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Recent writings…

9 Feb

Some of the recent writing shenanigans that I’ve been getting up to…

  • I’ve written an article for the ever-brilliant (and now Wellcome Trust-funded) Guru magazine about the science of dancing. Guru is well worth a look if you haven’t checked it out yet… plenty of thought-provoking articles to get your teeth into (and it’s free to download as well). The February/March issue is out now.

Science of dancing

  • The March 2013 issue of BBC Focus magazine features my interview with Silas Beane, a theoretical physicist who thinks he’s found a way to test the idea that we’re all living inside a Matrix-style simulation. Mind-bending stuff…

Living in a simulation?

  • I’ve also been finding time to write a few short pieces of fiction, including “Little Death” (the story of a trainee Grim Reaper), a poem about history called “Hitler was a Milkmaid” and some other bits and bobs.

On Men and How They Should Dance

14 Sep

It’s a common scenario. You’re at a wedding reception, the speeches are over, and a DJ starts doing his thing in the corner of the room, obscured behind a wall of tacky disco lights.

Before long, the complimentary champagne begins to work its magic on the revellers. A mildly inebriated Auntie Valerie is the first to wander onto the dancefloor, deciding that a slightly dented reputation is a small price to pay for having a good time. Uncle Bob is next to follow, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves as soon as he hears the opening strains of “Y.M.C.A.”.

Meanwhile, the best man – let’s call him Dave – has his eye on one of the bridesmaids, Emily. Hugging his warm pint of Carlsberg, Dave watches Emily as she glides across the dancefloor like a swan on roller skates. Feeling ever more tipsy, he puts down his beer and shuffles towards her.

Suddenly, “Y.M.C.A.” gives way to the drum/bass intro of “Billie Jean”. Dave spots his chance. Moving deftly through the throng of exhausted dancers, he positions himself opposite Emily and begins to engage in a mating ritual worthy of any bird of paradise. Completely oblivious to the onlooking crowd, Dave bends his torso from side to side like a man possessed, simultaneously shaking his head to the beat whilst performing an elaborate twisting routine with his right knee.

Dave's dance moves delighted and shocked in equal measure (credit: dpphotography)

The ritual seems to have worked: 30 minutes later both he and Emily are locked in a romantic embrace, gently swaying to “Lady in Red” amidst a sea of teary-eyed couples.

Dave’s secret? He’s familiar with a recent article in Biology Letters which shows that certain dance moves are more likely to ignite the passions of a woman.

Nick Neave and colleagues at Northumbria University used motion-capture technology to record the movements of 19 men dancing to a basic drum beat. Each dancer was then mapped onto a computer-generated avatar, and 37 heterosexual women were asked to rate the avatars on their dancing prowess.

Examples of the motion-capture avatars, showing (a) a static pose and (b) a dance move (credit: N. Neave et al.)

By correlating the women’s ratings with the avatars’ movements, the scientists were able to come up with a recipe for successful boogieing. The three factors that most contributed to high dance scores were ‘neck internal/external rotation variability’ (head shaking), ‘trunk adduction/abduction variability’ (sideways bending) and ‘right knee internal/external rotation speed’ (twisting speed).

These movements, claims the study, may provide signals of a man’s suitability as a sexual partner by indicating his physical strength, health or genetic quality.

According to Neave et al., dance in humans “…is a set of intentional, rhythmic, culturally influenced, non-verbal body movements that are considered to be an important aspect of sexuality and courtship attraction”.

This links us to, amongst other animals, Pronghorn mammals, hummingbirds, and fiddler crabs, all of whom perform courtship displays in order to entice prospective partners.

So, guys, if you want to woo on the dancefloor, try dancing like this instead of like this!

Further reading:

ResearchBlogging.org Neave N, McCarty K, Freynik J, Caplan N, Hönekopp J, & Fink B (2011). Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye. Biology letters, 7 (2), 221-4 PMID: 20826469

Piiiiina!

13 May

I’m breaking away from the supposed science theme of my blog here, but I saw this stunning film tonight and it deserves at least a quick mention.

‘Pina’ is Wim Wenders’ documentary about the German dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of either of them before reading some reviews of the film, though I had unknowingly seen one of Pina’s works in the opening to Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film ‘Talk to Her’.

A dancer and a very big rock (still from Wim Wenders' 'Pina')

‘Pina’ is essentially a series of dance performances, ranging from one-minute sketches to longer chunks of her more famous works (e.g. ‘Rite of Spring’). These are interspersed with clips of the dancers remembering Pina (she died shortly before the filming started), and everything is beautifully threaded together by Wenders. The film is also in 3D, so expect to get pretty intimate with the dancers (and, thanks to the 3D glasses, you also get to look like Robocop for an evening…bonus!).

Some of my favourite scenes were the more surreal moments in locations around Pina’s hometown of Wuppertal: a woman frolicking in a river with a hippopotamus; a tutu-sporting man being transported along an underground railway; a dancer inexplicably placing slices of veal in her shoes before performing en pointe. You can obviously get away with the silliest things when you have the grace and poise of a dancer (take note, Thom Yorke).

Anyway, I’d highly recommend this film to anyone who’s even a tiny bit intrigued. The trailer does it more justice than I ever could…

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