Dagmar Sternad is a professor of biology, physics, and electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University. She's also a bit of a dance obsessive. And her innovative work with ballet dancers could have far-ranging implications for the worlds of both medicine and robotics.

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Dance & Science
Via Wikimedia Commons

When Dr. Mae Jemison was growing up, she was obsessed with space. But she didn't see any astronauts who looked like her.

"I said, Wait a minute. Why are all the astronauts white males?" she recounts in a CNN video. "What if the aliens saw them and said, Are these the only people on Earth?"

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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Dance & Science
Amar Odeh/Unsplash

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.

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Dance & Science

There's a new tool that lets amputee ballet dancers perform on pointe. As reported in Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, industrial designer Jae-Hyun An has created a prosthesis he calls the "Marie . T" (after Marie Taglioni, of course) that allows dancers with below-the-knee amputations to do pointe work.

A carbon fiber calf absorbs shock while a stainless steel toe and rubber platform allow a dancer to both turn and grip the floor to maintain balance. What it doesn't allow the dancer to do? Roll down to demi-pointe or flat.

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Dance & Science
The confidence students learn through dance can be transferred to many other fields. Photo by Damon Plant, courtesy STEM From Dance

As an audience cheers, three teenage girls cross the stage in a line, to the high-energy beat of The Chainsmokers' "Don't Let Me Down." They're dressed in head-to-toe black, but each of their shirts is decorated with bright bulbs, flashing and blinking in various colors as they move.

The performance is a product of STEM From Dance, a New York City-based nonprofit founded by Yamilee Toussaint—an MIT grad who's been dancing since age 5. The program targets middle and high school girls of color, who are vastly underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and might not otherwise see STEM as an option or be encouraged to try it.

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Dance & Science
Image via Stock Snap

We've been saying for years that dance training has benefits that reach far beyond preparation for a professional dance career: The discipline and attention to detail fostered in technique class, the critical thinking skills acquired in composition, and the awareness and rapid reaction times required for improvisation can all carry over into other fields.

But what if a choreographic tool kit could have a more direct application outside the studio? Say, to city planning?

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