Science In Motion

26:17 minutes

dancers rolling in tandem on the floor
Credit: Kiki Jenkins via Youtube

How would you choreograph the heft of the Higgs boson, the plight of an endangered species, or the battle between the body and tumors? Last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science celebrated the 10th anniversary of its annual “Dance Your PhD” competition. The winner? An aerial silks display created by UC-Santa Barbara topologist Nancy Scherich, explaining her work on the geometric concept of ‘braid theory.’ Watch a video of the dance here.

Other entries, simple and complicated, fun and serious alike, tell choreographed stories about the questions scientists are pursuing all over the world. For marine conservationist Lekelia Jenkins, dance has been as important a part of her life as science; she’s created dances about the success of devices that can keep sea turtles out of fishing nets, and is working on researching the ways dance can enhance learning. Watch her rendition of the sea turtle dance below.

[How do “killer snails” kill their victims?]

And a Yale University duo, dancer Emily Coates and particle physicist Sarah Demers, are working beyond interpretive dance to create works where dance informs physics just as much as physics can inform dance. Watch a video of  the breakdown of physicist hand gestures below, as well as a trailer for their dance, “Incarnations.” Jenkins, Coates, and Demers join Ira to talk about the partnership of movement and research, and how they each approach setting science to music.

black and white image of dancer standing and moving arm above her head
Lekelia (Kiki) Jenkins. Credit: Zoe Litaker
Particle physicist Sarah Demers and choreographer Emily Coates. Credit: Michael Marsland

Three Views of the Higgs and Dance from JMC West on Vimeo.

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Segment Guests

Emily Coates

Emily Coates is an assistant professor adjunct of Theater Studies and Directing at Yale University. She’s also a dancer and choreographer.

Sarah Demers

Sarah Demers is a professor of Physics at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Lekelia Jenkins

Lekelia Jenkins is an associate professor with the School For The Future of Innovation In Society at Arizona State University.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: You know, we are always looking for new ways to communicate science. Some of us make videos. Others talk about it on the radio and podcasts. Reaching people through the arts and entertainment– that’s another approach– as my next guests have done with dance. For example, the Higgs boson, the source of mass in the standard model of physics, can be explored in dance, as can the plight of endangered sea turtles so often caught in fishing nets. They too can be set to dance.

But there is more going on than just interpreting research findings using body movements. Dancers will tell you that movement is its own research discipline, that dance makes its own contributions to the way we understand both scientists’ work and even our relationship to it.

So here to talk about dancing their way through scientific concepts, we have a dancer, Emily Coates, director of Dance Studies at Yale University’s Theater Studies program. Welcome, Emily.

EMILY COATES: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Also a particle physicist, Sarah Demers, also at Yale. Welcome, Dr. Demers.


IRA FLATOW: And a dancer and marine conservationist, Kiki Jenkins, at Arizona State University. Welcome, Dr. Jenkins.

KIKI JENKINS: Good afternoon.

IRA FLATOW: And if you need a visual at any time, you can see the videos of all their work on our website dancing at sciencefriday.com/dance. Let me begin with you, Kiki. One of your major projects was this dance about saving sea turtles from fishing nets. Please describe it visually for those of us who can’t see it now.

KIKI JENKINS: OK, it began with two dancers who are locked in this very graceful struggle. They’re turning. They’re twisting. They’re stretching. One dancer is dressed in green. That’s the sea turtle. One dancer is dressed in gray. And that dancer embodies all the threats to survival that sea turtles have to face.

Eventually, the turtle dancer ends crumbled on the floor, dead. And next what we see is a group of dancers dressed in blue. And they’re rolling back and forth on the stage like ocean waves. And one by one, they pick up these turtle dancers on their bodies and roll them to the front of the stage and drop them there. And it’s like turtle carcasses washing up on a beach.

And then next we see a dancer in white. And she represents the Endangered Species Act. And she comes in, and she sees this tragedy. And she begins to look for answers.

And that’s when we notice that there is this large, metal device on the stage. And that device is a turtle excluder device, which is an escape hatch that turtles can use to get out a fishing nets so they don’t drown. And there’s four dancers with very unique movements. And they’re representing the four critical things that we need to invent– a turtle excluded device. Eventually, they bring their movements together, and they lift this turtle excluder device over their heads.

