DR PETER LOVATT
Tell me about yourself and your background.
I'm a psychologist with a special interest in movement and dance. I started life as a dancer, and I worked as a dancer in musical theatre shows, which I absolutely loved. Then I had a turning point in my early 20s where I overcame a reading difficulty and then started a more academic journey: I went to university and did degrees in Psychology and English and Neural Computation, and then a PhD in Experimental Cognitive Neuroscience. I wanted to then combine my work in psychology with my love of dance – this is a much longer story but I’m going to keep it really brief! I started to focus on the science of dance and trying to understand some aspects of dance through the scientific lens. So I worked with people with Parkinson’s Disease back in 2008 trying to understand why dance would be good for people with a neurodegenerative disorder. And then I did some other research which was picked up by the media. It was really funny because I was at a university at the time, where our press office came to see me and asked if I was working on anything the press would be interested in. And I said, “Oh no. Nothing at all.” They asked what I was currently working on, which was the relationship between dance and hormones, and they said that would be very interesting for the media. I had no clue at all! Suddenly that weekend it was in the Daily Telegraph and then the Graham Norton Show and a load of TV companies got involved and suddenly I was doing public engagement work, which I really enjoyed. I left the university in 2019 to spend more time focusing on external projects relating to how movement and dance can enhance people’s lives in business, education and healthcare. So that’s where I am now.
So it was never the plan to do this public engagement work, it came to you?
Yeah, completely. Also in 2008, I was asked to do a TEDx talk in Berlin, and I had no clue what TED or TEDx was at the time. So I did one of those, then a corporate organisation, a hotel company, asked me to do a tour for them. I thought, “Why is a hotel company interested in me as a psychologist?” I hadn’t realised that there were these overlaps between what I’d been studying in the university, and people’s normal and professional lives.
What does the response tend to be when you work with corporate companies?
The most enjoyable talk I gave was to a computer company in America, and there were about 10,000 people in the audience. I spoke, and they all danced. We had this huge sea of people dancing, which was just extraordinary to see; these non-dancers all dancing in the auditorium and the energy from that room – I felt like a DJ! Afterwards, I was really overwhelmed by the response of people saying, “Gosh, I’m a non-dancer, I don’t dance. If you’d said to me today I was going to be dancing at 9:30 this morning in the conference hall, I would have just said absolutely no way, I don’t do that.” They reported these different feelings from doing it. I had been talking about changes in the way that people think, changing the way that people feel, changing the way that people relate to one another, and all through moving their bodies. And people were bringing this back to me, saying that these are the feelings that they had during those sessions. So the positive side has been fantastic.
But people do bring prejudices and attitudes about what dance is and who dance is for. What I really enjoy is breaking through those prejudices and, hopefully, showing people that all humans are born to dance and it is an extraordinarily natural activity. I love to see people who are reluctant to dance then dance.
I imagine a lot of people you work with are self-conscious about dancing. How do you help them to overcome this?
I think part of it is that in many ways I don’t look like a dancer; they’re not expecting me to dance when they see me on the platform. So when I start to dance, I’m basically saying, “Look, I’m an old man. I’m overweight. I don’t look like a beautiful dancer.” It gives them permission, and sometimes they recognise themselves in a way. The other thing I do is I start off in a very graded way, so I get them moving without them even knowing they’re moving, and we talk about moving rather than dancing, so I get them to do one small movement then, which isn’t dance-related at all. Then they’re in there, and then they do the next incremental thing, and then I have them standing up and they do the next incremental thing. I don’t have any touching, there’s no partnering, and everyone’s looking at me, so hopefully people are not looking at the person they’re sat next sat next to.
Of course, I’ve done some events for clients, and repeated events for clients, where there are some people who just say, “Look, I just don’t want to be involved in the dancing”, and I go, “Well, that’s absolutely fine.” I’m not forcing anyone to dance, all I do is invite people to move. And if they don’t want to accept that invitation, then that’s absolutely fine. And if people want to leave, they can. I’m not forcing anyone to do anything. But I do it in a in a non-judgmental way. What also helps is when we talk about the science. I’ll say, “I want to illustrate some science to you, so could you just please do this for me? Put your hand up in the air,” and they’ll go, “All right,” and then we put the other hand up in the air. I always frame it as: we’re going to learn something from this about the science, and the impact that this has on some aspect of psychology.
And it’s not about you being a good dancer.
No. One of the reasons people don’t dance is because they feel self-conscious: not feeling good enough; not knowing the right steps; not having the right body; not being the right age. So we don’t have any of that – if people forget the moves, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes we do a bit of improvisation, but it’s very simple, having a wiggle; sometimes we learn a little routine. Some people really like the structure of knowing what the next eight counts are going to be and some people would like just to move their shoulders and have a wriggle. And that’s absolutely fine. Because even in a dance context, some people feel really comfortable doing the choreography and some people feel really comfortable doing freestyle, which is just like it is in life, isn’t it? Some people are really happy working in a team of other people, some people want to work on their own; some people like to be noisy, some people like to be quiet. So dance offers a model, an explanation for change and thinking about how we change our mindset. Sometimes it might feel a bit odd to change the way that we think, or it might be quite odd to change the way that we behave. So we can use those aspects of dance in an advantageous way.
