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Why Do Humans Dance? New Research Fellowship Explores the Evolution and Neuroscience of Dance

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The FINANCIAL — NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts and the Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language at The Rockefeller University partner to investigate the genetic origin and evolutionary purpose of dance across different species with an eye to developing new clinical therapie.

A new research fellowship, developed in collaboration with NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts and the Laboratory for Neurogenetics of Language at The Rockefeller University, is tackling an age-old question: Why do humans dance?
And what can dance teach us about the brain?

According to New York University, research suggests there is overlap between the neurological processes for how humans and non-human species learn complex vocalizations—and thus, develop singing and speech skills—and how these same species also learn to move rhythmically. Now, a new fellowship leveraging the unique resources of both an artistic research institution and a biomedical research university will apply researchers’ expertise in the neural and genetic mechanisms of spoken language to further investigate what is happening in the brain when we move and dance.

Dr. Constantina Theofanopoulou, a postdoctoral researcher at The Rockefeller University, and Dr. Sadye Paez, a senior research associate in the Neurogenetics of Language Laboratory, will join NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts for a semester-long fellowship to gather and synthesize evidence on the neurological links between dance and vocal learning; examine how species developed the capacity to coordinate rhythmic sound with movement to unlock theories about the purpose of dance in human evolution; and design experiments and methodologies that will have a range of clinical and research applications and create a better shared understanding of how the neuroscience of language and dance intersect.
Theofanopoulou and Paez say their research into the neurological underpinnings of dance—and how this links up with what they already know about the neuroscience of vocal learning—can help inform the creation of better clinical therapies for people with a range of neurological movement and spoken language disorders.
Research into how certain species synchronize motor movements to particular rhythms (like how a parrot might bop its head to a song) could enhance understanding of how different regions of the brain are linked, allowing health practitioners to employ different therapies to repair certain neural circuits impacted by injury or disease. For example, the way that dance exercises specific motor circuits could have indirect or complementary benefits for patients undergoing existing speech therapies.

“Species such as humans, parrots and seals learn to produce complex vocalizations over time. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that these same species are able to train themselves to synchronize their movements with rhythm. It might be that the motor circuit responsible for rhythmic movement in these species evolved as a prerequisite for vocal learning,” said Theofanopoulou.
“The impulse to move is innate, and the continuum of movement is as vast and infinite as the numbers and types of species. Many species crawl, climb, slither, swim, walk, leap, and more. But the ability to move rhythmically, what we call ‘dance’ or ‘movement to sound’, is unique. This distinct ability to purposefully control and coordinate our bodies in response to cadence or tempo has exciting applications,” said Paez.

“For example, clinically, we know that walking among patients with Parkinson’s disease improves dramatically by adding a metronome. Patients are able to better sync their movements when they could match a regular beat. Their strides lengthened and their gait improved. We want to better understand why this happens and what this could mean for people living with a range of neurological disorders,” she continued.
The research will also tackle a larger, more existential question: Why exactly did humans evolve to dance?
“Why is it that the non-human apes studied thus far find it so difficult to hear a sound and tap out a rhythm like humans do? What purpose does dance serve? Evolution is a fascinating component of this research,” said Theofanopoulou.
“Many cultures do not distinguish between music and dance, often using the same word for both. Vocal learning and dance overlap in how these behaviors are culturally transmitted from one generation to another, such as in dialects or repertoires of sounds or movements. Thus, it is plausible that vocal learning and dance co-evolved both culturally and genetically,” said Paez.

The researchers also plan to sequence the genomes of highly specialized dancers to understand if these dancers have specific DNA variants or genetic commonalities, compared to non-dancers. Both Paez and Theofanopoulou are involved in the Vertebrate Genomes Project, which aims to generate reference genome assemblies of all ~70,000 living vertebrate species to enable the study of how genes have contributed to the evolution and survival of these species.

Using the same technology, they will be able to sequence the dancers’ genomes and uncover specific characteristics at the full length of their DNA. It remains to be found, for example, whether the genetic similarities between specialized dancers overlap with genetic locations involved in speech learning or speech deficits.

This collaboration is the outgrowth of CBA’s The Brain is the Dancer, a half-day symposium co-presented with the Lincoln Center that brought together leading neuroscientists and dancers in a series of conversations and demonstrations. The collaboration will allow the Rockefeller researchers to leverage the full artistic and institutional resources of New York University, including CBA’s choreographers and dancers, faculty in the creative arts therapies, and practitioners and researchers in the health sciences.

The research fellowship will incorporate perspectives from movement science, physical therapy, disability studies, neuroscience and neurogenetics. The research will, in part, investigate hypotheses that are based on the original findings of two independent studies, led by Ani Patel and Adena Schachner, showing that only vocal learning species can learn to dance, moving their bodies rhythmically to the beat of sound in music. Debate exists on the hypothesis, but most can agree that there is a distinction among vocal learners for dancing.

Both Theofanopoulou and Paez are in the laboratory of Dr. Erich D. Jarvis, head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language at The Rockefeller University, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and long known for his studies on the neurobiology and evolution of vocal learning.
Future developments in the partnership will be announced at a later date.

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