bodies in motion

I should do more yoga.

This was the first thing I wrote down on my notepad as I was sitting cross-legged on the floor. I was in a circle amongst the 13 dance students who had recently made it through the audition process to reserve a place to sit here in a dance studio. Legs were splayed out in front of them, straight and refined, or crossed and tucked in, feet and limbs folding together like a Swiss Army knife. I sat with my knees sprung upwards rather than lying flat, and my own comfort level with the very act of sitting on the floor was clearly betrayed as I wrapped my arms around my legs to try to keep myself from rolling backwards. I feel like I’m fit — I can run spend a couple of hours running on mountain trails — but the times that I’ve been able to touch by toes without bending my legs have been rare, even memorable.

I amended the line, admitting to myself more of the reality:

I should do more yoga.

Erik, my colleague and the instructor for this group, sat next to me, his own legs comfortably arranged as he sat upright. Like the other dancers in the room, he moves differently from me. And even as I write this I have an inner voice chiding me. I have a disdain when others say that “scientists,” me included, think or act differently than “regular” people do. Erik battles the same stereotypes for dance. We both believe that dance and science are both natural human expressions. And at the same time we acknowledge that we should have experiences, classes, mentoring, and just general practice at doing dance and doing science. That’s what brought me into this classroom, sitting on this dance floor, contributing to this project that we hope will become a collection of dance performances that help communicate science. Erik’s thought of the ideal title for the year-long company and its performances: A Body in Motion.

As with any first day of class that I’ve experienced, there’s the attempt to describe not just what students will do in the class, but what the class is really, at its heart, about. So, while the gist of this year-long course is for dancers to choreograph, rehearse, and publicly present a celebration of how dance and science can overlap and help support each other’s understanding, this is also a class with its own goals. “We’re learning how to work,” Erik tells them. They will have to collaborate, “one brain together,” in order to see that they are not simply doing the bidding of some puppet master, but actively creating, as a group. I wrote down: “to create”. To me, these dance students are not simply going to produce something, but learn the process of creation.

After covering basic course goals and logistics, the schedule for the year, introductions, and some various paperwork, Erik asked the dancers about their experience with the auditions a few days previous. He’d had them work with regular pieces of paper that you might pull out of an office recycle bin. But, instead of being able to pick them up with their opposable digits, the dancers had to palm the paper, even to get it up from the floor. Try it. If you keep moving with the right pace and at the right angles, the paper will stay pressed against your hand; as soon as you stop it flutters to the floor. This opens up an array of possibilities for movement, both with the hand and with the entire body. A basic set of movements surrounding this task was introduced, and this became the audition. Erik admitted without reservation nor apology that he was looking to see how they faced the challenge of a novel, frustrating task.

We were still sitting on the floor, in the circle. Dancers adjusted occasionally to stretch more, or to tuck a foot in ways that my body didn’t think possible. I put my legs straight out in front of me and tried to keep my back straight without showing any strain. All the while, the function of the circle allowed everyone to talk to one another about the audition challenge. Many of the dancers already know one another, and I suppose that the act of dancing with others necessitates that you are comfortable with those others. The circle, Erik’s relaxed demeanor and invitation to contribute, and the general culture of those in the dance space seem to support a comfort with the collaborative.

The debrief of the paper audition segued into “warm up.” Later, I’d mention to Erik that this is something we don’t do in physics. While I know there’s a state of mind and an orientation that we all assume our students shift into when they come into, say, a lab, it strikes me that in dance (or singing, or swimming, or …) there’s an explicit “warm up.” In this case, the dancers were returning to the paper, and without much prompting at all except for the simple direction to “play” with more movements with the paper, the dancers were filling the space of the dance studio. One stood in place and practiced his already adept technique of moving the paper back and forth, up and down with a single hand. Another was on her back, leg extended upward, the paper balanced on the underside of her foot that was pushed towards the ceiling. Others moved around the room with the paper, evaluating how it would move with them or drop as their motion changed suddenly. A piece of paper that seemed to have life and a connection to a person would suddenly lose all character as it fluttered haphazardly to the ground after disconnecting from its dancer.

The acts of play and creation were especially apparent when, on more than one occasion, dancers would find themselves unavoidably entangled. They could have stopped and renegotiated space, but instead they generally found ways for their respective movements to combine: trading papers, circling around one another, or even moving the paper of one dancer around the stance of another. In one case, two dancers ended up face to face, each reaching around behind the other to continue to work with their paper. When one dancer’s paper went slightly out of reach, he couldn’t continue to move towards it because the other dancer was in his path, working with her own paper that was behind his back. It was a metaphor made literally out of the thin air that the paper fell through.

As play with the thirteen different sheets of paper would start and stop, interact or work independently, Erik notes the “explosion of ideas” that are getting worked out in front of us. He encourages them to come to the side to make a record of some of what they’re working on. Dancers return to sit, opening journals to take notes. At this point I’m sitting comfortably in a chair on the side, but have also stepped out to play with my own piece of paper, contrasting the angles I can make as the palm of my right hand moves and tilts in a figure-eight.

“Let’s try some flocking,” suggests Erik to the group. I have no idea what he’s talking about, but clearly the dancers do. Two groups are sanctioned, and a leader of each of these “flocks” is identified. And then creation begins again, with the leader of each flock creating movement with the paper that the others mimic as they trail behind. The effect is instantly interesting: Instead of individual, random acts of paper flow taking place, there’s a serpentine of coordination. Each miracle of the paper-in-hand now feels validated by the others; what once might have seemed like an independent miracle is now corroborated by six others. Moreover, there’s a whole other flow to the movement as a group that’s been created.

The class ends as it began, in the circle, with debrief and discussion. And, as class closes there’s immediate applause, not prompted but part of the tradition, and not for any individual but in recognition of the group. It’s another one of those examples of something that’s not done in any of my physics classes, but maybe it should be.