hot and bothered, let him know that an egg just dropped into your fallopian tube.
But what sexy moves can men do to look like Travolta on the dance floor? Well, according to Northumbria University, women liked “variability and amplitude of movements of the neck and trunk and speed of movements of the right knee.”
Oh man, remember in Magic Mike where Channing Tatum moves his right knee? His knees were really the least of my concerns during that dance, but that must just be me because the study said it’s all about neck, trunk, and knee. So, by that logic, this is one of the sexiest dances of all time.
Now, maybe I’m crazy, but that doesn’t really look like great dancing. The male avatar does the running man, for crying out loud! So we have to keep peeling this dance onion to find another layer of the bad dancing mystery.
Shame, Shame, Shame
As the good folks over at Northumbria University pointed out, dance is often used as a form of courtship. And even if you’re not trying to find a life mate, there’s a strong sexual component to social dancing. Guess what else goes along with sex and moving bodies? Shame!
Dancing, moving your body around, and trying to be sexy are all fairly vulnerable acts. Because if you do a bad job, people think you look stupid, you get rejected, and you wind up embarrassed. This fear of embarrassment often makes people stiff and uncomfortable on the dance floor.
Also, dance is not always embraced. There are tons of stories of high schools banning dances or putting “leave room for Jesus” type rules in place. And although Footloose was not a documentary, it was based on a real “No Dance Allowed” town.
Pablo Solomon, an artist and former teacher at the Houston Contemporary Dance Theater, says that a lot of his students came from backgrounds where dance and shame went hand in hand. For those students, “they not only have to teach their bodies to move in time with music, but they must often overcome the stiffness and awkwardness of suppressed guilt and fear.”
Solomon found that overcoming the potential embarrassment of dancing led to the greatest growth. “Many were so tense and full of fear of embarrassment or being ridiculed that any attempt at movement seemed to await some sort of horrible repercussions,” Solomon says. Once the student relaxed, they were able to find rhythm more easily, which led to better coordination and confidence in their abilities.
In my opinion, embarrassment and shame are the biggest reason why people suck at dancing. Or at least, why I suck at dancing. Now, I have a good sense of rhythm, took dance classes from first grade to college, and did musical theater for a living. If you need a pas de bourrée and single pirouette, I’ve got it (I mean, I’m not heading to ABT, but I’m not terrible). But put me in a club? Sweet Jesus, that’s some sad business!
It’s not because I don’t know how to dance. It’s because the idea of moving without choreography in a sexy way fills me with embarrassment. So, I look like an awkward weirdo (if I ever try to dance at all) because I’m so self-conscious about every move.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone is like me, but the risk of potential embarrassment often outweighs the rewards of dance for many people. So if everyone really could “dance like no one else is watching,” we’d probably be a lot better off (and we wouldn’t have to see that quote on a stock image of a girl in a boho dress spinning in a field ever again).
You Have to Practice
Another reason dancing is hard? Because it’s hard. ButSolomon has found that almost all of his dance students got better with time, no matter how bad they were to start. But it took practice. And most of us aren’t going to go to a dance studio to get better for the one wedding a year we go to.
If you want to get better at social dancing? Well, unless the waltz makes a comeback, there’s no place to go to get better. You have to risk stepping out onto a dance floor with a bunch of cool, sexy people and just give it your best shot. There aren’t even moves to learn! You just have to kind of gyrate and move your arms asymmetrically until you get it right.
When you already feel like you’re a bad dancer, it’s unlikely you’ll seek out a lot of opportunities to learn how to get better. Instead, you ignore it, drink a little too much, and do some crappy moves at your niece’s Bat Mitzvah when your favorite song comes on.
Dancing is both perfectly natural to humans and incredibly complicated: It takes the ability to process music, understand rhythm, and have a good sense of coordination to be able to do basic moves. You have to do all that and not feel self-conscious about flailing your body around in front of strangers. Honestly, it’s surprising that anyone can dance.
Still, there’s hope for the dance challenged. If you want to get better in a hurry, just get over the embarrassment, practice finding rhythm, and let that right knee go to town.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Take singing lessons from her via Sing A Different Tune and follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.