In addition to its evolutionary and cultural uses, dance is a powerful tool for expressing emotion — one that can cross cultural divides, according to research published in Psychological Science (Vol. 11, No. 3).

Lead author Ahalya Hejmadi, PhD, pulled instructions for dancing emotions from the “Natyasastra,” a 2,000-year-old Indian text that’s the foundation of classical Indian dance. Hejmadi, an award-winning classical Indian dancer and University of Maryland University College psychology professor, then videotaped herself dancing each of the 10 emotions described in the text: anger, disgust, fear, heroism, humor, love, peace, sadness, wonder and “lajya,” which roughly translates to shyness.

After Indian gurus and dance experts verified that she’d portrayed each emotion correctly, Hejmadi showed the clips to 48 American and 47 Indian participants and had them describe which emotion each dance portrayed. Both the American and Indian participants correctly identified the emotion 61 percent of the time in the free-response condition, and 65 percent of time when choosing from a list of 11 emotions.

Hejmadi has taken the lessons from that study to volunteer work with children who have autism and Asperger’s syndrome. A few times a week, she leads a dance class where she teaches children to express emotions through facial expressions as well as body movement.

“I play music, and then we take it one piece at a time,” she says. “I say, ‘Let’s do a loving arm. Let’s do a happy arm.’”

The next step, says Hejmadi, is to study whether these dance lessons help the children express themselves at home and at school.

“Emotions are such a big part of our interpersonal communication,” she says. “It’s so difficult to negotiate the world without those skills.”

—S. Dingfelder