An increasing number of dance companies are experimentally interpreting and expressing scientific principles through the language of movement. One of my greatest loves in life is dance, so any event that fuses my interest in science with my enthusiasm for dance seems an ideal form of entertainment. I consider such collaborations as a valuable and effective means of engagement so I was excited to see the ‘Let’s Get Physical’ event presented at the Wellcome Collection in January. Here, a seamless partnership was formed, where the two cultures performed as one in a dazzling and diverse programme.
The afternoon leaped into full swing with a lively debate around the question, ‘Are we born to dance?’ This was not a typical scientific discussion, but a ‘performance of knowledge’. Music, dancing and spectacle were employed by each performer to engage the audience. Before the debate began, a medley of famous music was played to get us into the dancing spirit. It was almost impossible to restrain the natural urge to dance – the audience’s feet tapped to the beat, whilst heads bobbed and swayed in time with the rhythm.
The first act set the bar high. Dance psychologist Peter Lovatt communicated his research by getting the whole auditorium on their feet to boogie to disco music. He sought to demonstrate dance as a natural human quality, where our movements are influenced by our genetic and hormonal make up. He set the scene of a night club, saying this is where humans use dance to attract attention of a mate. Lovatt explained how hormones influence the way we dance. A woman at her most fertile will swing and circle her hips drawing the male’s attention, but men pay less attention to women at their least fertile, because movement is centred in the upper body.
Then, Emma Redding, Head of Dance Science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, dispelled the common belief that dancing talent is innate. A three-year study has shown that the criteria used to judge whether someone is a ‘good’ dancer, including flexibility, fitness and strength are all trainable. This research supports Fred Astaire’s assertion that one is not born a dancer, but a ‘good’ dancer only achieves such status through training.
Sara Houston followed with a powerfully poetic speech discussing her four-year study with the English National Ballet company that explored the benefit of dance to those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It is not yet complete, but so far the study has generated promising results, showing movement becoming more regulated. Those who could only shuffle are now walking with an increased stride length. Although dance alone cannot minimize the extent of the disease, it is a valuable and powerful activity. A pivotal aspect of the dance sessions is the improvisation feature. Parkinson sufferers tend to be introverts but storytelling through dance grants them release, liberating them from their protective shell and giving them freedom to be imaginative and emotionally expressive.
Compelling personal stories tell of sufferers viewing dance as a lifeline, bringing happiness back into their lives and making them feel beautiful once more. For one patient, the effect was too overwhelming. He couldn’t bear the stark contrast between the joy of the class and the return to a bleak, lonely house where he would face the torment of medication and the tribulations of his disease. It was so emotionally traumatizing that he stopped dancing.
Later, dancers took to the stage in an intimate ‘Showtime’ performance of contemporary dance, ballet and tango. Before the dancers performed their routines, we watched an animated infographic of dancers’ breathing rate and heartbeat, recorded during the can-can, tango and ballet performances. The three red, yellow and blue ECG waves represented the biological data as intertwining, twirling and circling each other in a mesmerising dance. Titled ‘Window to the Body’, it was an innovative form of digitized scientific art. Its creator, Even Morgan, intended to reveal the internal dance that takes place within the body to uncover the science behind the artistic form of a dancer’s movement.
Science inspires dance, but this is not a unidirectional relationship as dance is a useful tool to visualize scientific concepts. The creative and powerful potential this pastime offers can reach out to a wide audience, stimulating interest and arousing their enthusiasm for science. Inherently, we are all born to dance, so we should embrace this natural form of expression and communication as a means of scientific public engagement.
Alanna Orpen is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.