Dance Dance, Science Revolution

Most of us aren’t asked to dance our life’s work, and that’s probably a good thing. But John Bohannon, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and writer for Science Magazine, believes dance is the ultimate translation challenge for scientists. “We have a problem with terminology and very complex explanations,” Bohannon explained to me, “so what better way to force scientists to explain their work than to take out language entirely?”

The result of Bohannon’s brainchild, “This Is Science,” premiered last Friday in Chicago. “It came full circle,” Bohannon said. “What began as amateur dancing scientists on YouTube ended in the debut of a professional dance based on science.” The dance covered a swath of modern disciplines, including acro dance, aerial dance and elements of ballet.

The process began last summer when Bohannon, with help from a grant from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, announced an open call for scientists to dance their Ph.D. theses and submit it to YouTube. About 100 submissions later, an equal-opportunity panel of scientists, dancers and last year’s winners chose four winners: Sue Lynn Lau, Miriam Sach, Vince LiCata and Markita Landry. The scientists then presented their published research to four choreographers, Jenn Liang-Chaboud, Helena Reynolds, Christopher McCray and Chloe Jenson, and the adaptation process was set in motion.

“I asked questions like, ‘Does it jump like a magnet?’” said Liang-Chaboud, “I needed to have a visual aspect in my mind.” Many months and explanations later, professional dancers have translated their complex scientific research into the abstract movements you can see below, with narration from Bohannon.


Now in its second year, “This is Science” isn’t the first attempt to replicate scientific theory or microscopic movement on a human scale. In 1971, hundreds of Stanford students gathered on a field for a “molecular happening” in which they danced the essence of “Protein Synthesis: An Epic on the Cellular Level.” The film, which is pretty hilarious, was narrated by Nobel-laureate Paul Berg and is now a cult educational classic.

Which proves Bohannon’s hypothesis: that scientific research can be mapped onto dance in myriad ways. Often it appears as metaphor, as seen in the choreography of McCray, who “extracted a symbolic essence of what viruses are doing inside cells,” according to Bohannon. “The whole thing had this absolutely alien atmosphere to it….Viruses are a strange but very central part of life on this planet. They lead to some of the most horrible things, like smallpox and AIDS, but also to many natural parts of the ecosystem. Many people argue if you didn’t have viruses you wouldn’t have proper ecology, you might not even have proper evolution.”

The second model is more abstract. In the dance for Sach’s research about how we understand regular and irregular verbs (“jump and jumped” versus the wily “were, was and is”), the choreographer created a whole series of gestures in the dance, an entire physical language. “There is this mixture of graceful and awkward, difficult and easy,” which Bohannon thinks might “represent the different kinds of processing.”

So could people connect the dance to the science? For that Bohannon is conducting an experiment of his own, because while “the art world never subjects itself to rigorous testing,” science loves to. Starting later this month you can try to match the dance with the corresponding science, on Bohannon’s Web site. The results, along with Bohannon’s article, will be published in Science Magazine in March.

Editor’s note: Video and photography credits goes to Matthew Liang Chaboud and Sony Creative Software. Thanks for the use.

Support PBS NewsHour: