The science of dance

Bronwyn Tarr found the perfect marriage of her two passions: Studying dance from a scientific perspective.

Bronwyn Tarr

Photo courtesy of Bronwyn Tarr

Bronwyn Tarr

Photo by José Roberto Corrëa

Bronwyn Tarr

Photo courtesy of Bronwyn Tarr

On a June afternoon in 2004, 10 or 15 dancers, newly auditioned, wait for their first dance class at Interlochen Arts Camp to begin.

The ballet students are mentally preparing for a barre class and a classical ballet set. Across the room, a musician is setting up an assortment of instruments. The students watch him, unsure of why this man has chosen the Hildegard Lewis Dance Building as his practice room.

The musician begins to play. The dance instructor invites the students to take the floor, improvising their choreography and creating signature movements. After each student has the opportunity to improvise for a few minutes, the dancers are instructed to observe each other and begin to incorporate others’ signature moves. Slowly, synergy begins to emerge.

Improvisation classes are a standard part of the dance experience at Interlochen, but the familiarity does not lessen the impact. One dancer in particular was inspired by that one-hour session in 2004: Bronwyn Tarr, who would spend the next ten years of her life using science to grapple with the questions that moment inspired:

“What is actually behind this experience. Why do I love it so much?”

“The dance felt choreographed, yet not a word was spoken,” remembered Bronwyn. “It left me with a strong sense of how your creativity can be a part of a greater creative effort.”

Bronwyn’s summer at Camp was an eye-opening experience on many levels. Born and raised in the south African country of Namibia, coming to Camp was Bronwyn’s first time visiting the United States.

“It was an incredible summer,” she said. “I loved every second, to be honest. I still remember some of the choreography we learned.  I was the only Namibian who had been there that summer.”

“I remember seeing my first yellow school bus,” she said with a laugh. “The United States was a faraway place that I had only interacted with through popular culture. When I saw that bus, I realized it was a real-life thing, not just something created for movies! It was a totally new cultural space for me.”

Cultural and linguistic differences were not the only dissimilarities that Bronwyn encountered that summer; on an artistic level, dance and dance instruction were also different in America.

“Up to that point, I had trained in the Royal Academy of Dance style,” she said. “Improvising was new to me because I had trained in a strict classical style. I was very timid at first, but the instructors were so warm and welcoming.”  

Perhaps it was that very timidity and unfamiliarity that made the Interlochen experience so memorable for Bronwyn: years later, while writing her entrance essay for the Oxford Rhodes Scholar program, she would include her own account of that first moment in the Hildegard Lewis Dance Building.

Although a gifted dancer, Bronwyn always planned to follow in her parents’ footsteps by studying science and biology--not that it was an easy choice.

“I was really inspired at the end of Camp,” she said. “There were lots of opportunities to sign on to major in dance or to sign as a youth member of a dance company. I remember the director of the Dance Department sitting down with me and saying, ‘If you want to pursue dance as a career, it’s going to take all of your dedication. Interlochen isn’t reflective of the real world; it’s a great springboard, but you need to be sure that this is what you want to do.”

“It’s really tough to be pulled in more than one direction,” she said, reflecting on her choice. “But it’s also a privilege to be pulled in more than one direction.”

Ultimately, Bronwyn stuck with her original plan and enrolled at the University of Cape Town, where she majored in Evolutionary Biodiversity and Zoology. For the next several years, dance and science would be separate pursuits. At school, Bronwyn studied naked mole rats; at home, she continued to dance with the youth ballet in Namibia, where her experience at Interlochen helped her win key roles in a number of ballet performances.

“I really worked to try to maintain my performance opportunities when I was studying science, she said. “It was me being who I am. There was no way I could not be dancing.”

After finishing her undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town, Bronwyn applied to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Bronwyn’s masters thesis was the first step in incorporating her love of art with her love of science: her study focused on using art to teach children about the environment. But it was during her doctorate research that her two loves finally came together--quite by chance.

Bronwyn was in one of Oxford’s several libraries reading a book required for one of her courses when she met professor Robin Dunbar. “We started talking about baboons and how they coordinate--as one does,” she said with a laugh, acknowledging the uniqueness of her interests. As the conversation continued, Bronwyn expressed her frustration that she was unable to check the book she was reading out of the library: it was the only copy the school owned, and other students needed it as well. Bronwyn likes to stretch while she reads, which naturally, can cause raised eyebrows in public. Dunbar was intrigued.

