Two vastly different disciplines have more in common than is apparent at first glance. And when they work together? Creativity sparks for both.
By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor
Once the door opens to places where STEM and the arts intersect, it doesn’t want to close, especially if you love dance and science. Questions bubble up: What forces might an engineer or a physicist see at play in bodies dancing with each other? If a choreographer uses math and geometry in patterns of movement, don’t urban planners and civil engineers choreograph the traffic patterns of city commuters, or the movement of water from an aqueduct to a high-rise apartment?
“Choreographic thinking can open up new ways of looking at design and the built environment,” Adesola Akinleye, Ph.D., choreographer and artist-scholar wrote in her book, Dance, Architecture and Engineering (Dance in Dialogue). “Collaborating with other disciplines (such as architecture and engineering) offers new perspectives on the body in space simply by viewing one’s own practice through the values of another.”
An example of Dr. Akinleye’s elegant view of collaboration is the simple math of Isamu Noguchi’s design for “Frontier,” a work that established Martha Graham as a leader of American modern dance. Two lengths of rope, drawn from opposite sides behind the audience to a vanishing point upstage, frame Graham’s movement and evoke great distances waiting to be explored. Choreographer Agnes de Mille called it “perhaps the most effective use of stage symbol ever seen in our theater … as simple as a proposition by Euclid, and as unanswerable.”
Though all types of dance are subject to the laws of physics, modern dance seems especially inclined to play well with STEM and technology, as it creates new forms of movement, expanding what human bodies can do, or make us feel.
Like engineering, dance starts with “What if?”
What do modern dance and STEM have in common? “The first thing that comes to mind is that both spring from curiosity,” Emily Kent, education director for contemporary dance company Pilobolus, said. “Both disciplines take years of training, dedication, and practice, but the need to say ‘what if?’ drives both worlds. We don’t want to keep recreating the same dance, so we’re always saying, ‘What if we did this, or this?’ I think that’s also true of STEM, whether you’re creating a new technology or just trying to improve how something works.”
Being comfortable with failure is another common trait dancers share with engineers. “We both learn to see failure as just as another outcome; we learn from it, try again, and don’t expect the first way to be the best way,” Kent said. “It’s a process that requires a lot of observation and truth. If you’re experimenting in mathematics or chemistry, it either works or it doesn’t — or it works in a way you didn’t expect. You’re observing, and the same thing happens when you’re making movement. Developing a dance takes observation and awareness among the performers onstage, and on the part of choreographers and directors offstage.”
Named for a quirky little fungus that can shoot its spores up to 20 feet, Pilobolus is known the world over for what The New York Times called “a unique combination of gymnastics, acrobatics, applied physics, theories of leverage and contemporary dance.” Group improvisation is honed in rehearsal, then set as a finished work in a mind-bending repertoire that includes “Symbiosis,” a hypnotic dance of two people’s need for a shared center of gravity, and “Shadowland,” which wittily plays with the physics of light and shadow.
With tremendous strength, flexibility, and balance, Pilobolus dancers transform groups into single “organisms” that tell powerful (and sometimes funny) stories. “We call it weight sharing,” Kent said. “We become one being, either by leaning on or away from each other or holding each other up. What we do can be described in terms of physics — using weight, gravity, momentum, force, and leverage.”
SWE Magazine asked a group of STEM professionals to watch a TED performance of “Symbiosis.” One of them, a mechanical engineer, immediately recognized weight sharing in action. “Newton’s third law was evident throughout,” she said, “both horizontally as they lean away from each other, each trusting the other to ‘fall away’ to maintain structural stability, and vertically as they ‘stacked their blocks,’ directing gravitational forces through bone, into the floor, knowing that it would provide equal upward force.” She added, “I was trying to think with an engineer brain, but kept getting swept away by the beauty and power of it.”
Movement for non-dancers is creative, too
Part of Kent’s job is teaching people of all ages how to create movement. “The idea of dancing can be a little intimidating for some, so I present it as a problem to solve,” she said. “I love this approach for sneaking dance into folks that wouldn’t ordinarily try it.”
In one exercise, Kent asks a group of four people to move from one side of the room to the other, which sounds simple — but there’s a twist. “They have to maintain physical connection with each other, and no one’s feet can touch the floor,” Kent said. “That makes it a problem, not a ‘dance move,’ and every time they come up with a creative way to solve it.”
