Dr Peter Lovatt’s guest speech at this year’s ISTD Graduation Ceremony
5 April 2019
The ISTD's Graduation Ceremony was held in London on 21st February.
I’d like to start by thanking the ISTD for inviting me to stand before you today on this very special day to celebrate your fantastic success in dance. We know, or I know, as a psychologist, and I know as a dancer that dance plays a fundamental part in human existence. Human societies are bonded by human dance, and it’s a fantastically rich thing that we all do. And of course, as dance teachers, you play an integral part in passing that on, on being involved in the fabric of dance and helping societies stay together through it. So I’m really pleased and excited to be here, so thank you very much.
To give you some background into what I do, I’m a dance psychologist. And as a dance psychologist, I’m interested in the psychology of dance and dancers, trying to understand: why do people dance? What happens when people dance? Why do people feel so amazingly joyful when they dance? And why do some people fear dancing so much that they would rather pull their finger nails out than engage in some sort of dance? So what is the psychology of all that?
In our laboratory at the University of Hertfordshire, we do a wide range of research. We look, for instance, at people with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, which affects movement and thinking and a whole range of things. But when people with Parkinson’s engage in dance, then some of those symptoms become significantly and clinically improved. And as scientists, we’re thinking, why should that be the case? Why would moving your body in a certain way lead to changes in your brain that would help the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease? And we look at issues to do with self-esteem of dancers. We look at mood changes, and a whole set of work based around dance. What I’d like to do this afternoon is to talk to you about some of that research we do, and perhaps I’ll demonstrate some of the research for you as well.
But before I do that, I would like to tell you about how I became a dance psychologist. So I’m Dr Peter Lovatt. I’m very proud to be Dr Peter Lovatt and I run a university lab, and before I was a university academic, I earned my living as a professional dancer, and that time being a dancer I absolutely loved. And before that, as you’ve heard, I was at the Guildford School of Acting, training in dance and musical theatre. But before that, I was at school, I was at secondary school, and secondary school was a place that I think I hated more than any other place that I’ve ever been in my life since. School was just the most sterile environment. We had to do a lot of this: sitting down and listening. And then, occasionally, we had to read and write as well, and I found that whole environment very sterile. I think why I hated it so much was because I couldn’t read and write! And when you’re at school, when you can’t read and write very well, then you can’t engage in any of the things that the school tells you to do. So I couldn’t sit exams in history, in geography, in RE. I couldn’t do any of those sorts of exams when I was 15 or 16, because I simply couldn’t read the written word in front of me. When you can’t read or write at school, then people just perceive you to be stupid, and then you might then think of yourself as being stupid as well. And that’s certainly how I felt. I was a poor reader, who self-identified as being stupid, and every time I took an exam in school, which I failed, I became a certified failure over and over again. It’s no surprise that poor readers at school are more likely to have fewer friends, they’re more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour, and they’re less likely to get good jobs after leaving school.
But I was enormously lucky, and I was enormously lucky because the state secondary school that I went to had a school dance group – a dance group called Colour Supplement, and I joined Colour Supplement when I was 11 and I had been dancing in primary school before that. But when I was 11 I joined the school dance group, and it just felt completely different. When I danced and moved my body, then my mind seemed to be in a different space. My mood was lifted, my social interaction with other people felt completely different. And I felt I could think, and I could move, and I felt completely me. During those times when I was dancing in the school hall, I felt like I was me. And when I had to then come in to the classroom and sit at a desk and do reading and writing and sitting still activities, I felt closed in. I felt claustrophobic. I felt stupid. I felt a whole range of negative emotions, which of course went on. But I was so enormously lucky that we had a school dance group. We had a dance teacher at school who said, yeah anyone can join, and I was the only boy in the school dance group for many years, and I had a fantastic, fantastic time.
When I left, I left school without any qualifications. But, because I could dance I then got a place eventually at Guildford School of Acting (GSA) on the basis of my dancing, and not on the basis of my reading and writing; I couldn’t do that. And so I went to GSA, trained as a dancer there and then left and worked in professional theatre. And I loved working in professional theatre. At GSA I learned ISTD Cecchetti with Angela Hardcastle, so I loved doing Cecchetti, I loved doing tap, modern theatre dance; a whole range of different dance styles I loved. And all those dance styles that led in to a musical theatre life was just what I wanted to do.
I left GSA and went to work in professional theatre, and had a number of years working in theatre, but I always carried with me this sense that I was stupid. There was always that thing, because when you’ve been to school and you don’t succeed at school in the traditional reading and writing activities, then people perceive you as being stupid and you carry that for a very long time.
