Dance Your Experiment

Dance Your Experiment

Dance Your Experiment

Scientists and dancers find inspiration and insight in collaboration.

Have you ever noticed that the word “dance” has “dna” in it? Scientists have! And some of them have actually danced DNA, and other scientific concepts, too! That’s because the same creativity that permitted Loie Fuller to apply scientific experimentation to her dances allows scientists to use the concepts of dance to inform their scientific experiments. It’s a two-way street!

Our favorite story in this regard is told by MacArthur Fellow John Cairns, a microbiologist of international repute. Many years ago, Cairns was trying to figure out how a particular set of bacterial genes were regulated. After many weeks of careful thinking, he devised a complicated experiment that he thought would shed light on the matter. At the time, he was working at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. On Saturday evenings, during the summers, the resident scientists would often gather for some folk dancing, and as was Cairns’ wont, he set out to join the fun. On the way, he met one of his colleagues, Bob Edgar, to whom he explained the experiment. "Edgar proceeded to convert my beautiful design into instructions for an imaginary square dance, prancing from one side of the road to the other as he acted out a dance of bacteriophage particles, each marked with a different isotope, pairing and separating, moving in lines, re-assorting themselves and so on. This lasted for the 300 yards between his classroom and the lawn with its waiting human dancers, where he plunged off into the golden twilight."

Cairns had never thought of an experiment as a form of choreography before. You probably haven’t either. Cairns was very happy that Edgar had, however, because in dancing the experiment, the two of them realized that it couldn’t possibly work. A bit of fancy footwork saved him weeks of useless lab work.

Sommer Gentry has taken the dance-science connection a step further. Gentry is a mathematician and electrical engineer at the U. S. Naval Academy. She is also a swing dance instructor. While at MIT as an instructor, she met a handsome young surgical resident while dancing. He introduced her to robotic surgery. Gentry married him and began investigating ways to make surgical robots more touch-sensitive. She did it by trying to teach them how to dance!

The connection between dance and robotic surgery is haptic or touch related sensation. Gentry knew from her dancing that most of the communication between dance partners is neither verbal nor visual, but physical, each picking up signals through the felt motions of the other. Could one, she wondered, create a robotic system that responded as sensitively to touch as did a dance partner? Notably, her research not only proved that such a system was possible, but also that people could learn sets of motions much more efficiently from such touch-sensitive robots than from watching a human being perform the motions.

Look hard enough and you’ll find plenty more examples of scientists and dancers in collaboration. A 2003 dance festival held at St. Andrews University in England brought together leading biomedical researchers and experimental dancers. The idea for ‘Dance Sparks’ came about when choreographer Tricia Anderson and physiologist Mark Evans “started to muse about how a dancer would approach complex scientific concepts, and how a scientist might give shape to his scientific insight through movement, light, and sound.”

The result was—and is—a very different approach to scientific understanding, not only for the lay public, but potentially for the scientist as well. During the 1980s, U. C. Berkeley physicist Marvin Cohen collaborated with choreographer David Wood to produce a dance called “Currents” about the phenomenon of superconductivity. Cohen remarked at the time that “I told David Wood that if he or the dancers came up with some new ordered state of some new motions I’d appreciate hearing about them. We’re hoping that perhaps he can give us some new ideas.”

What’s good for the master is good for the beginner. Many science educators realize that students learn certain concepts better by dancing their way to understanding. Zafra Lerman has won many education prizes for transforming chemistry into theater and dance. She maintains that students who would otherwise find the subject uninteresting become engrossed in its complexities when asked to become an element and learn to move and act like that chemical. Similarly, Sing Smart, an education company, puts out a series of CDs called “Holy Mol-ee” (you may remember that a mol is a standard unit of measure in chemistry) that show teachers how to use song and dance to teach basic chemical principles to students of every learning disposition.

And getting back to the DNA in dance, at the professional level dancer-choreographer Liz Lerman (no relation to Zafra) has explored the implications of genetic technologies in her 2006 ‘Ferocious Beauty’, developed in collaboration with 34 genetic scientists and researchers. (In a more recent dance, ‘The Matter of Origins’, she collaborates with physicists at CERN.) On a more practical level, professors like biologist Susan Fisher at Ohio State use dance to introduce their students to chromosomal complexities (see her clip below). Classroom-friendly dances explore how chromosomes segregate in mitosis, meiosis, DNA replication and transcription, how a gene is translated into a protein, and even how the protein folds up to perform its specific function.

All of these DNA dances owe some debt to the “mother” of all such dances produced in 1971 at Stanford University by Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg. Just imagine over a hundred college students runnin’ and funnin’ on a grassy field in the manner of ribonucleotides, amino acids, ribosomes, and similar molecules – all the to beat of rock music – and you’ve got a fair idea of “Dance of the Ribosomes”! You can see it here:

One definition of creativity is making useful connections between apparently unconnected ideas. By this definition, we’d say that using dance to inform and convey science is pretty creative. And creatively pretty, too!

© Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 2008, 2012

Berg, Paul, and Phlogiston Productions (Stanford University).” Dance of the Ribosomes” @
Cairns, John. The usefulness of parody, Nature 2004; 428: 23
Chemistry-Dance-Song curriculum:
DNA dance for kids:
Fisher, Susan:
Gentry, Sommer:
Radio interview on KMOX News 5/12/04 (MP3)
Lerman, Liz:
Lerman, Zafra:
Chemistry: An inspiration for theatre and dance. Chemical Education International 2005; 6 (1): 1-5.
Root-Bernstein, M. M, Lownds, N, Miller J, Newman, D., Bristow, C., Overby, L., Root-Bernstein, R. S. “Body Thinking Beyond Dance: Connections to Science,” Merging Worlds: Dance, Education, Society and Politics (The National Dance Education Organization 6th Annual Conference Proceedings) CD-ROM, 20-24 October 2004, pp. 354-364.
Root-Bernstein, M. M. and Root-Bernstein, R. S. “Body Thinking Beyond Dance: A Tools for Thinking Approach,” In Overby, Lynette, and Lepczyk, Billie, eds. Dance: Current Selected Research, vol. 5, pp. 173-202, 2005.
St Andrews University and Dance Sparks Festival:,42629,en.html

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