Crashing Science Into Dance

Jessica Ehlert, feet blackened from the rehearsal floor, ran full-speed across the dance studio. She leapt, latching onto another dancer, who caught her and crashed into two others, knocking them around the rehearsal space like pool balls.

An unlikely partnership between a dancer and a scientist inspired the choreography. The dancers will perform a portion of it at the TEDMED talk in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night, as well as demonstrate the activity inside a cell through dance.

University of Minnesota biomedical engineering professor David Odde and Theatre, Arts and Dance Department Chair Carl Flink started collaborating four years ago after attending a workshop on finding chaos in different disciplines.

Odde said he saw Flink’s dancers perform, and the dance reminded him of what cells look like under a microscope.

It can take years of research to design mathematical models simulating the interior of a cell on computers, Odde said. But dancing the motions is much faster.

“We’re simply brainstorming competing ideas on how

the cell works,” he said, “except we’re using our bodies to manifest the ideas.”

During the TEDMED talk, the dancers move around the stage to demonstrate the scientific concepts Odde discusses. The movement is supposed to be as random as possible and often looks like there isn’t any order.

The dancers walk, run and jump around the stage, bumping into each other — much like the internal parts of a cell sometimes do — increasing the collisions as the “heat” increases in the presentation.

Dance senior Margaret Johnson said it takes some time for her mind to clear, achieving the randomness.

“There comes a point where you’re not really thinking about anything, and your body just makes decisions,” she said. “You’re just completely blank.”

This is the fourth TED talk that Flink’s Black Label Movement dance company has been involved in, but it’s the first to tell “its own story” instead of just complementing what the presenter is saying, he said.

Odde’s lab group has discovered new ways of modeling brain cancer cells through the partnership, and Flink has been inspired to choreograph new dances.

“HIT,” one of the pieces Black Label will perform at the TED talk, is very physical, with the dancers smacking into each other. The dancers said they love performing this new form because the physicality of it “feels good.”

They hit each other hard enough to hear the slap against their skin, but Flink said the moves are as safe as playing any physical sport.

Odde’s lab studies cell division, which has many applications in cancer research. His work specifically looks at how the cytoskeleton of a cell controls cell migration and division and how computer models predicting these events can lead to therapeutic cancer treatments.

Using dance to model these processes is easier to understand than using computers, Odde said, because “a computer won’t talk to you.”

He often goes back and forth between the studio and the lab when trying to understand what’s happening in the cells.

“You start to get a sense of why things are happening,” Odde said. “[We get] new insight that we might have gotten from the dance that we wouldn’t have gotten from the computer.”

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