Then one day I was doing a show, and I was doing Panto at the Richmond theatre, and before the Panto started we had a two week rehearsal period, and during that rehearsal period, something changed in me. And it occurred to me then that I couldn’t be stupid. And what happened was this: at the beginning of a rehearsal period, we had two weeks full of the show before it went on. The musicians came in, and the musicians had their musical score with them, and they read their musical score, and they learn their score. Then when the opening night happened, they would sit down in the orchestra pit, and they would have their music in front of them, a conductor would keep them in time, and they played the notes in front of them, and that’s fine. The actors had to do something slightly more difficult than that. They came in with a script in front of them, and they read their script. For the first week they were on the book. Then eventually they came off the book, and they had to remember their lines, and they could look at their book and put it down. They did this. And then on opening night and all the other nights, if they forgot their lines, then somebody from prompt corner would shout out what the next line was, and they’d carry on. And they’d be able to remember their lines and carry on. But as dancers, we did something completely different, and more extraordinary. So we’d come in, and the choreographers would give dance instructions… and all the dancers would follow the dance instructions… and we’d just remember it! We couldn’t write it down in those days, we couldn’t film ourselves on iPhones. We just had to remember it. Now, of course, we didn’t just remember eight counts, we remembered two hours worth of choreography. Over a two-week period with the choreographer there’d be big movements, little movements, lifting people up movements, there’d be things on the music, off the music, solos of other people, spacing all over the stage. We had to remember a huge amount of content without writing it down.
Then on the opening night, we’d come out and perform, and there’d be nobody in the wings shouting out: “it’s a step ball change”, “do a step ball change”. You just had to remember the movements. Now imagine if the musicians had to learn in the same way as the dancers, with no music, they’d just have to listen and they’d have to learn two hours’ worth of music, or if the actors had no books. They wouldn’t have a chance, would they? But dancers can do this. Dancers have this amazing ability to learn and absorb, this huge amount of content. It defies virtually every single model of memory that we have in psychology, how dancers can remember this amount of content. And when I was doing this, I thought, well, I can’t be stupid. If I’m capable of learning that amount of content, then I must be able to learn to read and write. So when I was about 22 or 23, I thought, well, if I can dance, and if I can learn these complex movement patterns and the intricacies, and the subtleties of these movement patterns, I must be able to learn the intricacies of reading and writing and the visual patterns that come with that. So that’s what I did. I set about trying to learn to read, and I used what I knew about dancing to help me learn these patterns. And of course, reading is quite difficult when you learn in your early twenties because lots of the early learning material is based for young people. But I kept calling on what I knew about dance and learning movement patterns to apply those to learning reading and writing patterns. And so then I did learn to read, and when I learned to read, it was extraordinary, because it opened up this incredible set of new worlds that I didn’t even know were there before.
So then I did an A-Level in Psychology, and then the next year I did an A-Level in English, which I failed. By the time I failed the A-Level in English a university had given me a place, it was Roehampton, which gave me a place to study Psychology and English. I think because of their dance background there, they knew, they had this idea about movement and learning and they were more open to allowing me in without the traditional qualifications. I did my first degree there in Psychology and English, and then went off to the University of Stirling to study for a Masters degree in neural computation, which is the mathematical modelling of brain functions. Then after that I did my PHD, my doctorate in experimental cognitive psychology. After that, I was at the University of Cambridge, and at Cambridge University I was then studying language learning, and thinking about how languages, how our brain processes language. And at Cambridge, people kept talking at Cambridge about your first languages, your mother tongue, […] English, or German, or Urdu, or whatever it is, that’s your first language. But then it occurred to me that that’s not our first language. Our first language is movement. When we communicate with other people, we communicate by using our bodies. Think about little tiny children, and how very small children communicate their wants, needs and desires through moving their body. And our brain is extraordinary, because our brain can pick up on those movement signals and it understands what people are wanting and doing with their bodies. We know that when we’re happy, our body’s in one position, and if you imagine your best friend, let’s imagine your best friend was very depressed and walking down the street, you’d probably recognise their depression in their movement patterns. We’re communicating so much through our movements, and our brains are picking up on those signals.
So it was while I was at Cambridge I thought, well, I want to combine the science with dancing and understand the psychology of dancing from a scientific perspective. And I wanted to understand why was it that I felt fantastic when I danced? Why was it that when I danced, the world felt like a different place? And why is it that when I dance, my thinking seems to change fundamentally? So what I want to do now is to show you some of the research we do in the science lab, looking at the relationship between moving our bodies and thinking of problem solving.
