Are Dancers Secretly Physicists in Disguise?
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sarah Demers and Emily Coates. Photo by Michael Marsland, Courtesy Yale University
Their work together has one rule: They give equal respect to both disciplines, presenting each as complexly as possible. "We didn't want one discipline to lead over the other," says Coates. "We're constantly moving back and forth to think about how one illuminates the other, how they connect and the vast differences between modes of thinking."
Of course, equality is easier said than done.
"I remember first hearing the phrase 'movement research' from Emily and being a little bit skeptical," says Demers, whose only previous experience with dance was a year and a half of ballet classes as a preteen. "What do you mean by movement research? Are you moving your body in ways that no one has ever moved? What's your research outcome?"
A couple months later, a grad student asked Demers if some of the supporting work he was doing for his thesis could be considered research. "I realized, Wow, it never occurred to me to question what I mean by research in physics. But I made the dancer defend for me what her research was."
These kinds of strokes of insight have happened many times. "I've realized I'll learn more about my own field when I don't make assumptions, but see it with as critical of an eye as I would with something I'm not exposed to," adds Demers.
Coates and Demers at Danspace. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace
They've also realized just how much the two fields can illuminate one another.
For instance, dance allows physicists to have a kinesthetic encounter with their subject matter. "Newton's laws are not very intuitive," explains Demers. "The thing about having people experience the forces themselves, to have their bodies interact with these ideas, is that their intuition changes and their experiences reinforce what they learn in physics instead of working against it."
And studying physics can help dancers understand the terms in which balance can occur, for example, or think more deeply
about concepts like friction and momentum. "The physics perspective gives dancers deeper awareness, more resources to draw on when they're dancing or thinking about choreographic complexity," says Coates.
"Toggling back and forth," she adds, "creates a world view entirely its own."
One thing that Coates and Demers love to point out to their students (a mix of dancers, science majors and others who are just interested in the topics) is how much of an understanding of physics dancers already have within their bodies. "People can think of physics as really inaccessible," says Demers. "But the truth is that dancers who've had a lot of training have so much physics knowledge in their muscles, just wired into them."
At the same time, physics is a form of art. "I hope this book shows the dance world some of the creative elements that physics can bring to the table," says Demers.
"I think of our entire collaboration as an art project," says Coates. "It's a practice we return to in different contexts, taking our dialogue and reshaping it and going back to our basic tenets: Physics and dance are equal creative disciplines."
A book launch at New York Live Arts on January 17 will include demos from Yvonne Rainer, Patricia Hoffbauer, Lacina Coulibaly and Daniel Ulbricht, plus the two authors reading from the text.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.