Kent also uses dance to help solve mobility and balance problems in the elderly. “All older adults start thinking about falling, about balance and how they need to work on it,” she said. “We look at dance and wellness through the lens of mobility, balance, and strength, so I created a series of classes called ‘Connecting with Balance’ to get more seniors creatively engaged. I don’t demonstrate all the movement; they take part in the creative process, even partnering at times, which helps with social contact.”
“As a dance educator, I’m interested in how movement can help teach different subjects in a curriculum,” Kent said. “Pilobolus’ STEM-based workshops spring from a simple question: Can you teach this concept with movement?”
“As a dance educator, I’m interested in how movement can help teach different subjects in a curriculum. Pilobolus’ STEM-based workshops spring from a simple question: Can you teach this concept with movement?”
– Emily Kent, education director, Pilobolus
Kent is often asked to create movement workshops for universities, museums, and secondary and elementary schools. She’s done workshops involving geology; geometry; marine biology; and the physics of movement, light, and shadow, to name a few. She has danced the Red Queen theory of evolutionary biology with environmental science students, and even taught third-graders the basics of electricity, and closed and open circuits through movement.
“I was a kid some people would call a kinesthetic learner,” she explained. “I needed to move to truly grasp a concept. So I taped either a plus or minus on the kids’ shirts, and we explored how positive and negative charges connect, where two positives repel. That was the most fun — you definitely want to repel and get exploded across the room!”
Kent also worked with a Vermont aquarium to help kids learn how anatomy and the environment inform how animals move. “We would move our own bodies to show how we can walk and crawl because of the way we are built. But what if you’re connected together back to back? Now you’re one creature. How do you move with four legs, or eight? Then we look at different marine creatures and talk about why a sea stalk moves in the water the way it does. I would love to do this work with a team of biologists. That would be even better.”
Dancing with drones, engineers, and human pixels
In 2011, Pilobolus collaborated with robotics engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the lab’s director, Daniela Rus, Ph.D., to create “Seraph,” in which a soloist encounters two drones as alien beings, in a dance of attempted communication between robots and those who make them.
“We love that moment where things don’t seem to make any sense,” Kent said. “Why would Pilobolus work with AI and machine intelligence? MIT had just developed the first quadcopter drones, and we jumped at the opportunity to dance with them. Two engineering graduate students worked with us as we rehearsed and in performance, and flew the drone choreography from offstage. It was a great experiment for us, but also cool for CSAIL to work with professional dancers in a theater. You just don’t know how that experience will influence a student’s thinking and trajectory.”
A second, larger-scale collaboration with CSAIL and Dr. Rus, “UP! The Umbrella Project,” was an experiment in swarm intelligence. “She and her students were trying to figure out how robots can work in groups to do a task,” Kent said. “Pilobolus is always having people do things in groups, so she asked what we could do together. They had a predictive software program for studying swarm intelligence, with different-colored dots, each representing a different robot. But how do you turn people into human pixels?”
After some initial trial and error, CSAIL students hit on the idea of holding up umbrellas viewed from above, to represent a robot swarm. Then, they devised an LED lighting system with hand controllers so the umbrellas could radiate different colors, projected on a large outdoor screen. They recruited hundreds of volunteers who didn’t have to be dancers or even know one another.
Using voice commands, the Pilobolus creative team directed the group to form a huddle, a bull’s-eye, rotating rings, and other shapes. “We asked everyone to turn the umbrellas the same color, but didn’t tell them which color,” Kent said. “People had to observe each other to learn which color to switch on. On screen, they could only see the umbrella tops. They had to learn by working together to find the right color and formation.”
“While our work with robotics and Pilobolus’ work with modern dance may seem at first glance unrelated,” Dr. Rus said in an MIT news release, “we have found there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained at the intersection of art and science that offers deep insight into human behavior, findings that are incredibly useful to the field of computer science.” “Up! The Umbrella Project” reorganized in 2021 as a free event in Los Angeles, surprising and moving people as both experiment and living art.
Now in its 50th year, Pilobolus continues to push boundaries and create dances with wit, power, and fearless curiosity. Many more collaborations with scientists, innovators, and creative thinkers lie ahead. “We just say, ‘Let’s solve a problem we never thought about before,’” Kent said. “Just like an engineer.”
Dancing Toward STEM Diversity
Spend a few minutes talking with Yamilée Toussaint Beach, and the word you come away with is joy. An MIT-trained mechanical engineer who loves to dance, she’s also founder and CEO of STEM From Dance, a nonprofit bent on increasing STEM diversity.
“Studying engineering made me see the world as problems that could be solved,” Toussaint Beach said. “In college, I realized there weren’t many women of color studying STEM fields, and I felt like someone should do something about it. I started thinking maybe it could be me.”
