Ask a Dancer

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Ballet dancer Nikolai Fadeyechev in a scene from Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake staged at the State Academic Bolshoi Theater of the USSR. RIA Novosti archive, image #672496 / Umnov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

How does the human body move? A student of kinesiology might describe the muscle groups and their connections. A student of biology could explain the protein structures and interactions within a muscle, a chemist may consider the metabolic energy transfers between molecules that ultimately arrive at kinetic energy, and a physicist would probably just simplify the person to a point mass. If I wanted an expert analysis, however, I’d ask a dancer.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I toured the country with a ballet company between high school and starting my engineering degree at Northwestern. People I meet are usually astonished that I switched from the fine arts to hard science, but I’m going to use this little soapbox to explain, as promised, how my experience as a dancer was actually rather scientific. Evaluating the interactions within and around a complex, functional system is par for the course in engineering, but it’s a pretty good way of describing a pirouette too.

A pirouette is a spin on one leg. There are infinite variations drawing from different positions of the arms, different positions of the free leg, two directions of revolution, and even some challenging options for the standing leg. There’s plenty to challenge a novice with one revolution, and there are plenty of stars and prodigies who can sail around for upwards of ten revolutions.

The opportunity for numerical calculations is plentiful; the dancer’s moment of inertia, the magnitude and direction of the impulse against the floor, the kinetic coefficient of friction between the dancer’s shoe and the floor, the rate of momentum loss, and on and on. Dancers may not use numbers or an established system of units, but our considerations are just as thorough; we account for each limb, we assess the interaction with the floor, and we even monitor and adjust for mishaps. We only have a split second, though, and have to be beautiful to boot.

The precision, then, can’t come from calculation because there simply isn’t time. Rather, dancers have to rely on a different scientific process: experimentation. While ballet teachers can offer effective techniques, each dancer is researching motion empirically because each individual body presents new territory devoid of proven models. Through years of trial and error, we stockpile discoveries and define our understanding along the way.

After a few years as a professional, the learning curve finally leveled out, and I realized that my passion for dance came from the discovery process. I wanted to keep learning and keep figuring things out, so engineering was a natural fit. For the rest of my working life, I’ll be asked to figure out systems much larger than my body, and I’m pretty excited about it. Even though engineering will be challenging, I’m not worried; I’ll be a little astonished myself if any experience proves more rigorous than developing the arsenal of turns, leaps, balances, and coordination that together make a ballet dancer.

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