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Exploring the Relationship between Imitation and Dance

  • Full or part time
    Prof K N Laland
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, April 05, 2019
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Applications are invited for a fully funded PhD studentship co-supervised by Professors Kevin Laland (School of Biology, University of St Andrews) and Laura Gonzalez (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) entitled “Exploring the Relationship between Imitation and Dance”. Other collaborators include Dr Bethany Whiteside (Dance, RCS), Professor Nicola Clayton FRS (Psychology, University of Cambridge), choreographer Mark Baldwin OBE, and the Rambert. The student will conduct experiments designed to test the hypothesis that the human ability to dance is critically reliant on imitation neural circuitry, and related ideas. The studentship is funded through a St Leonard’s College Interdisciplinary Doctoral Scholarship. Suitable applicants will have a strong degree in biology, psychology, dance science or related subjects, and other relevant knowledge. The scholarships cover the full UK/EU or international fee and a stipend at the standard UKRI rate for the normal full-fee paying period of 3 years. Commencing Sept 2019, or as soon as possible thereafter. For enquiries and further particulars contact Kevin Laland ().

Dance is observed in all human societies, but how is it that we can dance when cats, dogs or monkeys can’t? The scientific answer to this question reveals a surprising connection between dance and imitation (Laland et al., 2016).
Dancing often requires the performer to match their actions to music, or to time their movements to fit the rhythm. This demands a correspondence between auditory inputs and the motor outputs. Likewise, couple or group dancing requires individuals to coordinate
their actions, in the process matching, reversing or complementing each other. This too calls for a correspondence between visual inputs and motor outputs. Convergent lines of evidence suggest that people solve these challenges by harnessing the same neural architecture deployed in imitation. Entrainment to a musical beat is almost exclusively observed in animals capable of vocal or motor imitation. In humans, neuroimaging shows that dancing excites neural circuitry associated with imitation. Dance has representational properties that rely on the dancers’ ability to imitate particular people, animals or events, as well as the audience’s ability to recognize these correspondences. Imitation also plays a central role in learning to dance. Dancing may only be possible because its performance exploits existing neural circuitry used in imitation.

The above reasoning leads to predictions that: (1) good dancers will be unusually skilled imitators and synchronizers; (2) good imitators will acquire dance more readily than poor imitators; (3) dancing skills will develop in childhood to coincide
with the emergence of imitative capabilities; and (4) dance training will improve imitative capabilities.

Laland KN, Wilkins C & Clayton N 2016. The evolution of dance. Current Biology 26(1): R5-9.

The student will conduct behavioural experiments exploring the biological underpinnings of dance, to test professional (Rambert), vocational (RCS) and amateur dancers of a range of ages (local dance schools). The following questions will be addressed:

Experiment 1. Are professional dancers unusually skilled imitators?
Experiment 2. Can dancing ability in vocational dancers be predicted by imitative competence?
Experiment 3. Will the development of dancing competence during childhood coincide with the development of imitative competence?
Experiment 4. Does dance training improve imitative capabilities in children?

The student will be based in the School of Biology at St Andrews, but will make regular trips to RCS in Glasgow, and visits to other collaborators in Cambridge and London. Contact with Gonzalez will also be maintained through skype. Some experimentation will require working with children, and some with adult vocational and professional dancers. The former will require Disclosure Scotland clearance, whilst the latter may require the student to spend extended periods in Glasgow or London. All experimentation will be subject to ethical review. The student will be expected to attend relevant training courses and conduct regular reviews. In addition to completing the application materials, applicants should submit a CV and cover letter (<2 pages) detailing their interest in the project and the skills, knowledge and abilities they bring.

Further details of the planned experiment are available as further particulars from the PI (contact ) or Laura Gonzalez ().

Funding Notes

Eligibility requirements: Upper second-class degree in Biology, Psychology, Dance Science or related subjects.

The scholarship will cover the full/UK/EU or international fee and a stipend at the standard UKRI rate for the normal full-fee paying period of 3 years, commencing September 2019, or as soon as possible thereafter.


Laland KN, Wilkins C & Clayton N 2016. The evolution of dance. Current Biology 26(1): R5-9.
Laland KN 2017. Darwin’s unfinished symphony. How culture made the human mind. Princeton University Press. Chapter 12

How good is research at University of St Andrews in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 50.45

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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