Curiosity about a solution led her back to New York City, where she was raised, and a new career as a high school math teacher. “It was then that I began to understand what was keeping girls from entering college STEM programs,” she said. “The biggest barrier I observed was a mindset around math and science that says, ‘I hate this, why do I have to do it, what does this have to do with the real world?’
“Those questions are valid, because if you have never had a positive and fulfilling experience learning a STEM concept, why would you want to do more of it?” she continued. “That’s what I felt needed to change. But how do you convince somebody that says they can’t do something that they can? It seemed like an important problem to tackle.”
A lever for opening young minds
Toussaint Beach found an inspiring solution. “When I think about dance, I think how it developed a sense of possibility in me,” she said. “Seeing a dance routine, a style, or technique that I couldn’t do, and then with practice and coaching and working with peers, mastering it. There’s something about dance that builds hope and joy and connection and community. That’s what I wanted to infuse into STEM education, a way for dancing to be that lever.”
She set to work building a program and eventually an organization based on four pillars that connect dance with STEM: culture, confidence, community, and creativity. “For the population we serve, which is girls of color, dance is a big part of culture. It’s how we express ourselves, communicate, and have fun,” Toussaint Beach said. “It’s powerful to see your culture applied to something that seems isolated and intimidating at first.
“Dance builds confidence, and many studies show the impact dance has on social and emotional learning,” she continued. “We also know that girls in particular thrive in communities, especially when they are doing difficult things, and dance brings a sense of connection, camaraderie, and joy. Finally, there’s creativity in how you can apply STEM concepts and tools to make dance exciting.”
In the LED technology module of her eight-week, in-school residencies, Toussaint Beach’s students choreograph dance routines, spiced with animations they learn to program and project onstage. They create costumes that light up, changing colors and sequence when they move. “We teach them how to make a circuit to operate the LEDs on their costumes and clothing, and how to code what colors they turn and when,” Toussaint Beach said. “They’re learning how electricity works, and how to communicate a feeling or a message with the technology.”
STEM From Dance also teaches a module on biology. “It’s centered on the respiratory system and what happens when the lungs are working well and when they’re not, and also the social justice issues that impact our ability to breathe,” Toussaint Beach said. “The most recent example is how COVID affected communities of color disproportionately, and also neighborhoods near highways or refineries where rates of asthma are higher. At the end of the module, there’s a performance piece where they’re educating the audience about what they’ve learned.”
Another module fuses AI and machine learning with step dancing. “Step is a big part of Black culture, and they are using that to make an animation sound with a sensor that’s reactive to movement,” Toussaint Beach said. “So every time they do a certain move sound, it will trigger an animation, whether it’s onscreen in a video or live onstage.”
Girls rise up
STEM From Dance’s school residencies serve as a catalyst for igniting girls’ interest and end in a performance. Students can then join Girls Rise Up, Toussaint Beach’s three-week immersion program, where they meet women STEM professionals and take field trips to see dance performances. “They stay in groups with the same instructors for the whole time,” she said. “It creates an atmosphere of real sisterhood, while going deeper into STEM subjects.”
Toussaint Beach loves watching girls’ thinking change over time. “Some girls come in saying ‘Ugh, my mom said I have to do this,’ and before long they’re saying, ‘This is my favorite part of the day; now I can see myself as a programmer,’” she said. “It could just be the act of incorporating dance — giving girls a space where they feel safe and encouraged.”
STEM From Dance’s goal is ambitious: to reach 10 million girls in 10 years. “We base that on the needs of the workforce, and knowing that one of our value-adds is introducing girls to the STEM pathway,” Toussaint Beach said. “Because our method attracts girls who otherwise wouldn’t raise their hand to code or build a robot, we know we can impact the field. A big part of getting there will be releasing our curriculum and training so that teachers across the country and the world can adopt our approach and implement it locally.”
It’s rewarding work for Toussaint Beach, who recalled one student in particular. “Melody loved to dance, but really didn’t imagine herself as an engineer or scientist,” she said. “She came to us for a summer, and then another summer, and another. I’m excited to say that this fall she started at Virginia Tech as a freshman in computer engineering. I love her story, and I’m convinced that she will rule the world in some way in the future. All she needed was for someone who looked like her to tell her she could do it.”
Interested in learning more about “Connecting With Balance?” Visit https://pilobolus.org/connecting-with-balance. See a performance of Pilobolus’ Symbiosis: https://www.ted.com/talks/pilobolus_a_dance_of_symbiosis