Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mechanism of beauty accumulation at high skill levels in partner dancing communities by marginal selective advantage among new dancers*.

Bugs Question of the Day post again!  I feel like it's sort of inappropriate for me to post many-multi-paragraph responses to the QOTD (or my new favorite abbreviation that I just saw on the page, "?/day", when I have my own personal blog for that sort of thing. So since this is my own space, here is my really long answer to today's ?/day.  

First, the question:
@gregory Dyke asks: "A tongue in-cheek question to balance out the overly serious nature of the past few discussions. Is the theory set forward in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jqmd75VsVFU @1.30 correct? Beauty and good dancing in women are linked because men do the asking, are shallow and therefore invite the beautiful women, thus affording them more opportunity to dance and become good?"
And here is my initial response:
Holy long response that I just typed out and have decided would be a better blog post. Short answer: as an evolutionary biologist, this theory (as in, prettier girls have more OPPORTUNITY to become better dancers because they'll get asked more often at the beginning) is totally plausible and would not require a large bias at all. A very small (or unconscious bias) would be plenty sufficient. As a follow whose default look is butch and scruffy but who can clean up to what might be described as glamour tomboy, I can say that when I make more effort to look more attractive, I get more dances, hands down.

But here is my slightly more complete response....

This is not verbatim the original fb response I typed out, since I have the editing of this at my leisure and adding to it.  (*note from myself from the future: hahaha, it ended up being way longer!*) It's also interesting to me that this question comes out right after my "Being a leader is hard" post, since I intend to link the picture of me-as-a-boy again.

Like I said in my brief answer above, I have two perspectives on this.

First perspective as a geneticist/ evolutionary biologist, speaking to the plausibility of the theory: a selective advantage does not have a to be a huge advantage to become much more common over time.  You don't need to be a 50% faster rabbit to increase the speed of the rabbit population through selective advantage.  1% or 2% is plenty (a lot, actually), over enough generations.  And by that I mean, the theory is completely plausible, even if it's not a conscious decision on the men's part.  Even if male leaders are only very slightly inclined to ask prettier girls to dance, getting to dance 20 times over the course of an evening versus 18 times over the course of an evening, if consistent over the course of many evenings, will still add up to a lot more dance *time* for more attractive follows.  And total dance time absolutely correlates to dancing skill. You must put time into your dancing to become good.

You must also put in effort, so I definitely would not take it so far as to say that pretty girls "automatically" get to be good dancers or anything like that. Just that it might ease their way into opportunity.
Randomly selected facebook picture in which I (right)
look like a boy with no effort towards that goal whatsoever. 

Second perspective, as a female follow who... we'll say "cleans up well".  I have short hair and a somewhat butch build and a high tolerance for looking scruffy because on a day to day basis, I just don't care that much. With a little effort, I can and have passed as a boy.  With a little more different effort, lol, I can pass for a pretty attractive girl.  Which is to say I feel like I've inhabited both sides of the spectrum for follow attractiveness and the below are my observations based on that.

And at some point in my dancing, I decided that the above theory was true, with the slight variation that I called "girls that make the most visible effort to look heteronormatively pleasing to straight men" instead of abbreviating it "prettier," because so much of what goes into being perceived as attractive has to do with cultural layers and presentation.  I'm perfectly pretty, but in the way that people who I've seen and danced with in class on a Saturday afternoon often flat out do not recognize me Saturday evening at a dance a few hours later when I've gotten put together.  And I used to go out dancing not at all put together pretty commonly.

Me out dancing from a while back, during my
"this is my fun time, not my make-lots-of-effort-
to-dress-up-time.  Why don't I get to dance
more?" phase. Photo by John Li.
But then I observed that prettier girls got more dances, and would like to add to the theory at this point that it's a bigger difference for less experienced follows.  Mostly because when choosing who to ask to dance among a group of follows about whom a leader knows nothing at all (he doesn't know if they're good or bad, they're not local or known to him in any way), all other things being equal, I think leaders are more likely to choose the prettier/more attractive follows first.