Are you still involved in academic research or mainly focusing on public engagement and external projects?
We’re doing research within the public engagement work – part of what drives me is wanting to understand whether there are benefits to engaging in dance in other sectors. We have a dance and mental well-being programme with Darcey Bussell called Move Assure, and some corporations have taken that on as a staff well-being initiative. For example, we're doing a project with McDonald’s restaurants and Kingston University, partnering with researchers who are economists and psychologists, and looking at things that are relevant to McDonald’s. They have an issue with some of their staff having a high level of anxiety and depression, which can lead to them avoiding coming to work. High staff turnover costs organisations a huge amount of money, so they’re particularly interested to see whether their staff well-being activities can reduce absenteeism rates, reduce staff turnover rates and a whole range of things. We’re also looking at whether participants’ well-being is changing as a function of the programme. As well as the dance programme there’s a coaching element as well, so the employees engage in well-being coaching.
What I have found very different with this work is that academic research is such a long, slow process. It can years to secure funding which I found really frustrating. With the corporate research, people have an imperative. They say, “Well, here’s our situation, our call centre staff are not as alert or they’re not as good problem-solvers as we like, so can we use movement in a way to enhance problem-solving skills in our call centre staff?” So we then measure something right now, we create an intervention, put the intervention in place, and then we measure the outcome. I find that really exciting because it’s taking all the skills I learned from the university and applying them in the 'real world' – real world in the sense that it’s immediate and it’s addressing a really fundamental problem, an issue, and we can then see changes.
We can’t often publish findings in academic journals and conferences, but we can talk about them at corporate conferences and events. It’s just a very different culture: in academic research you have the reviewers and the editors who are the gatekeepers, whereas in corporate research you have the CEO who is the gatekeeper.
It’s so interesting to hear about this because your work has gone beyond the dance sector.
You know, I never planned to go in that direction, but I do get particularly excited in that area because it’s such a big world. And what really did it for me was thinking about the dance for Parkinson’s work. In 2008, we recruited a group of people with Parkinson’s Disease and then we set up an intervention study for people. The problem with some of that research was that the people who came to take part in the study were people with Parkinson’s who generally enjoyed dancing. They had a positive attitude about dancing, and so they came along and they took part in the research and they loved it, and then there were positive changes.
The question then became, how do we “sell” this to the medical staff, to the consultants who were looking after people with Parkinson’s? And then how do we access people who think they're not dancers or don’t like dancing? It came from those questions: if dance is good for you, how do we get to those people? For example, how do we convince school teachers to change the way that people move in a classroom setting to introduce dance into a curriculum? How do we convince business people that sitting at your desk for 8 or 10 hours a day isn’t the best use of your mind? How do you motivate a group of people to move, for whom it’s new, or they’ve got these prejudices in their head? How do you bypass those prejudices and introduce movement, and is it valid to do that?
It feels like we could all be doing more to bring dance to people that don’t usually engage in dancing. What advice would you give to people in dance psychology who might be interested in this kind of work?
We actually run a whole course in this called Movement in Practice Facilitator Training and that's all about bringing movement into different environments and helping people. Our main advice is thinking about the context they want to work in, so it might be in a business context or a health context or an education context, and to understand the language and the priorities of those contexts, and then try to understand what the issue is within that context that they want to change. So is it something social, something cognitive, something emotion-based or physically based? And then we design packages or what we call a movement in practice implementation plan: a plan of how people can then start to implement those movements.
One of the most important things is talking to people at their level and using their language. Many of us have PhDs and we've gone down this rabbit hole; we've become experts in a tiny, tiny field. What we have to do is to take that and come back up to the surface, you know, start being like a mole! You come back up to the source and look around and go, “Oh, here's the whole world!” So you need to make your knowledge applicable to the situation. Make it as general as possible so that it applies to as many people as possible. You need to present to a more general audience and make it interesting and engaging and do it quickly – get to the point quickly, make it relevant to your audience quickly because they won't give you more than 5 minutes. If you start talking about sample sizes and power analyses you’ll lose your audience within a couple of minutes! Reduce the number of slides and make it engaging for people; they want to leave feeling refreshed with new information. They want to see how it can fit within their lives and how it can provide a solution. So you’re presenting academic research as a solution to a problem, and showing how it can be implemented. That’s my advice.
Photo credit: Steve Langan.
If you're interested in public engagement work, one of the first places to start is ensuring you write accessible, public-facing research reports of any projects you work on. Have a look at some examples here.