Shall We Dance?: Scientia

April 1, 2008

Amy Brunvand

A night at the museum with the Children’s Dance Theatre (CDT).
by Amy Brunvand
"Like the dance of love, chemistry is a waltz with its own step-slide-step in three-quarter time."
-Richard E. Smalley

I doubt that very many dance performances require a science consultant, but the always-inventive Children’s Dance Theatre (CDT) has invited four of them to help develop this year’s show called "Scientia" after the Latin word for knowledge. The framework of the story is a schoolgirl’s visit to a museum with a time-traveling scientist as her guide, and the dances illustrate such phenomena as galaxies, prisms, Newton’s laws of motion, atoms, DNA, the immune system, and the biological diversity of rainforests.

If you are inclined to scoff at the idea of interpretive dance based on elementary school science, consider that science is full of dance metaphors such as the "waggle dance" bees do to tell each other where to find nectar, or the "polonaise" movement of cells when an animal embryo begins to form. Ludwig Graper, the German scientist who named the polonaise movement in 1926, thought those embryonic cells looked like dancers at a ball. If you have never seen a polonaise, it might be helpful to read Margaret Anderton’s description of one from "Polish Music Journal":

This stately and elegant dance might almost be named a march; in fact they are really "Marches in Triple Rhythm"… You can almost hear the firm tread of the men, see their haughty, resolute carriage, ready to face danger and treachery and injustice. You can see those beautiful women, proud, trusting, with their luminous eyes, their diamonds and sapphires, and hear the jingle of spurs, the rustling of the silken garments, for this was the dance of the aristocratic beauties and the nobles and military men.

Imagine looking down a microscope and seeing that!

Or imagine looking for a dance in a prism: a translucent wedge-shaped bit of glass or a raindrop that turns sunlight into a rainbow. It seems like magic, but it’s really physics-different colors of light have different wavelengths that travel through glass at various speeds, and when those waves hit the edge between glass and air they change direction. Once you get the image in mind, it’s not hard to think of how to build a dance with the essential qualities of sunlight and colors, amplitude and frequency, angular refraction.

The prisms in "Scientia" will be second-grade dancers, who had to first understand the physics of prisms in order to know how to make a dance. Mary Ann Lee, director of the Children’s Dance Theatre, explains: "You have to know the essence of what you are going to tell, and you begin to build on that. The more you understand it yourself the better you can express it. When you think of Howard Gardner and kinds of intelligences, he talks about the traditional learner who learns facts, but that learner can’t transform it into something else. Dancing internalizes it deeply." 

CDT performances are usually based on storybooks, but this time CDT wrote the story in-house. Lee says that the idea to do an entire show based on science came from professional development workshops given last year by the Virginia Tanner Creative Dance Program to show teachers how to integrate arts in the curriculum. Lee says, "Tristan Moore [who wrote original music for "Scientia"] and I were talking and we said, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to do a science show?’ It had the potential for very different look, different costumes, and sounds. So I went to the King’s English bookstore to find a children’s book that might cover a lot of areas of science. There were histories and specific ideas, but not what I was looking for. I asked the gal in the store and she said, ‘have you read the Bill Bryson book?’" [A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway Books, 2003]

The next step was to find science consultants: Cynthia J. Burrows, a DNA chemist; Lorie Millward from the Utah Museum of Natural History; Paolo Gondolo, an astrophysicist who specializes in dark matter; and engineer James Smith who is a vice president at Wasatch Microfluidics, Inc. 

Lee describes the creation of the dances as a process of engagement with scientific concepts. The sixth grade dancers got to experiment with Newton’s laws of motion-bumping into each other to try out equal and opposite forces, and testing out solos that continue in the same path until something interrupts. When Cindy Burrows brought a video showing the replication of DNA, the ninth grade CDT dancers started to ask sophisticated questions about how the process works in order to develop their movements: Should we do a mirror image or back-to-back? Is it just like a zipper down the middle? How can we show it coiling in on itself? After the 10th grade dancers showed off their spiral nebula, Paolo Gondolo proclaimed it perfect and remarked, "We scientists really do think of these things as a beautiful dance."

The characters in "Scientia" would say the same thing in different words:

Scientist: The prism didn’t create all those beautiful shades of color, it just revealed what was already there, hidden in the light. I guess I’m saying that once you turn your imagination on, science can open up a whole spectrum of color…

Asha (a teenage girl): …giving you new ways to see what was always there.

Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a librarian on campus at the University of Utah.

"Scientia"  April 11 & 12
presented by Children’s Dance Theatre.  Capitol Theatre. 50 W. 200 S. SLC.  (Gallivan TRAX). Tickets:; 355-2787, 888-451-ARTS