Scientific Movement: The Art of Science and Dance

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It is time to put your dancing shoes on, get on the dance floor, and pretend to be a hydrogen atom. Or would you rather be a carbon atom? Those were the two choices at the 1939 American Chemical Society meeting in Baltimore where a group of Maryland chemists decided to stage a “chemical ballet.” The performance told the story of a scientist who tries to synthesize radioactive benzene from acetylene with the aid of an atom-smasher complete with four hydrogen atom dancers, two carbon atom dancers, and the dance of ethyl alcohol. You cannot deny the allure of dancing atoms, which is perhaps why science and dance tend to collaborate. 

"The Matter of Origins" performed by Dance Exchange.

Dance, Dance Revolution

Dance and science are closer than you might think, and the “chemical ballet” of 1939 was not the last of its kind. Dance technology is a recognized field of study, wherein technology is a tool for enhancing performances through videos, imagery, lighting, interactive technologies, sound, or even virtual environments. Dance companies regularly use these technologies in their works, and some go as far as to build entire performances around scientific principles.

The alban elvĕd dance company in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, teamed up with scientists at both Duke University and Wake Forest University to create two science-infused performances, “Fibonacci and Phi” and “Une Journée Abstraite.” The former dance utilized cameras and projections with real-time computation, and the latter dance interpreted fundamental concepts in computer science through image projections and a “Turing Machine Dance,” where the dancers acted out the computation of two binary numbers. (The choreographer for “Une Journée Abstraite” actually learned how the Turing machine program added the two numbers together and the collaborating scientist wrote poetry for the performance.)

Choreographer Liz Lerman also collaborates with scientists in her performance “The Matter of Origins,” which includes scientific elements like the Big Bang, Madam Curie, the Hadron Collider, and the Hubble telescope. That is all in Act One, but Act Two transforms the stage into a tea parlor where audience members are served the same chocolate cake made for the Manhattan Project scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, while chatting about the issues at hand. “The Matter of Origins” received support from the National Science Foundation, and we heard Lerman is preparing another science-infused dance for 2012. 

Dance Your Ph.D.

Professional choreographers are not the only ones getting in on the science-dance fun. Since 2007, Science has held a “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, which encourages Ph.D. candidates to interpret their dissertation through dance. This year’s grand prize winner, Joel Miller, a biomedical engineer at the University of Western Australia in Perth, captured his paper Microstructure-Property Relationships in Ti2448 Components Produced by Selective Laser Melting in a series of photographs converted into stop-motion animation. Miller won $1,000 for his creativity, while three other finalists received $500 for interpretations of x-ray crystallography, fruit fly sex, and pigeon courtship. The contest received a record number of 55 entries this year, so it seems interest is growing, which might blur the line between scientist and artist even more.


Image credits: Jaclyn Borowski

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.