working in phase

I’m continuously trying make sense of things I’m working on this year, and to do this I have compiled a mess of writings and photos comparing one of the most iconic museums in America to a local children’s museum, recordings and notes from a dressage clinic, ongoing compilations of advice about writing itself, and a collection of class and conference visit reflections. I even scratched down a few notes from a conversation with the woman who understands my neckline and cuts my hair just the way I like it about how she learned her trade. (There are only three basic styles, in case you were wondering, and from there they just find variations and artistic license.) And then of course there’s the dance project.

Today’s dance notes simply need to come out, as-is, now. And, also, it’s just what my head’s wrapped around right now.

Today is essentially the last day of the semester for dance students. Aside from some business to take care of tomorrow and a performance for an exhibition next Tuesday, their work is really done. For me, especially, it really hit an apex today when ninth graders came to visit.

There are a few things going on, at least for myself. This dance-science project is really new to me. This is the new collaboration and the new direction (although, as crazy as it sounds, no one who knows me seems to be in disbelief). But we’ve made the connection with a school that is just progressive enough and trusting enough to visit the project and let students play along. Their teacher is a former student of mine. I’d like to say that he graduated a couple, a few, or even just ten years ago. But soon it won’t be “ten years ago.” And maybe it isn’t even that recent. I don’t care to look it up.

The point is that I’ve realized that there don’t have to be brand new or distant past projects and collaborations. They can be both. My “new” work with my new friends in the dance world are now crossing over with my “old” students and his students. I simultaneously feel like a grandfather and the new kid in school.

The basic scene was this: We welcomed the students and let their two busloads fill in the third and fourth rows of the 2000-seat auditorium. They went from cramped yellow buses to a huge void around them and a stage in front. Since this group of students had seen a preview of a piece being worked on several weeks ago, we thought we should show them Most Astounding Fact, the piece that precedes what they’d already seen, and also introduces a theme of how science and dance both experience and experiment in parallel ways.


[From backstage, dancers emulating the path of an orbit described by Newton, and also doing that thing where they stand on one leg.]

After this, everything was new.

We introduced some phrases into a prototype of a piece that involves pendula. Each of our dancers has a pendulum, a colored racquetball on the end of a string, and each of these is a different length that correlates to the height of the dancer — the shortest dancer has the shortest pendulum. They spread out in both dimensions on the stage, randomly scattered, and swing the pendula, all together, on cue. The effect is that you just see a bunch of random swinging at different paces, because of all the different lengths that determine the timing of the swing. But then on the next cue the dancers come into a single file line, in order from shortest (downstage) to tallest (upstage), so that if you are facing them from the audience you see an escalating line of heads. Then, on cue, the dancers swing the pendula again, and this time, since they are all together and since the pendula are arranged from shortest to longest, you see a clear pattern that isn’t imaginable when you see all he dancers spread about.

Those two cues are then repeated, except the dancers don’t have the pendula anymore. They each have a dance phrase, timed to the same pace of the pendulum they were originally assigned. So, at one point you see a bunch of dancers all dancing to the beat of their own drum, disorganized. And then at the next point you see how these all relate to one another, and how their different paces relate to how the dancers travel off stage. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s amazing in its current form and amazing in the potential it has, but that’s not the point nor what was great about the day. (Well, it was part of it. This proto-piece is already really intriguing to me.)

Essentially, the lines that the dancers made with the physical phenomena of either their pendula timing or their own bodies’ timing were physical graphs. We basically let this lead into a practice and experience for the ninth graders on shaping and representing natural things in a physical way. But first we had to get two busloads of ninth-graders on a stage. That method was by bringing them on according to birthday (suggest by one of our dancers just two days before). It turns out we have 12 dancers, and each represented a month, and as each month was called the students could line up behind their respective dancer. Sitting down, they had created a histogram right there on the stage. (I was expecting more or less an even distribution, but it was totally uneven and surprising. And fantastic. Look at all those people born in May.)

And then we challenged them with what we thought was the more interesting task: Without talking or touching or fussing, find the one of twelve dancers that best matches your height, and line up behind that person. This got video recorded from the balcony above, and I’m excited to see what this flow of adolescent data looks like. The end result was a beautiful distribution with a tail towards the shorter end. Both the data and how they were shown were lovely, though I’ll admit I have a strong affective response for elegant data. (There were also interesting things going on about how people judge their height in comparison to others, and how they congregate in groups, but that could be a whole other project.)