[The audience dances]
Where’s the science? Well what we just did there all of you will know this already – you did two types of dancing. The first type of dancing was very simple. All you had to do was learn a structured dance routine. You learnt a structured routine. You had a video on the screen. There was music with a nice strong beat associated with it. It was very simple and structured. And all you had to do was execute that movement once you’d learnt it. The second sort of dancing you did of course, was called improvised dancing. All you had to do was very structured improvisation in the sense you had five tokens and all you had to do was change those tokens around, change the order of those tokens in the framework that we already had. What we found in the lab is that when we get people moving either in a structured way or in an improvised way, it changes their thinking and their problem solving in very profound ways. What we found was that people doing a few minutes of structured dancing became much better and faster at solving problems where there’s one correct answer to the problem. So, here’s an example of this, it’s not a trick I promise. Just shout out the answer to this. What is 3+2? [audience shouts 5] Well done. And what’s 5x3 [audience shouts 15], and what’s 15x3 [audience shouts 45]. Great, and what’s 43x9 [audience laughs]. I haven’t quite heard it yet. It doesn’t matter whether you got the right or wrong answer. The important thing to consider there is that you were taking multiple cognitive steps to find the right answer [gives example]. But this is called convergent problem solving. You’re using your mind in a convergent way, learning a set of steps to get to one right answer. There’s one right answer at the end, and that’s called convergent thinking.
What we found in the lab is that when we get people moving either in a structured way or in an improvised way, it changes their thinking and their problem solving in very profound ways
What we found in the lab is that when people do a few minutes of structured dancing, they become significantly faster at solving convergent problem solving puzzles. It speeds up their cognitive processes. Just moving your body in a structured way speeds up your thinking. It changes your thinking. It’s extraordinary. And the second thing we found – improvised dancing, we looked at something called divergent thinking. And divergent thinking is different to convergent, because in divergent thinking, there’s not just one right answer to a problem, there might be 100 right answers to a problem. So this is creative thinking. And what we found is that when we got people doing some improvised movement, just moving their body in an improvised way. Doing something with their body they’ve never done before with their body. When we got people doing that, then their minds changed. They became more creative in their problem solving. Now, when we tried this in the university lab that was great. But we thought, well, what use is that? So we’ve taken it out now to two groups outside of the university. We first of all went to schools to see whether if we got people dancing and moving in schools while they were learning some Physics or some English Literature or some Maths, would that change, would their moving their body change the way they learnt the material? And we found that it did. We know that when we get children moving as part of the school day, doing a variety of either structured dance or improvised dance, it changes the way they think and learn about the material in school that their learning. There’s a direct relationship. And there are several papers now published looking at this – the impact of dancing and moving in a school on young people’s ability to learn core curricular material. The second thing we found – this with divergent thinking was that with people with Parkinson’s Disease, we found with people with Parkinson’s Disease have a deficit in divergent thinking. There’s a problem with their divergent thinking. What’s happening there? Why should that be a problem?
And what we found when people with Parkinson’s Disease took part in eight sessions of improvised movement was that their divergent thinking skills improved
Now, if you imagine, if you’ve got Parkinson’s Disease, you might develop a tremor. You don’t always develop a tremor but you might imagine you might develop a tremor. Now let’s imagine you’ve got a tremor suddenly, and you’ve got to drink a glass of water. You’ve got to try and do this by keeping your dignity and being able to quench your thirst and drinking without spilling it all over you. That’s a divergent problem-solving task. Trying to work out how to use your changed body is a divergent problem-solving task. If you’re lying in bed and you can’t get comfortable because your body doesn’t feel like it used to feel, then finding a comfortable position in bed is a divergent problem-solving task. If you’ve got problems eating and swallowing, then that’s also a divergent thinking task, thinking how do I find a whole new diet that I can eat and swallow? And what we found in Parkinson’s Disease, is that when people with Parkinson’s came to take part in eight sessions of improvised movement, then their divergent thinking skills improved. And then with that improvement we saw, after three months, that their activities of daily living, like eating and drinking, sleeping, and a whole range of other factors became improved as well. So they were applying their changes in divergent thinking as a product of the dancing into their every day, daily activities.
So what we show now is that when you dance, when you move your body, a whole set of things change. We know that people’s mood changes when people dance. We know that there’s social bonding that happens when people dance. There’s a fantastic study looking at little babies, and what these scientists did, they got the babies into a little carry case here. They bounced them, and they bounced these babies, and they bounced them either in time with the other people who were bouncing around them or they bounced them out of time with the people around them. So they either bounced in time, or they bounced out of time with other people. And then they got the babies out, and they asked […] these seven months old, they asked them to help a researcher, so the researcher might be pegging up some clothes on a line and would drop a peg. And they wanted to see how long it would take these kids to pick up the peg and pass it back to the researcher. And what they found was that those children who were moving in time with each other were much more likely to show pro-social behaviour to pick up the peg and pass it back to the researcher than those children who were not moving in time.
So we know that shared movement is this amazing thing that bonds societies together. So we know that there’s a social element to dancing. We know of course dancing changes the cognitive processes of people. We know that dancing changes people’s emotional state and can reduce depression. And of course we know that dancing is a great form of exercising generally for health improvement too. So as dance teachers here today I think you are in the most fantastic career possible. You have a privileged position where you’re working with people as dance teachers and you have a massive influence on their lives. The people you teach will remember you forever and the societies in which you teach will forever be thankful to you because without dance, we simply wouldn’t have a society. So congratulations to you all on graduating today and thank you very much!