Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Science of the Embrace

Social tango is a dance of touch. Social tango dancers need no visual cues. A recent research article on touch has made me rethink tango. There are a few things that I now realize. First, I realize (the obvious) that the tango embrace communicates emotion far more than most of us realize. And secondly, I am intrigued with how the researchers called the person touched the "decoder" and the one who touches, "the encoder."

Many dances seem clearly dance-dyads of "encoders" and "decoders" (leaders and followers), but if social tango is truly a dance of touch, lacking visual clues, then perhaps tango is NOT a dance of encoders and decoders. In tango we touch and are touched. Much research has been dedicated to voices and facial expressions to convey emotion. The "voice" of emotion is the music in music-centric improvisational dances like tango and west coast swing. There is no speaker/listener, leader/follower or encoder/decoder in touch. Touch is egalitarian. So perhaps I overstate that tango is a dance of touch, but if I am right, then we should pay more attention to how we truly communicate (both encode and decode) through touch.

I have the summary of the research below.  The scientists found that strangers merely touching a person on the arm can accurately convey complex emotions--even with no visual clues.*

If a touch on the arm can tell so much
about our emotions, 
how much more communicative 
is a warm embrace?

The cross-cultural study showed that people could sense emotions through touch with better-than-chance guesses. The emotions included: Anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, embarrassment, envy, pride, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Men were just as good as "decoders" as women in the experiments carried out in both Spain and America.  Those trying to portray the various emotions were not told what to do, but similarities of touching behaviors emerged, such as stroking to show love, sadness, envy or sympathy.

Only after learning tai chi did I realize how I effectively could calm the nervous embrace from my partner, or how I could de-escalate an "arm-pushing fight."  It is not just me calming others; I too have experienced a woman's embrace that has calmed me. Ideally we are symbiotically communicating the joy of dance or the safeness of the embrace. Just the other evening I received on of the best dance compliments I have ever had.  She said, "I had a bad day, but your embrace calmed me, and I had a great evening after our dance." Touch truly communicates!

Assuming is true that others can be aware of our nervousness, our anger or even our difficult past history through touch, can we hide it? We don't need to!  But we certainly can aspire to communicate what we want to tell others.  Let me suggest that changing our communication at any level, including speaking, facial expressions, body language and touch, we can start freeing ourselves from negative communications about our difficult past (childhood to present day).  The Three M's of tango (Music / Movement / eMbrace) are the place that a soul finds a moment of freedom from a bad day or even a negative past. Dance is a time to express something else.  Expressing ourselves positively in whatever communication mode is called "psychological and spiritual growth."

What are you telling your dance partner? Is it what you intend? If not, ask a friend or a teacher during a private lesson, "how can I better communicate through touch?" There's an art and a science to the embrace--balance your art with a bit of science.

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Photo credit:  The embrace.
Viviana Para Carrón's blog

*More reading

Below is the abstract (summary) of the research, but I have a copy of the full article, which I will send at your request.

Touch communicates distinct emotions.


The study of emotional signaling has focused almost exclusively on the face and voice. In 2 studies, the authors investigated whether people can identify emotions from the experience of being touched by a stranger on the arm (without seeing the touch). In the 3rd study, they investigated whether observers can identify emotions from watching someone being touched on the arm. Two kinds of evidence suggest that humans can communicate numerous emotions with touch. First, participants in the United States (Study 1) and Spain (Study 2) could decode anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy via touch at much-better-than-chance levels. Second, fine-grained coding documented specific touch behaviors associated with different emotions. In Study 3, the authors provide evidence that participants can accurately decode distinct emotions by merely watching others communicate via touch. The findings are discussed in terms of their contributions to affective science and the evolution of altruism and cooperation.
(c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]