In 1971, a group of Stanford science students tied balloons to their heads and interpreted protein synthesis through dance to a remixed version of “Jabberwocky”. In 1991, dancers in sumo suits, in collaboration with a University of Minnesota biomedical engineer David Odde, repeatedly collided in an abandoned gym to represent the collapse of protein microtubules. Last year, Maureen McKeague, a Carleton University Ph.D student, won Science magazine’s “Dance Your Ph.D Contest” for illustrating DNA probe generation in time with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
Are these situations laughable? Maybe. But there’s something pleasingly trippy about human-scale models of cellular processes, and, beyond that, something incredibly important. These kinds of tangible expressions, explorations and celebrations of science are bringing back a sense of wonder to a world where we’ve explained away magic. Dancing science lets us tap into rhythm that usually escapes our notice, an understanding of which can and should change how we look at the world.
Fundamentally, it is fun. The palpable enthusiasm of the dancers seems almost out of place in the context of science, where procedures, diagrams and schematics make dynamic processes seem static, even boring. Dance pulls at your body as much as it does your mind, but science is firmly based on passive observation. Researchers often cannot directly experience or influence the phenomena they study, so they simplify, reduce and deconstruct it.
In general, our society has moved that way – we’ve stopped using our bodies as an interface to interpret and connect to the world, instead developing technology to simulate and model it for us. Still, the mindset you get from moving as thinking is different, more free and dynamic, than any other.
It’s exactly this freedom – the looseness and flexibility of dancing and dance, that appears screamingly inconsistent with how we view science. And perhaps that’s the point. Maybe these dances are expressing a part of science that we’ve lost, oppressed and left behind. With the imperfect, sometimes random movement of their bodies, the dancers show how from apparent chaos – the mess of probabilities and randomness – there emerges a unified movement of organized life.
Whether explicitly choreographed, as with McKeague’s PhD, or through a more random flow of movement, as was the case of the sumo dancers, putting science on the stage allows it to be examined holistically. We can see the tension between order and chaos, appreciating how incredible it is that life happens at all, given that at any moment there are countless reactions, interactions and collisions occurring all around us at scales we can never perceive.
Dance magnifies these unseen worlds of action, bringing us closer to grasping all parts of our environment. Modelling our cells with ourselves is almost like beginning an infinite loop, self-referencing, which might continue to infinity. Who can say that we’re not cells inside a much larger entity that’s actually modelling us too? Whether infinitely looped or not, dancing fosters this broad thinking, making tangible the connections between ourselves, our cells and our world.
At the very least, the broader perspective and sense of wonder that come with dancing science could drive people to view the natural world with a more accurate conception of the seemingly contradictory messy order of life on a tiny scale. This type of thinking can help shape better questions and more elegant experiments. Odde, the University of Minnesota biomedical engineer, was surprised by how much watching people-sized protein microtubules interact informed his research. Not only are human-scale models more responsive than a computer program, scientists have the chance to become part of the simulation – brainstorming is elevated into bodystorming.
Dancers, meanwhile, have a similar opportunity to learn. In the best possible formulation of this collaboration, the art isn’t subordinate to the science. If art is an attempt to connect the human and natural worlds, these types of dances can do exactly that – helping to connect the world we can experience with the world we inhabit. There is opportunity for ideas from both worlds to mix – procedures informing choreography, routines shaping experimental controls. The challenge of communicating ideas from artist to scientist can push both to new and exciting areas of thought. Dancing science brings each discipline closer to its core purpose – helping us interpret and understand ourselves and our world. It’s for this reason that science and dance need to collide more regularly. Whether that means bringing jazz shoes to your next titration or a pipette to a mosh pit, we can start to bring back wonder to a world without magic.