The science (or lack thereof) of dance.

Occam gives dance class a whirl and discovers amusia. Here’s his take:

My wife and I recently started taking dance classes and it has been a very fun experience. The popularity of such shows as Dancing with the Stars has undoubtedly led to an increase in enrollment in such classes, and you may find your wife asking if you’ll accompany her. (Just a hint: this is a good way to score spousal bonus points! Face it – she’s long accepted that you’re never going to look like dancer Maksim Chmerkovskiy. But women are not like men, fortunately, and are actually willing to find us attractive based on other qualities. Pretending to like dance will help you immeasurably in this.)

I don’t claim any particular Astairean abilities, but I have been more than pleased at my facility at making my way around the floor. We have picked up the steps quite easily, and I’ve been a bit nonplussed at the complete ineptitude of others in the class. The ability to keep time to music apparently escapes what I’m assuming to be a small portion of the population, and oddly, these people are disproportionately in my dance class. One can assume that they have listened to music at some point in their lives, have probably tapped their foot to music in the car or at a concert, and given that they’ve signed up for a dance class one may further assume that this is a self-selected group that has at least a basic comfort level in moving their bodies to music. But I can tell you, after many painful hours of watching them, that this is not the case.

Perhaps they have amusia, which despite sounding like a word one might make up to define a lack musical ability, is something I heard about on Musical Minds, the recent season premiere episode of NOVA, and based on the book Musicophilia by neurologist Oliver Sacks. Amusians can neither “hear nor respond to” music and are at the heart of that old philosophical question, if a radio is on in the forest and only an amusian is there to hear it, and it’s playing tween pop, will the amusian smash the radio with a stick? I have to dismiss the amusian excuse though; the people in my class can clearly hear the music and they do respond, as evidenced by their forced plodding, more resembling Frankenstein’s monster attempting to evade torch-wielding villagers than people who have paid to be taught to dance, so I’m not sure how to diagnose them. Perhaps it’s genetic?

I recently spent a number of days at the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival, where I was again faced with bad dancing. Each year the festival focuses on different cultures, with a study of those cultures’ food, music, dance, industry, etc. This year represented were Wales and the music of Latin America. In the Welsh pavilion we were treated to beautiful but elegiac songs, most of which were either about a woman standing on the shore watching her lover sail away forever, or a man sailing away from his lover, who he knew he would never see again. I think the lyricists in Wales should really write more songs about their best export – no, not rarebit, but Catherine Zeta-Jones. They could even continue the oceanic themes with her, as I’m sure she could raise the mast on a sailor’s ship any day (even if she can’t anymore on her aged husband). Point being, these songs were sad, slow and impossible to dance to, yet people tried, terribly. In the Latin Amercan music pavilion, however, we were treated to manic, up-tempo beats that were completely the opposite of their Euro counterparts further down the Mall. The songs, if they were about anything, focused on parties and dancing and cerveza, and the dance floors of the pavilion overflowed with sweaty bodies, bouncing rhythmically to a driving drum beat or accordion or trumpets, dancing well.

As an anthropologist (I have an AA in anthropology from the online University of Feenix, and until the lawsuit is settled it is still an accredited institution, thank you very much) I concluded there is much to be said for the effect of climate in the place where these cultures evolved on the way their music also evolved. Hot and bright, sunny days and dreary, damp cold days yield different music development; perhaps there is an associated way that people in these climates evolved to respond to these sounds? And then I was reminded of Mikhail Baryshnikov and the rest of the Kirov, dancing away splendidly in frigid Russia, and realized my thinking was pretty misguided on this…which is why I could only get accepted at the University of Feenix in the first place (where the closest thing to a peer-reviewed journal the anthropology faculty had ever published was a blog movie review of Night at the Museum).

So I’m at a loss for my fellow dance class participants, as is my teacher (of Latin descent, by the way). Maybe to help inspire them next week I’ll put up some pictures of Catherine Zeta-Jones.