A close friend of mine, a New York-based choreographer (and mother of two), has been a dancer all her life. In her house, the music regularly pumps while she and her boys break it down – her three-year-old, Jesse, getting into his “dance studio” with scarves and socks that he twirls and waves around as theatrical props. When the music slows, he closes his eyes and sways like he’s at a rock concert.
Kids love music. Lullabies and nursery rhymes are soothing and engaging, and there is even reason to think tunes are good for our little ones’ health (premature babies in intensive care units have been found to gain weight faster and leave the hospital sooner when they listen to 30 minutes of Mozart a day).
This month, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says what most parents have suspected since their kids were tiny: not only do they gravitate towards music, babies are born to dance. The study suggests that infants are programmed to move to the beat, and they prefer it over the sounds of simple speech.
The group of scientists used a sample of 120 children between five months and two years old. In the lab, the little subjects listened to samples of classical music, rhythmic beats, and speech. Their movement was captured by video and 3D motion capture technology and then analyzed (in part by trained ballet dancers). Sure enough, even the youngest babies rocked rhythmically to the music, changing their movements with the tempo.
The research points to dance as a hard-wired behavior (as does its existence across cultures), which naturally leads to the question of its evolutionary roots. What purpose has it served us? We don’t know for sure, but many see dance and music-making as forms of social communication, important to our ancestors in bringing people together and creating cohesion.
Whatever the reason natural selection chose dance, it’s likely that it gives babies (and adults) a boost of happiness. In the study, the more the babies were able to synchronize their movements with the music, the more they smiled, almost as if feeling the beat and successfully grooving to it made them giddy. As a dancer myself, I don’t doubt this – I’m always in good spirits after class.
Babies may also get a dance buzz because it stimulates their “vestibular sense”: the body’s system for balance and movement (involving the inner ear and lower brain regions). It’s our oldest sensory system, in the evolutionary sense, and it’s one of the few senses that are highly developed at birth. As parents know from the early months of baby rocking, activating the vestibular sense is calming, and many think it has ties to attention and learning as well.
Few children have the diaper-shaking moves of the YouTube Beyonce baby, but all of them are clearly born to get down. It’s one of their earliest and most delightful skills. And we don’t have to sign them up for formal lessons, we have the equipment we need right in our living room. So push the coffee table aside, crank up the volume, and invite your kid to a dance party.