And then finally, we see another turtle dancer coming into the space. And again, she’s locked into this struggle– this graceful struggle– with the dancer in gray, the threats to survival. But this time, she survives. She overcomes because the [? tide ?] is there. And those four unique dancers actually lift her away. And then she swims/dances to freedom.

IRA FLATOW: Well, as a marine conservationist, how did you get involved with this dance?

KIKI JENKINS: I started dancing in undergraduate. And all throughout graduate school, I would literally daydream about what my research would look like on stage. And I had this crazy idea that I was going to do a one-person show, defend my dissertation all in the same week. That didn’t happen.

But the next year, AAAS launched their Dance Your PhD competition, which I entered. And I took second place. That opened a lot of doors for me. And that’s what got me started. Although, I’d say the same time, there were a lot of obstacles because a lot of people still ridiculed the idea, the concept that there can be a science dance or a scientist who dances. And that’s something that we really still need to change.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about the science in dance and turning STEM into STEAM.

Sarah, you weren’t a dancer, but you started working with Emily as a new approach to teaching physics at Yale. How did this course approach physics concepts?

SARAH DEMERS: So, it’s interesting. We actually, I would say, tackle it on a couple of different levels. In one way. There are a lot of direct connections between physics and dance. So you can look at the forces involved, the masses moving. We have a lot of equations.

It’s exciting from the physics perspective because often in introductory physics you deal with simplified systems. There are pulleys and inclined planes and all kinds of abstract objects that are far away from you. It’s, I think, more engaging when people are actually embodying these forces.

And it also is more complicated from the physics perspective. You can’t make assumptions, like, oh, it’s a massless pulley. You have to actually deal with gravity and friction all the time. So on that level, that there is a pretty direct dialogue between the two disciplines.

And then we also found as Emily and I were starting to develop the class that we share a lot of the same vocabulary. So dance and physics– we both care deeply about energy and momentum. But we mean different things by those words. And so, just exploring what I mean in the physics context and what Emily means in the dance context, and to putting those things next to each other, I think we can learn more about each and even some new things.

IRA FLATOW: Emily, as a professional dancer, how easy is it for you to integrate your ideas with the physicists and the scientists here?

EMILY COATES: [CHUCKLES] Let me start by saying I am a science-dance skeptic–


EMILY COATES: –who dove into this with the desire to kind of change the terms of engagement. And so, in the class that Sarah and I teach, we deal a lot with choreographic complexity. And we look at the works of great choreographers of the 20th century and the ways that they have messed with our conceptualizations of energy, space, and time, and then kind of set that on par with the ways that physicists have produced advances and paradigm shifts within modern physics. So we do a lot of kind of comparative looks back and forth at dance aesthetics and scientific ideas in order to understand really how to keep these two disciplines at their most complex when in dialogue.

I think the danger is reduction, both that the science gets watered down and the dance also isn’t allowed to kind of fully operate. And so, in the work that Sarah and I do, we’re always pushing the degree to which the disciplines can remain in dialogue and in their greatest complexity, while also shining light on the other.

IRA FLATOW: Hm, so did you convince any of your scientist colleagues that there is value to this?

EMILY COATES: I absolutely see value. And let me backtrack a bit on that bold claim that I am a science-dance skeptic. I think that there are tremendous benefits to be had in processes like those that Kiki is engaged in. So embodying scientific concepts, and in that process having to understand something more about how the mechanisms actually operate, it undeniably enhances understanding of the science to get up and move those ideas.

And then on the other hand, as I said, we also want to keep in our minds the tremendous advances and paradigm shifts put forward by artists in the 20th century and 21st. And that, to me, is the most generative aspect of the dialogue between the disciplines, looking at compositional complexity and how, in fact, without even trying to engage with physics and artists directly with the science of physics. And artists like Trisha Brown in 1970 tipped someone over the side of a building, put them on ropes, and had them walk down that building. And the ways that this caused us to understand gravity and the very basic action of walking anew.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll talk about gravity and dancing and science after the break. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about dance and science and how to translate the rigorous work of biology and physics and other research to dance– a medium equally rigorous, built on the motion of bodies through space, with my guest scientists who dance and a dancer who works with scientists. Kiki Jenkins, associate professor in Marine Conservation at the ASU, Sarah Demers, associate professor of Physics at Yale, and Emily Coates director of Dance Studies and Yale’s Theater Studies program.

