A dance video library that seeks to get at the ‘soul’ of dance

The Warburg Institute is renowned for its extensive library – of books. Now neuroscientists are set to add a new category with the publication of a library of movements. Dance movements to be exact.

The Warburg Dance Movements Library

The Warburg Dance Movement Library (WADAMO) is a collection of short video clips of dance movements developed by cognitive neuroscientists based at the Warburg Institute, part of the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. It will be used for research into how we perceive emotion in movements, how we form aesthetic experiences while watching dance, and will ultimately foster new interdisciplinary synergies between the sciences and the arts and humanities. It fulfils one of the main aspirations of Aby Warburg, the art historian whose library is housed at the Institute. 

Created in collaboration with students from the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, WADAMO is the first library of dance movements to focus on the difference between emotionally genuine dance movements and movements that may be technically correct but not expressive. The library’s first experimental study, ‘The Warburg Dance Movements Library – the WADAMO Library. A validation study’ is published today (18 December) in Perception, a cognitive science journal.  

Led by Warburg academics, Dr Julia F Christensen and Professor Manos Tsakiris, in collaboration with Anna Lambrechts from City, University of London, WADAMO is part of the institute’s interdisciplinary Body and Image in Arts and Science (BIAS) project. Launched in 2016, with the support of the Nomis Foundation, BIAS aims to extend our knowledge of the role of brain and biology in the understanding of culture and cultural history. 
‘Researchers in psychology and neuroscience are particularly interested in how the body is a vehicle of communication,’ explains Dr Christensen. ‘We talk with our bodies. In dance, we understand each other without words. Dance has always been a star example of emotional body expressivity, across cultures and times. As Ted Shawn, one of the pioneers of modern dance said, “Dance is a poem, of which each movement is a word”. And he is right! This is because our brain understands body language really like a language. But for this to be true, the message has to be genuine, authentic.’ 

To test this insight about perceiving emotion in dance, Dr Christensen and colleagues first worked with a group of dancers from the Rambert School who were video-recorded while performing different dance movements in a technically proficient way with or without emotional expressivity. Next, across several experiments, naïve volunteers were asked to rate how expressive they thought each movement was how beautiful they found each movement, or how much they liked them. 

Intriguingly, the results showed that even people with no dance experience could correctly identify the genuinely expressive dance videos. Moreover, these genuinely expressive movements were liked more and volunteers found them more beautiful. Professor Tsakiris said that, ‘In a way, genuinely expressive dance movements reach their audience and speak to us all, independently of our expertise, in a way that simply technically correct movements do not.’ 

‘Dancers, choreographers and dance aficionados know that it is not enough to make pretty movements in space,’ adds Dr Christensen. ‘For a movement to become an artwork – a dance – there needs to be authentic expression. Therefore, we think that the Warburg Dance Movement Library responds to a famous quote by Paris-étoile star ballerina, Sylvie Guillem: “Technical perfection is insufficient. It is an orphan without the true soul of the dancer”.’