A more recent photo of me in my "has finally
discovered the concept of an 'outfit' " phase.
And because more experienced/better follows also are more known in their local and regional communities, participate in this type of "all other things being equal" sort of equation less often.

I'm not going to lie, this initially annoyed me, with the logic going something like "why can't this be based on how I dance and not how how I look?" Changing the way I think about two things sort of erased my resentment of this.  First, all other thing being equal, I'd rather dance with cuter partners too.  It's just that I resented the cultural definition of "attractive" for women that was being used as a rubric, not the concept per se.  Because I didn't feel that I was measuring up.  I resented the standard because I felt like, by that standard, I was failing.  But I dug a little deeper and realized that, for *fear* of failing, I wasn't really even trying.  I was "prioritizing comfort over beauty" and wearing workout clothes and such to dance in, because I felt (and still do, to some extent) like dressing up is more like "playing dress up" and that I am, at 26, ostensibly a grownup and born double X, totally still felt like I'm faking being a real girl.

The second thing was that I realized that dancing is a visual art and swing and blues dancing are dancing.  (Ok I'm dumb, I will admit this.  I may not learn quickly, but I do learn eventually, so bear with my epiphany?)

The dances that I do can be visual art, and the visual component of that includes my personal presentation: what I am wearing, how I choose to adorn my face and arrange my hair, just as much as it includes how I've conditioned and how I am using my body.  And that I don't have to be conventional to be put together.  I can wear a dress with a plunging neckline and cowboy boots, or I can wear black-on-black-on-black and play with textures, or wear elf ear tips and red eyeliner and look like a mythical creature, but I have to pick a look and sell it.  

And I think my dancing is better for being purposeful about my visual presentation.  I feel better about myself because I'm not just muddling along with whatever, (like dressing up for a job interview), and I definitely get more dances when I've put in more effort to look attractive (even if it's unconventional) than when I don't.  And I like my body; it does awesome things for me, so I enjoy showing it off sometimes.

I'm also definitely not going to say that there are not fucked up things about the prescriptions and prohibitions our culture puts on the things that make women 'attractive' or the way women ought to go about being "attractive."  There are.  And it's also true that those messages may affect which women are willing to put themselves out there as dancers, based on what body they live in. But that is not what this post is about.

Now, of course, if you're not in a place with your dancing where you care about "audience," the visual presentation is not as much of a thing that matters.  Some people are more about connection and a dance being purely a thing that happens between two people and not so much about how it looks, and that's fine.  That's a coherent philosophy, it's just not mine or where I'm at now.

Wow, to summarize a lot, and a post that kind of went in a totally different direction than I had originally planned on, yes, I think that it's both plausible and valid that "attractiveness" is disproportionately present/ over-represented/ concentrated in the higher-level dancers in the community and that subtle selection bias among male leaders for more "attractive" female followers is at least partially responsible for it.

*I named this post like a scientific paper because it amuses me.


  1. I have noticed this. And I have to say, after reading this, I feel the most ugly I have ever felt in my entire life.

  2. I find this theory really interesting. On a community scale, the divergent evolutionary pressures of putting in effort to look heteronormatively attractive has created divergent 'species' of dancers, particularly in the blues dancing world.

  3. Interesting blog, and I can definitely relate to some of your observations/findings(!). As a tall and not particularly skinny woman I have had similar thoughts about whether shorter/thinner follows find it easier to find partners; both socially and to practise dips/airsteps with (even though I know the follow's technique and core strength is important too). Also I lead and I realise that I can be more inclined to ask someone who I don't know if they're smaller 'cause it seems like it might be harder work if they're taller/heavier. And sure, I get wanting to dance with more attractive people too. I can really relate to the rebelling against the performative gendered aspect of dressing up to go dancing too, sometimes I don't feel like doing the whole girly thing but you make a good point, just rock whatever look you've chosen and don't apologise for it! :) Nice one.