If you’d like to talk about it, please do. Our number– 844-724-8255. You could also tweet us @scifri.

Let me take a concrete example of a really interesting composition. Sarah, Emily– you two created an evening-length performance, at least somewhat inspired by the Higgs boson in particle physics. How do you work those two together? Sarah, you want to begin?

SARAH DEMERS: Sure, yeah. I mean, it really was Emily’s creation. It was based in part on collaborative work that we’ve done so I can tell you some of the beginnings of it. When Emily and I were teaching this course together, in part it was so productive. We were having so much fun. We were looking for other opportunities. And there was a recent discovery in my own field of the Higgs boson in 2012. If you haven’t heard about it, go look it up. It’s exciting physics.


SARAH DEMERS: And Emily and I thought, OK, we need to tackle this in our collaboration. And one of the first things she did was come hear me give a public lecture on it. And at the end, she came up to me, and she said, do you have any idea what you’re doing while you’re talking about the Higgs up there? And she started making some motions. And she said, you’re just moving around. It’s incredible.

And I, of course, had no idea what I was doing with my body while I was talking. That was not what was on my mind. And she asked me, do your colleagues do this? And I, of course, had no idea. So we did a little bit of research, went to CERN together. And it turns out that, yes, physicists do use our bodies when we’re talking about the work that we’re doing.

And I’m going to hand it over to Emily because this is really her expertise. But you know, some of the gestures that we’re using are connected to things in our brains. We’re thinking through some of these ideas with our bodies in ways that it’s nice to know that some dancers find interesting.

EMILY COATES: [CHUCKLES] We turned that research that Sarah’s describing into a short science/art video, which we call “Three Views of the Higgs and Dance.” In that video, we used choreographic strategies through the editing to kind of pressure the scientists’ explanation of the Higgs to call into relief the fact that they were using these really intricate and beautiful and diverse gestures to imagine these particle physics.

When we showed that film to audiences across many different contexts, the scientists in the room inevitably said, but where is the Dance of the Higgs? And one of the spins in the film, without giving too much away, is that the physicists themselves are engaged in a kind of dance with their kinesthetic imaginations. So having this complaint from the scientists in the room made me want to think about how to pull these ideas into a live performance.

But again, because I am most interested in kind of preserving the complexity between the disciplines and drawing on compositional strategies that are going to come at these ideas and kind of layer our disciplines in new ways, I ended up going, I think, in a direction that the scientists would not have anticipated or imagined, which is I use collage and juxtaposition and layering. I created a series of vignettes that in each had some degree of dance and some degree of science present.

For example, in one vignette, I performed a fragment of George Balanchine’s choreography. And for your listeners, George Balanchine is an incredibly important ballet choreographer of the 20th century. And while I did that, I had Sarah physics-cast my movement. And so she called out every classical physics principle that she could see at play.

SARAH DEMERS: I had a microphone. It was very exciting. Yes.

EMILY COATES: Terribly exciting.


SARAH DEMERS: Very exciting for me. [LAUGHS]

EMILY COATES: [LAUGHS] And then in another vignette, I had her describe her research at a clip while I called out the gestures that she was using to imagine that research. And the piece also contained a good deal of dance and science history, sometimes engaged playfully. For example, I created a love duet between Isaac Newton and the god Apollo using the music for the signature pas de deux in the Stravinsky/Balanchine ballet Apollo, which was created in 1928. I was basically interested in pitting paradigm shifts and shifters in dance aesthetics up against paradigm shifts and shifters in science.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s interesting concepts to be able to tackle and dance. Kiki, were you able to go from a scientific concept to a series of movements easily? Or was this a real challenge? Is there a certain logic in the creativity here?

KIKI JENKINS: With the process I use, it’s fairly easy because I allow the performers to do some election for themselves. So if I’m working with experienced movers, I have them read a scientific paper, one that’s very accessibly written. And it’s color-coded according to the different findings. And so the dancers will read it. They’ll choose which of those findings really appeals to them. And they’ll choose that as a role that they want to embody.

And then, based on that, they will develop about 30 seconds of movement before they even come to the choreography session. Once they are there, we start talking about why you chose that role. And it’s fascinating to see the connections that they find to their own work as dancers, what they’re doing. And then from there, we go through a process of editing, borrowing, sharing, reduction to get to the final piece.

