Kris McCarty and colleagues at Northumbria University and the University of Gottingen in Germany asked 19 men aged 18 to 35 who were not professional dancers to dance in a laboratory for one minute to a basic drum rhythm. They filmed the men's movements with a dozen cameras, and then turned those movements into computer-generated avatars so the study could focus on moves, not appearances.
Scientists then showed the dancing avatars to 37 women, who rated their skills on a scale of 1 to 7. According to the women, the best dancers were those who had a wide range of dance moves and focused on the head, neck and torso.
The research was published this week in the journal, Biology Letters, a publication of Britain's Royal Society. It was paid for by Northumbria University.
"In principle, it is possible to break down the motion patterns that are informative and attractive to women," said Rufus Johnstone, a reader in the evolution of animal behavior at Cambridge University. He was not connected to the research.
Johnstone said there were similarities between animal mating rituals and what happens in modern dance clubs.
"There are lots of cues females use when choosing a mate, like a peacock puffing out its tail," he said. "Dancing for humans could signal whether a male is fit because it requires the expenditure of a lot of energy."
Nick Neave, an evolutionary psychologist at Northumbria University and one of the study's co-authors, said women may subconsciously judge how fit a man is by the fluidity of his dancing. He said their research was likely subjective and different cultures would have different measures for what constitutes good dancing.
Neave advised bad dancers to improve their core body moves.
"The movements around the head, neck and trunk were the most important," he said. "The good dancers had lots of different movements and used them with flair and creativity."
Johnstone said men who are bad dancers shouldn't despair.
"Among animals, courtship rituals are very important when there are very obvious physical displays," he said. "In humans, I suspect it is much more complicated and may come down to more than whether or not a man is a good dancer."