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Symposium on the Psychology of Dance: Research and Application

by Niamh Morrin, Dance Researcher and Lecturer, University of Bedfordshire

This symposium on 29 May 2009, brought together an international mix of psychologists, dance scientists, dancers and choreographers for the first ever symposium on the psychology of dance hosted by The University of Birmingham. It was a jam-packed day aiming to inspire greater understanding of the benefits of dance for the non-dancing population, dance through the eyes of the audience, and the psychological impact of injury, perfectionism, and motivational climates.

Patricia McKinley, from McGill University kick started the day. Her research on the effects of argentine tango dance for seniors showed an increase in a sense of well-being, balance, mobility, divided attention and working memory. Patricia’s research shows us that dance has important health benefits that we need to pay attention to when devising physical activity intervention plans for vulnerable population groups.

Researchers in the neuroscience area had a strong presence at the conference. Neuroscience is a rapidly developing field that aims to advance the understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior. Dr Corine Jola and Dr Beatriz Calvo-Merino are particularly interested in the audience perceptions of dance. Dr Corine Jola has found that the more experienced a dance spectator is, the more brain activity there is whilst watching dance. Dr Beatriz Calvo-Merino similarly looked at brain activity in audiences and through her research sought to understand the areas of the brain activated in movements that are liked as compared to disliked. It was found that energetic jumping movements are preferred over ‘placed’ movements.

The second key note speaker, Dr Lynda Mainwaring presented findings on the psychosocial impact of injuries in US and UK female modern and ballet dancers. Through a qualitative investigation Dr Mainwaring’s research aimed to uncover the experiences of injured dancers. It was found that dancers perceive a lack of support/medical treatment, inadequate health education for dancers and teachers and the inevitable psychological response that is consistent with the sports literature (e.g. frustration, sadness, anger, fear and guilt). There seems to be two common pathways in injury management; self treatment or ignorance. Success of injury management will lead to positive steps in the dancer’s career, but the other side to this story may lead to career hindrance and cessation. Dr Mainwaring calls for the development of a dancer-centred model of health and injury management.

‘motivation and well-being’

The oral presentations finished with a section entitled ‘motivation and well-being’.Presentations were given by Professor Joan Duda, Eleanor Quested (Phd candidate) and Dr Jennifer Cumming. Professor Duda explained the importance of the teaching environment and its crucial effects on motivation. Eleanor Quested presented new findings related to task orientated teaching environment, the three basic needs and their impact on stress. Cortisol measurements were taken throughout a performance period and it was found that dancers who have task involving dance teaching environments cope better in stressful situations.

Linking in to the subject of motivation, Dr Jennifer Cumming presented findings on perfectionism in dance and its relationship with motivation. She described the difference between perfectionists (potentially negative) and positive strivers. The former is associated with negative consequences; i.e. increased concern over their appearance, increased emotional and physical symptoms, increased fear of failure and increased avoidance of mastery goals. In addition to these negative symptoms perfectionists show decreased self determined motivation, meaning that they are less intrinsically motivated and their career motivation may therefore be hindered. Positive strivers strive for excellence whilst avoiding the negative aspects of perfectionism. They experience positive indicators of functioning and well being and display higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation may play a role in prolonging happy and meaningful dancing careers.

Panel discussions included topics such as

‘if we change to a more task involving climate where individual progress is recognised and choices are given, does this differ to the suggested ego involving climate in high profile ballet schools in Russia?’

Will we end up churning out dancers with less elitism? Do the majority of dance training environments still prefer an ego involving climate where success is rewarded and mistakes are punished? The scientific research points toward the benefits of a task involving teaching climate but this now needs to be transferred into the class. The area of dance science needs to ensure that dancers can pursue a career of exceptionally high standards in a more flexible, self-referenced way. We need to treat dancers as elite individuals and accept the individuality and adaptability of each and every dancer.

The symposium of dance psychology was a wonderful day filled with knowledge, ideas and excitement for the future. As Professor Joan Duda reiterated….’let’s not leave this information on PowerPoint’.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 74 – 2009