If I’m working with less experienced dancers, then I will give them a short mini-lecture about the science topic once they’re in the choreographic session. And then we use some pre-determined dance structures. So what I mean by that is, if you can imagine the hokey pokey, when I say that we all imagine stick your arm out and shake it all about. I don’t actually use the hokey pokey, but the Macarena, electric slide– all those things are what I call “dance structures.” Within it though, there are opportunities for artistic choice.

And what I found is for the less experienced movers, using some form of structure helps give them self-confidence in their movement. They’re more secure in the movement. And then they can also focus on the science behind the movement.

IRA FLATOW: You’ve given it a lot of thought, and you’ve done a lot of work. Do you feel that dance informs your scientific research?


IRA FLATOW: In what way? Tell us about that.

KIKI JENKINS: I’ve seen it happen. So for example, I will present a science dance to some of my colleagues who know my research on sea turtles very well. And they’ve heard my talks at lots of conferences. They’ve asked me all the questions. Then they see a dance, and suddenly they’re asking me new questions. And so, performing in a science dance, watching a science dance changes your perspective on the science problem. And in my mind, that can lead to new solutions. It puts your brain in a different place for problem-solving.

IRA FLATOW: And it also, I would think, crystallizes a way of communicating better–

KIKI JENKINS: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: –by watching it. And they say, you know, I could do this better, or, gee, we haven’t been getting this concept down. And having scientists look at it, they might realize that themselves that they’re lacking in communication abilities.

KIKI JENKINS: Absolutely. I think that’s especially true for the environmental sciences because so many people who are not scientists connect to environment, connect to nature through art. So they are photographing nature. They’re painting it. They’re writing songs and poems about it. They’re doing place-based dances in it.

And that can often drive them to have an interest in the science behind it– the animals they’re seeing, the habitats they’re in. As scientists, we should take advantage of this readily-existing conduit for communication– use something other than the written word in which to give information back to these people who are already interested in these environmental areas.

IRA FLATOW: Do physicists feel like they’re learning something from watching the dance themselves? What do you think, Sarah?

SARAH DEMERS: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I think– yeah, there’s been some research done on that. I think in some national labs that have had experiments with having visiting artists come in and then seeing what’s actually translated in terms of the final product. What are people actually getting from that? I think that the process that Kiki’s describing is very powerful for everyone who’s participating, in terms of changing that perspective, as she says, and giving you different access.

I think, for me, as a physicist collaborating with a dancer, I’ve certainly seen my own impact on my own research. People are complicated. Dancing is very complicated, the forces that are involved. You have to be really careful. Early in the class, when people would ask me a question, I would come right out with something. And now I know better than that. I’ve got to think about it. Because it’s complex, what’s actually going on. You have multiple people interacting in a space with each other.

And then, also, it’s made me question some of my own assumptions. So in my own field of particle physics right now, we’re in a very challenging point, I would say. It’s an exciting point. But we’re at a place where we believe we understand about 4% of the matter energy content of the universe. And we’ve had some incredible luck. The Higgs is an excellent example of theorists having an idea that’s based in some ways on the aesthetics of the model that we’re working with and on some gaps and making a hypothesis that then turns out to be correct.

But something that I think can happen if we’re not careful is that we can mix this aesthetic reasoning that we like to do when we look at the mysteries that we have in the field. I’ll give just one example. We have a model that has different generations of particles. So we have a particle like the electron, but we have heavier copies, like the muon and the tau. And this question of, why are there three of these copies? In some ways that’s an aesthetic question. It’s a scientific question, but it also comes at, could this be simpler, right?

We have other kinds of challenges in the field that aren’t really aesthetic questions. They’re more, I predicted this, I see that. And that’s a difference. So I think that being sharper about where I’m applying aesthetic reasoning and where I’m not– I think it’s an [INAUDIBLE]. I think that’s linked to the work that I’ve done with Emily and has made me a better physicist.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. So, Kathleen in Lawrence, Kansas. Hi, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN: Hi, this is great. One of my favorite shows, and I’m a dance fanatic. I just wonder if you ladies had ever heard of or had communication with Karole Armitage? She has a company called Karole Armitage Dance in New York City.

