Dancers to the Core


By Merry Morris

DancerThere is something almost magical about movements of a trained dancer. Whether lithe or powerful, the dancer portrays beauty and meaning through simple movement of the human body.

Dancing requires tremendous work and commitment. According to Heidi Ashton of the University of Leicester, “Becoming a dancer requires dedication and passion, years of tough, relentless training, and [it] involves fierce competition and harsh criticism.”

But beyond the training and focus, research now shows that the aptitude for dancing goes deep -- REAL DEEP -- right down to the genes.

Genetic Surprise

Psychology professor Richard P. Ebstein from the Hebrew University in the Psychology Department’s Center for Human Genetics in the Social Sciences has published results showing that dancers differ from the rest of the general population on a very basic level. Certain aspects of their genetic codes, specifically those that code for the serotonin transporter and arginine vasopressin receptor 1a, inherently function at a different level than the rest of us.

These genes do not, as one might image, support longer or stronger legs or offer other athletic advantage. They function on another level entirely: in the spiritual and communicative spheres. Serotonin, one of our hormones -- chemicals that regulate cells and organs -- transmits electrical impulses across the synapses (or spaces) between nerve cells. Beyond purely physical effects, it is associated with spirituality, as well as the capacity for transcendence -- the understanding of things beyond normal or objective experience. The other gene researched, arginine vasopressin receptor 1a, is sometimes referred to as the “fidelity” gene and promotes social communication and bonding.

Spiritual Traits

Taking another approach to investigate dancers, Ebstein provided questionnaires to the 85 members of his study population to show where they placed on the Tellegen Absorption Scale and the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire, which correlate spirituality and need for social contact and communication, respectively. When he compared athletes (for their comparable physical ability) and others who were neither dancers nor athletes, the dancers showed “a heightened sense of communication, often of a symbolic and ceremonial nature, and a strong spiritual personality trait,” according to Ebstein.

Again, the research reflected innate qualities of dancers. As Heidi Ashton also wrote of dancers, “Dance is not what they do, it’s who they are.”

Classroom Discussion

  • Human genetics is the study of inheritance as it applies to humans. How might human genetic research increase our knowledge of the human condition?
  • Neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry electrical impulses between nerve cells, play a critical part in how the human brain functions; research other neurotransmitters and report how they affect the brain and the rest of the body