The Dance Doctor
More at home on the dance floor than at the lab bench, Dr Peter Lovatt is surely an academic with a difference. A one time dyslexic professional dancer, Dr Lovatt now heads up the Dance Lab in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.
Last year, for the first time, he brought his work out of the lab and onto the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in a show called Dance Doctor, Dance. EUSci went along for a boogie, and caught up with him after the show.
Q. You’ve been featured in the media for your work before, but is this the first time you’ve presented the science from your lab to a non-specialist audience?
I do lots of talking to scientists, but this is the first time we’ve presented our work to an arts based audience, so it’s a real project for us and we’ve taken out all the graphs, all the equations and are just presenting it as public engagement for science.
Q. You used to be a professional dancer. How did you wind up with a career in academia?
I was a professional dancer till I was in my mid twenties and all I’d done in my teenage years was dance. Then I kind of got the bug for learning. I went back to college and did some evening classes, got an A level in psychology and then I got a place at a college in London to do a degree in psychology. After that, I got offered a PhD scholarship to do computational modelling of brain function.
I then wanted to think about how I could incorporate dance back into my academic work again, which took me a couple of years. I went to the University of Hertfordshire and the Head of the Psychology Department said, “If you want to change your research area and do the psychology of dance that’s fine, we’ll support you in that.” So, for a couple of years I researched the psychology of dance and it just became fascinating and all the different areas that we’re now researching have all grown up over the last four or five years.
Q. Can you tell us about some of your work on the relationship between dance and thought?
Coreen Lewis, who is one of my PhD students, is looking at not just dance but how improvisation impacts our thinking processes. We get people improvising - either verbally, with music or with dance - and we give them a whole battery of cognitive tests before and after. We’ve seen that it has quite interesting effects on the way people think. It makes them faster at solving puzzles and they become more efficient, divergent thinkers.
Q. What about your work on visual perception and dance?
We’re interested in, from a perception perspective, exactly how much information we need from a visual scene to be able to recognise an emotion. We use the Johansson point lights set up, where we just show different types of lights and vary the number of lights and the degree of their movement and see what people can recognise.
Q. Do people place a mental projection on these dots?
Yes. What we found was that when you have a random array of dots on the screen and they’re all stationary, the minute they start to move people can recognise a human or animal form immediately, within a matter of milliseconds.
Q. You’ve also looked at the health benefits of dancing?
We’ve investigated what sort of dancing is good for people’s health and in what ways. Recreational dance can be good for people so we do a lot of work with people who don’t traditionally dance, seeing what impact dance has on them from a psychological and physical health perspective.
Q What have you found from that?
Firstly, the dancing needs to be of a certain type. We need to have dance forms that are gender or culturally neutral and they need to have three elements: they need to raise the heart rate, be repetitive and non-competitive, and if we get those forms of dance involved then we do see changes and enhancement. Their mood goes up, the amount of vigour goes up and their self-esteem levels go up for a certain period of time too.
Q. How good is the British public at dancing?
What we’ve seen in our lab is that people tend to come in and say, “I’m a rubbish dancer”, but they’ve got all these psychological blocks.
Q. We ask, “Why don’t you dance?”
And they say, “I feel self conscious, I feel nervous, I don’t quite know what to do”, and there’s all this stuff in their head that prevents them from dancing in a very natural way. So what we do in the lab is we get people, typically men, and we get rid of some of those blocks, we get rid of some of their anxiety about dancing, we get rid of their feeling of self-consciousness and then when you see those people dancing after that they become beautiful. Everyone can dance, even people who say they have two left feet.