“Are you a dancer?” he asked. “I have just the project for you.”

From that serendipitous moment, Bronwyn embarked on a journey to understand the role that dance and music play in human sociability.

“Dancing and music-making are and continue to be a way that humans connect to each other,” Bronwyn explained. “They play an important role in our health. People are very social. We’re a social species.Your social connections with friends and family actually predict a number of health outcomes and in fact, how long you are likely to live. Any activity that helps us maintain our social connections or ‘bonds’ is very important.”

Bronwyn went on to explain how the human need to dance and make music actually played an important role in the evolutionary past. “Being part a group was important in our past--we couldn’t hunt and find food on our own. Forging social alliances helped us to survive.”

Dance played three possible roles in the lives of early man. First, dancing helped forge social bonds and create trust. Dancing was also a way to showcase your potential to be a great mate. “We still see this today if you go to a nightclub,” joked Bronwyn. Lastly, dance is used to signal inclusion in a group and intimidate enemies.

Bronwyn chose to focus on the first of the three hypotheses: dance as a means of creating social bonds. In looking at dance, Bronwyn also considered the history of music-making, which is closely linked to the history of dance.

“The ability for us to record music is very, very recent,” she said. “The history of our music-making would have involved much more of a participatory presence: In order to enjoy music, you would have to be present where it was being made. In reality, everyone takes part. Participation would have been a key aspect in music making. In order for us to make music we have to move because sound is really vibrations. In order to create a sound, you have to move your body. The first music-making involved attaching seeds to your wrists or ankles while you were dancing. The first instruments were our bodies and our voices: we would have been dancing to make music.”

Although the modern world now has less opportunities for participation in music and dance, Bronwyn’s study proves that the arts retain their power in the modern world.

“One thing I do in my lectures is to get people to close their eyes and tap their hands on the table,” Bronwyn said. “I tell them to go as fast or slow as they feel is good. Obviously, the result is chaotic. Then I put on a piece of music and ask them to do it again. It’s very difficult, when music is on, to not be in time with it. Then you have hundreds of people being in time without trying to. That’s the power of music.”

“I tried to work with strangers to see how they feel about each other after they dance together,” she said. “I focused on one aspect of dance: synchronizing. I chose synchronizing because even people who aren’t interested in dance have latched on to the concept of synchrony. Our brains are ‘tricked’ when we do the same thing as another person. The motor regions of the brain and the parts involved in sight become active at the same time, which results in us perceiving a merged sense of oneness between ourself and the other person.”

That sense of oneness is caused by chemicals released in the brain--endorphins--when we listen to music. The endorphin-producing effect of music is increased when we synchronize to music and with others, creating an associative joy that causes to desire to make music and dance again and again.

Bronwyn’s study also reveals good news for those of us with two left feet. “You don’t have to be a ‘crazy cool’ or professional dancer,” she said. “Even small movements in time with other people create the same effect. Even people with limited mobility can participate in synchronization.”

Although Bronwyn has officially finished her Ph.D, she remains as a post-doctoral researcher at Oxford. “There are still so many questions,” she said.

Bronwyn also encourages other artists to explore their interests in fields outside the arts. “Try creating a niche to bring those two things together in a professional way,” she suggested. “It can happen. It can work. If it’s something you’re interested in, you should pursue it. The opportunity might present itself later.”

Further, Bronwyn encourages artists to engage with the scientific community. “It’s good to foster communication between artists and scientists,” she said. “If you’re a professional artist who is interested in science, there are so many opportunities for working with researchers. They’re always looking for subjects. Keep it in your heart even if you’re not able to do both.”

Keeping it in her heart is just what Bronwyn has done with her one summer at Interlochen. Besides keeping in touch with some of her former cabin mates and fellow dancers, Bronwyn clings to the memories of those summer days when being a scientist takes its toll.

“I thought back to Interlochen so many times when it was hard trying to get through the writing process,” she said.

Understanding the power of dance on a scientific level hasn’t made the joy of dancing any less profound for Bronwyn. “It doesn’t make me feel like less of an artist because I understand,” she said. “Finding out why we dance doesn’t detract from the experience. It just gives me more excuses to dance!”