Dancing Mathy Masters

Creating or finding patterns, reasoning spatially, tending to aesthetics, being precise, and creating in a universal idiom—these are acts common to both math and dance.  

Not everyone is exposed to mathematics via art, especially a performing art.  As a math and dance double major, I recall feeling vindicated when one of my choreography courses required that we build models of both a dodecahedron and a cube as visual aids for spatial awareness.  As of late, both dancers and mathematicians are exploiting these connections for educational purposes. At the primary level, Malke Rosenfeld uses patterns in rhythm and symmetry ideas to promotes choreographic inquiry into mathematical thinking on her blog Math in Your Feet.

From Malke Rosenfeld's Math in your Feet blog

From Malke Rosenfeld’s Math in your Feet blog

Ms. Rosenfeld, a rhythm dancer and homeschooling mother, worked with a math specialist Jane Cooney to meld her passions for dance and math into a way of helping elementary students learn both.   Her video is posted also at a new site called MATHAGOGY which serves as home to a bank of two minute math education videos featuring the “person behind the practice”.  Some of the most experienced math/dance educators might be Erik Stern and Karl Schaffer, two professors, who have developed several activities for upper elementary.  Here is a video showing clips of their ensemble.  A recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) highlights their organization, which has been giving dance performances inspired by or demonstrating mathematical ideas for over 20 years.


The Synergy exhibit at the Simons Center, photography by Gregor Tarjan

Professional mathematicians also find the intersection between movement and math worthy of serious research.  A surprising number of mathematicians enjoy Contra-dancing, the topic of a recent paper entitled “Different partners, different places” which can be found at the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts.  Just last week, Diana Davis, a geometer who won the Physics category of the AAAS-sponsored Dance Your Phd Contest in 2012 (there is no “Math” category), gave a talk at the Simons Center about her work on Veech surfaces.  Her video can be found at this post from last year on Math Munch, one of my favorite blogs.    (If you want to enter the contest or see old video submissions this year you could win $1000, but the deadline is October 2013.)  Currently, the Simons Center is hosting an exhibition Synergy: Dance, Data, Sculpture, which features collaborations between sculptor William Duffy, choreographer William Forsythe, and dance and technology specialist Zuniga Shaw.    The upcoming Bridges Conference in the Netherlands  will include a presentation by Karl Schaffer, as well as three other dance-related presentations.  Tell us about your experiences with mathematics and dance!

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5 Responses to Dancing Mathy Masters

  1. David Sarma says:

    My background is in Math (NYU) and Computer Art (School of Visual Arts), with current work in VFX. My dance background is with house and breaking, here in New York. I think styles of this sort (as opposed to more formal types) tend to be less explored. The connection is maybe not so straightforward, but in having a developed means by which to describe to yourself pre-linguistic notions, and to be able to reason on a high-dimensional space of sensory information, intuitions can be developed which have a topological flavor. The full-speed, full-dimensional activity is an interesting activity to engage in simultaneously with the linguistic, reduction of dimensionality which is characteristic of the mathematical flavor of thought. It’s possible to recognize what exactly it is in the real world that the mathematical objects are attempting to describe. Typically, the means by which to get at those objects is by deriving facts by algebraic reasoning, or otherwise by experimentation of a computational sort. But having the sensory structures as an alternative interior descriptive language allows for experimentation of a different type. I’ve participated in motion capture sessions, and used math more directly in VFX work, but I find this means of developing intuitions to be the most interesting use of dance.

  2. sarah-marie belcastro says:

    Erik Stern is not a math professor.

    • bfinegold says:

      Thanks! He is a professor of dance. I edited appropriately.

      • sarah-marie belcastro says:

        Hm. I still see “two math professors” in the article. Wonder why the edits aren’t showing up for me?

        • bfinegold says:

          Probably because it wasn’t showing for anyone 🙂 You are very polite! Apparently I “saved” but didn’t “update”. Didn’t realize those were separate actions…Now I know. Thanks!

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