And when I was during the promos about the program, I thought that Ira was going to have her on, because she has done numerous performances. But two of those that I was thinking that relate to your topic is called “Three Theories,” and that series of dances– that was one performance– was based on The Elegant Universe. And another work that she created was based on animals and insects of nature. And they were both phenomenal. And if you haven’t had communication with her, I would highly encourage you to check her out.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Kathleen. Thanks for those suggestions.


IRA FLATOW: Quick, let me jump in because we have to pay for the lights. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

EMILY COATES: Oh, I just wanted to respond. Yes, of course I know Karole Armitage. I’ve actually performed in one of her works before when I was dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov company in New York. And certainly, she is a prominent example of a choreographer out there who’s working with science.

What’s very interesting for me is a particular set of questions in those examples, which is what kind of knowledge gets passed through? What kind of translation is possible? In what new forms does that knowledge end up? And then the vise versa– we see the dances that are an outcome that get put forward on the concert dance stage and that tour internationally. But it’s so rarely conceptualized as a two-way street.

So in turn, the physicists that she was in conversation with, how is it impacting them? How is it altering their paradigms and their way of understanding their own research? So yes, she is one among a number of examples of artists who are out there working with science. And I think these questions of knowledge and translation and transformation are key in understanding these examples.

IRA FLATOW: More and more we’re seeing that extra A in STEM, the arts in science. Do a lot of science to see the importance of creativity? Or is this still kind of in the margins and have to be dished out with them.

KIKI JENKINS: I think it’s very much still in the margins. I think if you look at the media around it, it’s still treated as a novelty when we mix science and art. When I was at my previous university, I worked as some students to start a group around science and art. We had 100 pre-members, people who said they wanted to be part of this group.

And when we had our first meeting, it was almost like an AAA meeting– people kind of talking about their experiences being a scientist who also had an art form that they did, wanting to bring them together, not being sure that they would be accepted. I know scientists who had active gallery exhibits, and their colleagues didn’t know about it. They were afraid to share it. If they did share it, they were told they are being distracted. They weren’t focused. I’ve been told that I can’t possibly be a serious scientist if I’m also a dancer.

So we need to change those things. It’s not a novelty. It is a powerful tool that we’re still learning a lot about.

We need to remember that in our scientific past in the Renaissance, great scientists were also great artists. These are not conflicting things. And so we need to welcome the scientists among us who have talents and both or talents in being able to collaborate across those lines, and bring that back into what science was and still can be today.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have a student interest at Yale now? Sarah, you work in a professor of physics. And Emily, you’re director of the dance studies at Yale. Are there students who say, hey, this is a new area I might want to be interested in exploring?

EMILY COATES: Absolutely.

SARAH DEMERS: Yes. And actually, yeah, our class has gotten a really positive response from the students. A lot of people are really excited about– I think interdisciplinary work in general is intriguing to students. But there’s something about that combination of physics and dance that people have latched onto.

Something that’s been really fun for me is to see how many scientist dancers actually do come out of the woodwork. So our teaching fellow for the course is a particle physicist, Mary [? Alpetie. ?] But she’s also an accomplished dancer. So as Kiki pointed out, yeah, there are quite a few scientists who are already engaged in this discipline. It’s neat to see evidence of that. But I think students– we’ve had philosophy majors, history majors, and all engaged in the class, and I think learning quite a bit in both disciplines.

EMILY COATES: It’s also worth pointing out just how much these disciplines share in common, and I mean between science and dance. So both science and dance cultivate skills of observation, informed decision making, and attention to relationships and proportion, the patience to study, processes of change unfolding over time. So studying both at once, you start to cultivate simultaneously that overlap, while also recognizing how dramatically the fields can be different. And it’s exciting.

IRA FLATOW: I have to bring down the curtain on this discussion because we’ve run out of time.


IRA FLATOW: But I want to thank Kiki Jenkins, Sarah Demers, and Emily Coates for talking about science and the arts and dance. Thank you both for taking time to be with us. And our website’s sciencefriday.com. We have all these dance videos.

One last thing before we go. SciFri’s headed to Salt Lake City. We want you to join us next month, Saturday, September 15, at the Eccles Theater, where we’ll talk about exploring new frontiers, from the unusual life hiding in forest canopies to the outer reaches of space. We’ve got a great evening of science planned for you. Tickets at sciencefriday.com/saltlakecity. That is Saturday, September 15– a lot of fun and games. That’s September 15, Eccles Theater, sciencefriday.com/saltlakecity. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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