As a college dance professor I serve as an advisor to many of our dance majors. I cannot even begin to imagine how many times over the years I have heard ‘I hate math’ or something similar from the students. In fact, as a student, I shared this view.
Yet in teaching, performing, and choreographing dance, I have innately understood fractions through the subdivision of a beat in a piece of music or by performing syncopated rhythmic patterns with my body. I have understood geometry in the way that the bodies are organized and moved through the space and in reaction to time. And, inspired by the work of Malke Rosenfeld and her focus on creating a partnership between math and choreography, I have also had the opportunity to explore math concepts as inspiration for movement invention.
Last academic year, I was asked to serve on the committee that would choose the college’s new Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The committee spent many months conducting surveys and holding discussions with various populations on campus about student needs. The result of this research was The Coker College Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP)and the goal that the QEP “would lead to enhanced student learning in the area of quantitative literacy (QL). Implementation of the name Go Figure! Connect with Numbers stresses the importance of numbers in all facets of daily life.”
The Go Figure! QEP has two goals related to student learning:
- To improve students’ mathematical and quantitative skills through revised math courses with strong QL components.
- To incorporate quantitative thinking across the curriculum through the addition of general education and major courses with QL components.
At about the same time in my Dance Composition class, we had begun to explore a list of math concepts created by Malke to see how they could be used in the choreographic process. The idea of manipulating movement in time and space is something that the students do on a daily basis in dance composition and improvisation, but they don’t often realize that the elements that they are manipulating the movement with are also found in mathematical thinking. For this exercise, the students examined Malke’s list of mathematical concepts to begin to think about them in terms of movement invention. The list was organized around three big picture mathematical ideas: relationships, transformations, and rules. More specific concepts included ideas/terms such as dilate, algorithm, compose/decompose, scale, transformation, iteration and others. Short definitions emphasizing the conceptual meaning of each term were provided as well.
For the first exercise I taught students a movement phrase, asked them to choose one of the math terms on Malke’s list, and then use the definition of that term to help them manipulate the movement phrase into a new variation. For example, one student worked with the term ‘decompose’. She felt that the definition of this term (to break apart a group of things in to smaller groups), was very similar to the choreographic device of ‘fragmentation’ (taking a phrase of movement and breaking it apart in to smaller groups and/or putting the phrase back together in a different order).
Another student compared the concept of ‘rondo’ (a musical term referring to the use of a recurring music or movement theme and contrasting themes in the composition) to an algorithm, which is a step by step description of actions that are reused again and again in similar situations.
I had a discussion with one a dance major who is double majoring in math about some of these concepts. We were examining the definition of ‘function’– ‘a process that converts values to other values or finds correspondences between values.’ She felt that this could be used in movement as a way to encourage changing the movement quality. She felt that converted ‘values’ could be manifested in movement as converted ‘qualities’.
In my ballet and modern technique classes, I have been trying to talk more with the students about how I am putting together the phrases that they will learn in class. I want them to understand that I am making choices rhythmically as I create phrase-work for them to learn syncopation so that their bodies get more used to the different accents and subdivisions of the beat. I want them to understand that when they use more rhythmic variety in their own choreography, not only are they accessing their QL skills, but also their work is usually more artistically interesting as a result.
In his book Why Numeracy Matters, quoted in the text of the Coker College QEP, Robert Orrill laments:
For a democracy, this is no low-stakes concern. If numbers are present everywhere in our public discourse, and many are more confused than enlightened by them, what happens to decision making in our society? If we permit this kind of innumeracy to persist, do we not thereby undermine the very ground and being of government of, by, and for the people? (vii.)
As faculty in a more artistic field I believe, we have a responsibility to help to shift our student’s perception of mathematics. If students are made more aware of how math concepts are used regularly in their discipline, we may be able to get them to feel more confident and have a better understanding of the meaning behind the symbolic language of math when they encounter these ideas in mathematical contexts outside of their chosen area of study.
 Orrill, R. (2003). Foreward. In Why numeracy matters. Princeton, NJ: The National Council on Education and the Disciplines. USA.