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Darwin on the dance floor

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A dancer in Jamaica participates in the Dance Symmetry Project. (*****Please note small file size: 1600 by 1200 pixels) (Keith Grochow)

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A dancer in Jamaica participates in the Dance Symmetry Project. (*****Please note small file size: 1024 by 768 pixels). (Keith Grochow)

Tony Singh, a 29-year-old who lives in New York City, has been known to push his way onto dance floors as crowded as rush-hour subway cars, and all for one reason.

“I dance when I see a beautiful girl,” said Singh, who manages a bar in downtown Manhattan.

In almost every culture, dancing is an integral part of social life and the dating scene. But in recent years, evolutionary scientists have started to think that dance is more than just a fun way to mingle; it may convey important signals about our genetic material.

A 2005 study conducted by scientists at Rutgers University and the University of Washington found that good dancers are more attractive because they’re more symmetrical. The study suggests we perceive symmetry on the dance floor and unconsciously take it as a sign of good genes.

“It’s very subtle, nothing you can see with the naked eye,” said Dr. Lee Cronk, a professor of anthropology and biological science at Rutgers. “But dancing conveys important information about your quality as a mate.”

In 2003, Cronk teamed up with another Rutgers anthropologist, Dr. Robert Trivers, to develop a systematic way to study dancing through an evolutionary lens.

With a small grant from the National Science Foundation, the Rutgers scientists traveled to Jamaica in 2004 with a group of computer scientists from the University of Washington led by Zoran Popovic.

Using cameras that employ motion capture technology, which records precise movements, they made videos of 183 young Jamaican men and women dancing to a popular reggae song. The computer scientists converted the images of dancers into anonymous animated figures so as to remove other markers about their appearance. They chose 40 videos of the most symmetrical and asymmetrical dancers and asked 155 people from the group to evaluate the animated action figures into two categories: good dancer or bad dancer?

The people who were more symmetrical got higher ratings, especially men. This told the scientists that symmetry plays a role in how people evaluate dancers.

This implies that dancing is a form of sexual selection, Cronk says, and helps explain the age-old link between dancing and courtship, first suggested by Darwin.

“Dance provides a good opportunity to convey your quality as a mate and to evaluate someone else’s quality as a mate,” Cronk said.

That’s one evolutionary view on the matter, anyway. Interviews with scientists and dancers revealed several other theories as to why dance is so powerfully attractive. Hint: They don't think it's just symmetry.

For Lynn Margules, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, dancing is not just a way of showing off first-class genetic material, it’s sexual behavior, fueled by hormones.

Because sex is crucial for survival, “the mating game is about finding someone to mate with that will give you healthy offspring,” Margules said. “And we are programmed to recognize health from a few things.”

Dancing is one of those things. On the dance floor, men and women expose their symmetry to public view, but they also show each other they are physically fit and can respond to their environment, Margules said.

Thus the dance floor becomes an important testing ground for possible mates--we can look out for perfect specimens and we can also rule out the people who have the genetic equivalent of two left feet.

On a cold night in February, club-goers in New York City said they looked for a variety of characteristics on the dance floor.

“I look for rhythm,” said Jennifer Routhier, 25, “if you know what I mean.”

Routhier, who lives in Boston and works in marketing, was dancing at a night spot on First Avenue with several girlfriends.

“I look for good dancers because they’re more confident and they’re better communicators,” said J. Mori Johnson, a 36-year-old medical association director from Chicago. “Those are all good things.”

For some, the best thing about dancing was that they could avoid talking.

“When you dance, there’s not a lot of verbal expression,” said Elkin Alzate, 32, a systems engineer who was dancing at a salsa club. “You let your body do the talking.”

“You ask her to dance and that’s it,” echoed Singh, the bar manager. “You can’t go up to a girl and ask, ‘Can I talk to you?'" he said.

Meanwhile, some men insist that going out dancing and finding a mate are two very separate things.

“No, I’m not looking for a partner when I dance,” said Mauricio Moreno, a 24-year-old day trader, while taking a break from displaying his salsa moves. “I just enjoy dancing.”

One man who has taken the enjoyment of dance to a new level is Judson Laipply, the motivational speaker whose six-minute dance marathon, “The Evolution of Dance,” has been viewed more than 42 million times and received nearly 23,000 comments on YouTube.com.

In the course of six minutes, Laipply takes his audience on a tour of American dance crazes, from the twists and shimmies of the 1950s to the booty-shaking trend ushered in by the band OutKast, which encouraged dancers to “shake it like a Polaroid picture” in 2003.

Laipply, who is from Ohio, has his own theories about why dance is so appealing to watch. Whether you’re doing the Running Man or the Robocop or dancing like an Egyptian, he says, “dancing is happy."

“I guess there are some people who dance in a sad way but usually dance is either high energy and fun or quite beautiful, like ballet, and that’s very attractive to people,” Laipply said.

Despite a growing body of literature on the subject, dancing may remain a bit of a puzzle.

“It’s a mystery to me why people dance and why it’s such a big part of courtship rituals,” Cronk said.

“People tend to study what they don’t understand, though,” he added. “I don’t dance. I am a terrible dancer.”

E-mail: ac2635@columbia.edu