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Dance professor connects physics to “innate” rhythm

Senior McCormick School of Engineering student Chirag Gupta was used to solving complicated physics problems. Of course, they didn’t usually involve a partner, music, and swing dancing— until he signed up for “Whole Body Engineering,” a new course that’s part of a collaboration between McCormick and the School of Communication.

The three-session seminar, taught by dance professor and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project founder Billy Siegenfeld, paired engineering students together for a crash course in swing dancing. Their task was to calculate weight shifts, balance, and rhythm.

Gupta said the experience gave him a new perspective.

“We joked about the analogies to physics by pointing out the forces at play when pushing, pulling, and spinning partners, but it really goes to show that engineering principles are applied all around us, not just in the labs,” Gupta said.

Since most of the engineering students had never had formal dance training, the students had to first learn to let go of their preconceptions and their inhibitions.

“I’m used to people saying ‘I don’t have rhythm’ or ‘I can’t dance,’’ Siegenfeld said. “But everyone has rhythmic capability. Our whole body is based on rhythmic phenomena. There’s the heartbeat, of course, but the most obvious one for the students taking this class is that they walk, shifting weight from foot to foot. Innately, instinctively, we all have rhythm.”

Siegenfeld said understanding the bonds between the physical and the mental is important for everyone, whether you’re an engineer or a professional performer.

“People who live in their heads need to get into their bodies,” Siegenfeld said. “And people too much in their bodies need to get into their heads. An integrated person is not just an integrated brain. An integrated person is someone who finds out how to use the gifts of the brain but also appreciates where the brain lives, which is in the human body. The body’s main gift is that it’s a wondrous place—a place where a person learns how to enact not only survival-driven skills like eating but pleasurably collaborative skills like learning to hold hands with someone else, feel that person’s body-weight, and dance together in rhythm.”

Joseph Holtgreive, assistant dean of the McCormick School of Engineering, said a course where engineering students dance may seem unusual, but dance allows students to move out of their comfort zone and can help them become more creative problem-solvers.

“In an engineer’s design process, we use brainstorming,” he said. “And the first part of effective brainstorming is getting outside of yourself in order to gain a new perspective. I saw Billy give a lecture, and I was really impressed with how he engaged the audience and got them involved in physical activities and I saw a lot of similarities with the exercises he was doing and with what we were trying to teach with brainstorming.”

Holtgreive said the name of the class, “Whole Body Engineering,” is a play on the concept of “Whole Brain Engineering”—the idea that engineering students need to understand how both the left and right parts of the brain work together so they can use them both in their work to become more effective engineers.

Dancing wasn’t the only way in which engineering students got to explore their right-brain, creative selves. In addition to “Whole Body Engineering,” the School of Communication and McCormick also presented an engineering theatre course, which brought theatre and engineering students together to perform plays about science.

Taught by Dan Moser, who earned his PhD in Performance Studies and now teaches leadership and organizational studies, and Matthew Grayson, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, the course gave each set of students a new perspective. Engineering students learned what went into the production and performance of a play. Theatre students gained a new appreciation for general science and lab work.

The entire class also took a field trip downtown to see Death and the Powers, an opera starring robots, just one example of how science and technology can be used to create art. During the course, students also performed scenes from science-related plays.

“One of our goals is to collaborate with colleagues from across the university in ways that may be an atypical but that offer our students a unique way of looking at themselves,” Holtgreive said.
-Cara Lockwood