Once students were lined up with and associated with a dancer, we gave them a task. This consisted of swing the dancer-assigned pendulum for ten seconds, on my count. Each group was responsible for keeping track of their data, a high stakes, all or nothing single chance to get it collected. And then we graphed it, physically, by having the students place their dancer on a number line, so their physical position represented number of swings in the time interval, and the height of the pendulum extended from the floor (as well as, somewhat, the height of the dancer) was represented physically in vertical space. I’ve done this several times in other contexts, but generally the pendula get hung from a chalkboard or on a wall. In this case, just like when we had the kids form histograms of lines, the data representation was very physically effected, there on the stage in all dimensions. Looking at the curve (a curve, plain as day, formed by the pendula!) they said things like “exponential.” There was more we could do, but we had to move on. Because there was more to do. Because, well, dance, like science, is a verb.

Here’s the thing that we were building to: Each pendulum has a specific period, frequency, pace, rhythm. So how do you represent this in another way? How do you carry this with you? And how would the pace that you carry compare to other such periods? With that set of questions floating, Erik set the task. Within the groups, each pendulum determined a dance phrase. So, students had to figure out a way to remember that pace, make it physical, and then create a movement sequence that embodied this. There were questions, experimentations, issues, mistakes, and new ways of understanding.

In the photo below (I tried to take an obscure angle, cropped for anonymity and effect) is what amounts from a collective of legs and feet of students all in motion. Ninth graders are in jeans and Chuck Taylors. University dancers are in bare feet and leggings. Everyone is in groups spread across the stage figuring this all out — physically, actively, and with a mentor helping them through the process. It was, after all, just last week that the college students were figuring this out for themselves, and creating a movement isn’t simple. There’s no recipe; it has to be invented. Moreover, they had to find a way to play this to a specific beat determined by their pendulum.


What happened? We have video, but I can’t confirm we have permission to put this on the web for all to see. But it doesn’t matter. What got produced is something I’d never seen before, never imagined. Ninth graders, all moving, in front of each other, in new, weird ways, to a beat. And, best of all, they were each moving in a way that was determined by their pendulum and their group — the predetermined certainty of nature combined with the inventiveness of humans. So when we put the longest/tallest and the shortest group together to perform side-by-side on the stage, they had radically different paces. You could see their motions go in and out of phase with one another. When the groups that were more similar in pace paired together, that phasing was more subtle but still there. Each pairing had its unique outcome, due both to the comparison of timings and the unique creations playing out at the same time.

But there’s something else: We had high school freshmen dancing in front of each other and doing physics, simultaneously. And in my career, and in the history of all things known to me, I’ve never seen or heard of anything quite like this. Maybe we can do this because of the culture we’ve created, or because we’re naïve, or because it’s just silly and perhaps not of all that much consequence … but I think there’s something else. (Also, the culture created by the school that’s brought these students to work with us is remarkable. I’ll give Matt, their teacher, along with his colleagues, full credit for this.) I think it’s because the tasks at hand are inherently, immediately interesting.

Our society makes Disney-esque movies that emphasize how someone should just follow their passions and become a dancer. And we create promotional materials to show students how they will make a lot of money if them go into a “STEM” field. Frankly, both of these are bullshit. What seems more imperative and consequential and pertinent to me and any ninth grader I’ve met is “how does this relate to how I’m thinking right now?” (This isn’t a new idea. John Dewey wrote about it 100 years ago.) Even if it’s obscure or abstract, there’s more relevance to understanding a racquetball on a string and the motion of a dance phrase than there is to trying to sequence courses towards becoming a dentist or a stage performer. Too rarely do we say, “Try this, because it’s about who you are now in a way that you never imagined — it’s part of what makes you human.” Based on what I saw today, I think we need to do more of it.

More concretely, I realized a new possibility I wasn’t ever expecting. I’ve always thought about the phenomena in dance and the phenomena in physics as being completely overlapping. Forces and motion are inherently considered in both. And I’ve continually been refining an expanded set of ideas to demonstrate how the experiences of science and dance are parallel — something that I think we started to craft in our most recent performance. What I hadn’t predicted was how the act of movement and using space on a stage could represent both the data of the analysis of data in such a usefully physical way. I don’t know what to do with this, but it will be something. I think it already has been.