Drunk Dancing

We’ve all suffered from the fallout of so-called “liquid courage.” Gotten that questionable tattoo. Asked the bartender if he’d mind being your emergency contact because you feel you can “really trust him.” Accidentally joined a group of traveling mimes. (Admit it, we’ve all done it.)

But easily the most common misuse of liquid courage happens on the dance floor. Or whatever “dance floor” we improvise in a crowded bar. Yes, for years we’ve all labored under the illusion that three shots of tequila or four beers into the night, we’ve suddenly got rhythm like a George Gerswhin song. Until our friends loved to burst our bubble the next day. (But they were too drunk to appreciate our moves anyway, right?)

Well, good news for the rhythmically challenged, and the rest of us just lacking the confidence to attempt the Dougie sober. A recent study (PDF) has found that alcohol can actually improve your dance moves. So yeah, turns out there actually is some truth to those “Trust Me You Can Dance -Vodka” memes floating around the Internet. Per the study:

There is, apparently, a sweet spot, a level of intoxication—relative to your body, metabolism, BMI, and a host of other factors—during which coordination briefly spikes.

Of course there’s a catch, so don’t go buying a bottle of Goldschlager and cranking up your “2014 Best Summer Ever Mix” just yet: this dance-drink phenomenon only works in moderation. So say the science folks anyway. (And yes, it is amazing and kind of awesome that scientists—beyond looking for the real cause of the hangover—are studying the chemical and neurological phenomena behind ill-advised impromptu Thriller dance mobs.)

Liquid Courage isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve known for some time that “the first areas affected by small amounts of alcohol are those involved in inhibiting behaviors.” Which is why, yes, some of us decide it’s time we set our bodies free after a fourth glass of rosé. But the confidence you are feeling isn’t fake. It’s actually a temporary confidence response to enhanced communication between those parts of the brain responsible for your ability to get down.

According to Harvard, four brain regions influence our ability to dance: the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum are “regions of the brain that contribute to dance learning and performance.” The motor cortex “is involved in planning, control, and execution of voluntary movement;” the somatosensory cortex “is responsible for motor control and also plays a role in hand-eye coordination;” and the basal ganglia “work with other brain regions to smoothly coordinate movement, while the cerebellum integrates input from the brain and spinal cord and helps in the planning of fine and complex motor actions.” Given a little goose by alcohol, these regions apparently get a little friendlier with each other, helping you get a little funkier on the dance floor. Why? Because “alcohol can pass through the blood-brain barrier, reaching neurons directly.”

The basic procedure was discovering a so-called ‘platform of effective intoxication.’

Given the potentially dangerous impact of seeming to “advocate” intoxication, at least as a means of gettin’ Jiggy with it (people still say that, right?), study conductors took no fewer than three years to collect data, in a longitudinal study from 138 subjects. Drs. Brumpback, Lao & Kang undertook the study at The University of Chicago’s Department of Health & Sociological Studies. According to Brumpback, study participants “with no prior history of alcohol-related addiction” issues would attend bi-monthly sessions over the course of those three years. “The basic procedure was discovering a so-called ‘platform of effective intoxication,’ effective insofar as subjects with no, or limited, proven dance skills—scored by Juilliard professors on a 10-point scale—could actually exhibit smoother, more coordinated movements.”

Anyone who’s been pulled over and subjected to the “walk the line” DUI test knows well that motor skills do deteriorate as intoxication increases. But there is, apparently, what Dr. Brumpback calls “a sweet spot, a level of intoxication—relative to your body, metabolism, BMI, and a host of other factors—during which coordination briefly spikes.” Alcohol is a vasodilator, causing blood vessels “to relax and widen,” but only at certain levels. At higher levels, alcohol is actually a vasoconstrictor, narrowing blood vessels and limiting effective communication between brain regions that allow you to dance, or think twice about calling that guy.

Because “dance skills” are inherently subjective, the study team divided the subjects into four groups — two evaluation groups and a control group for each (the control groups were served a non-alcoholic substance designed to exhibit typical alcohol smells and cause simulated ‘throat burning’). One group was evaluated by the Juilliard professors, and the other by the general public using fake YouTube accounts to garner unbiased public responses to show films of their subjects after they’d reached a BAC of .06.

The results are kind of amazing. This particular subject was already skilled in dance, and had even appeared on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” before an unfortunate dog-walking incident tore his central patellar ligament. (This video was shot two years after his physical recovery, and at least 6 months into intensive psychological therapy.) This female subject had less actual dance experience, but had also never drank before. Taylor concluded “the spike in confidence and smooth, almost robotronic fluidity of her movement like came from her body’s higher sensitivity to what was essentially a moderate amount of alcohol.”

Within both groups there was a marked and highly correlated increase in “dance skills” as judged on the 10-point scale established at the outset of the study. The average subject in each group increased from a baseline of 1.4 to a score of 6.2, which is, per the Juilliard methodology put together by noted Dance Anthropologist Phinneus Quinnly, indicates “dance skills equivalent to the average talent of  a junior varsity high school dance troupe member.”

Not that the scientific community is trying to back up the whole “I drive better when I’m a bit drunk” thing—far from it. Brumpback and study associate Kang are adamant that this phenomenon is so short-lived, and so specific to the brain regions involved in the coordinated activity of dancing, that no other conclusions may be drawn.

Good news all around. The only fallout, says Kang, would occur as subjects regained sobriety and attempted the same dance routines. There was psychological staff on hand to help them understand the gap in ability, but Kang and Brumpback are both concerned they may have inadvertently convinced a large proportion of society to forego abstinence from alcohol for the (“admitted,” as Brumpback said) gratification of dancing really, really well.

However, before you head to the liquor store with a boombox (or iPod), remember what day it is. April Fools, kids! (Though believe us, we wish this were true.)