Ideas to Help You Merge Science and Dance

Science and art: Housed in opposite sides of the brain and different departments on a college campus, these fields may seem to have nothing in common. But is that really true? “[Science] is [an] investigative process that’s incredibly creative and so similar to art,” says Elizabeth Johnson, associate artistic director of Washington, DC–based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, which premiered Ferocious Beauty: Genome, an exploration of the complexity of genetics with regard to ancestry, aging and diversity, in March 2006 (the work will continue to tour throughout 2007). From Merce Cunningham’s groundbreaking use of the computer program DanceForms as a choreographic tool to Arizona State University’s motion-capture technology work with choreographers Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown, today’s dance world is more in tune with science and technology than ever before. Here, DS talks to two science-savvy companies about why they’ve chosen to bring science into their work and what strategies you can use to let it become your choreographic muse.


Try These Tactics


Do your homework: Whatever the scientific topic, chances are you’ll learn something new by creating a dance about or in response to it. “You have to understand [the topic] in order to make a dance, and learning with an objective of making something out of it—that is inspired learning,” says Johnson, whose science-based works include The Sympathetic Nervous System, a solo inspired by the body’s “fight or flight” response, and The Menstrual Cycle Dance, a gesture-based mnemonic device created with students at Wesleyan University to help explain the complicated process behind the female body’s monthly cycle. Whether you’re browsing for new scientific studies, brushing up on your grade-school biology or honing in on a specific concept you’ve always wanted to learn more about, the internet is a great place to get started. Other possible sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, faculty at your high school or college and even the medical charts on the wall at your doctor’s office.


Investigate opportunities for collaboration: Karola Luttringhaus, artistic director of Alban Elved Dance Company in Winston-Salem, NC, has spent the past five years pairing with scientists at Duke University and Wake Forest University for a series of projects, collectively titled Free Space, that merge technology and dance. Littringhaus was initially contacted by Duke University computer scientists looking to share their work on motion-sensor cameras and image projection with the outside community. “[Scientists] are fascinated by their work, [just as] we are fascinated by our work, but they never get to put theirs on stage,” she explains. “They don’t get to share their work with an audience.” The result of the first collaboration was 2002’s The Distance Between Things which used a circular camera array called Argus, made up of 64 cameras that, together, produce a three-dimensional image of the dancer in the circle’s center. In general, working together with those in scientific fields—whether it’s the physics club at your high school or the head of biology at a local university—can expand your choreographic possibilities and bring about beneficial new partnerships in your community. Additionally, works merging the two worlds tend to entice people who might not otherwise see dance—or keep up with scientific trends. “You get a varied audience from arts or science backgrounds, as well as people who are just curious to see what you’re doing, because they haven’t a clue of what it could be,” Luttringhaus says.


Dig beneath the surface: The science behind feelings and experiences to find a new layer of inspiration. “If I were to go into the studio and say, ‘Okay my boyfriend just broke up with me. I’m going to make my sad dance,’ after using my first 10 sad movements, I’m going to get stuck,” Johnson says. However, researching the physiological processes behind feeling sad may introduce terms like “serotonin uptake” to your vocabulary, leading you in a new direction. If you can think of 10 movements in response to “up” and 10 more in response to “take,” then you’ve already surpassed your original attempt—and extended into new choreographic territory.


Start scientifically: Instead of starting with an emotion and investigating the underlying scientific details, start with a scientific concept and branch out from there. For example, after discussing the five different types of memory, Teen Exchange, LLDE’s junior company for dancers ages 13 to 17, created The Body Remembers about unforgettable experiences in its members’ lives.


Use visual aids: Charts, diagrams and graphs associated with everything from acid rain to the digestive system provide interesting shapes that can serve as movement patterns for your work.


Incorporate text: Teen Exchange created a physiology-inspired work, Blood, Bones and Skin, that included spatial patterns based on the blood flow patterns of the heart. The piece was augmented by spoken text about what makes the dancers’ hearts race, break or drop. “It’s a text and movement piece that goes in between what’s going on in the world and our lives, and what’s going on inside of our bodies,” explains Johnson. “That’s what science does: It creates a large frame for us to be able to string our personal experiences.”


Work off of gestures: Ask scientists to explain concepts or projects they’re working on and take note of how they move, consciously or unconsciously, while speaking about their work. Then, use their body language as choreographic fodder. “When we have to explain something, we move all the time,” Johnson says. “If you watch scientists who are creating their work, they are incredibly physical, too.”


Expect the Unexpected


New collaborations will inevitably present new challenges. In Alban Elved’s MiDi, for example, the dancers created a live sound score by moving through laser beam sensors extending across the stage, “like playing a laser harp,” explains Luttringhaus. Unfortunately, the vibrations of a sprung floor and the brightness of the stage lighting both affected the operation of the lasers. In the end, the lighting had to be adjusted and the dancers had to stay a certain distance away from the sensors while dancing in order to avoid setting them off accidentally. A given risk of working with equipment—especially new or experimental equipment—is that it can malfunction. “For performing artists, the show has to work every night all the time. [In the research setting,] a scientist doesn’t necessarily have to make his invention work each time; they have to prove it once and then write a paper about it,” says Luttringhaus. “So for them, that pressure [of live performance] is different.” Be prepared with patience and willingness to troubleshoot. Whether you’re inspired to spell out the word “photosynthesis” using your body, create formations from the patterns of migrating birds or give a social commentary on the ethics of human cloning, your dance ventures in science are sure to be an experiment yielding brand-new results.

Latest Posts

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Simone Biles at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What the Dance World Can Learn From Simone Biles and Team USA

In the heat of the women's team gymnastics final, a shaken Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic event last week to protect herself and her teammates. Her courageous decision to prioritize her health was met with overwhelming support, including from former U.S. Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, who competed through extreme injury at the 1996 Olympic games and subsequently retired at 18 years old.

And yet, praise for Russian gymnast Artur Dalaloyan's performance in the men's team event highlighted his Achilles surgery in April and questions over whether he was healthy enough to compete.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.


You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)


As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.


Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).


Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.


We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.


You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.


Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.


You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?


You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.


You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.


Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.


Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search