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What Scientists Can Learn From Ballet

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Let's first establish that dance and science are not so alien disciplines as one may think. As a ballerina and scientist, I've experienced many commonalities. Dr. Root-Bernstein (who co-authored this article) also gathered a wealth of data on the topic.

Scientists attending a dance performance will undoubtedly relate to the physicality and geometry of dance. The movement through time, the geometry of interactions, the symmetry of the lines, the balance of the bodies. All these have parallels in the physical interactions that occur in every science, from astronomy and physics, to chemistry and biology.

As professionals, dancers and scientists also exhibit many common qualities. Both share a desire for challenges, an ethic of hard work, a drive to transcend limits, and the perseverance to see projects through despite setbacks - and sometimes literally pain. Both put in the ten thousand hours required to master their skills, and make progress through perspiration and iterations; rewarded by occasional bursts of inspiration. Dancers practice the same steps over and over; the same way passionate scientists relentlessly repeat and tweak experiments until they yield the results they thrive to achieve.

1. Learning From Other Disciplines

Everyone who studied the creative process across disciplines agrees that it is virtually identical, despite real differences in materials and goals. Studies also show that scientists with creative avocations are often more successful than those without. We believe it's because they are able to apprehend problems with greater breadth, simultaneously linking intuitive and subjective ways of feeling, with objective and communicable ways of knowing.

Many breakthrough discoveries also resulted from scientists seeing links between their profession and other fields. Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance polymaths are prime illustrations. C. H. Waddington, a celebrated embryologist, was a dancer. He linked his work to the unfolding of a set of dance instructions, causing him to rethink embryology as a process rather than a mechanism, and resulting in a novel approach.

2. Learning Empathy

Empathy is a key skill for innovators. Scientists need to empathize with their materials, and immerse themselves into the problems they seek to illuminate. Einstein visualized travelling astride a speeding light beam, and pondered what the world would look like if he traveled at the velocity of light. Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock imagined being the genes of the corn plants she studied, even claiming to become their "friend".

Dancers are masters of empathy. Ever since antiquity dancers have been great translators and purveyors of emotions and meaning. They inhabit music, characters, objects, and give life to them in front of our mesmerized eyes. We can learn from them. MacArthur Fellow John Cairns generated valuable insights about bacterial processes by dancing his experiments.

3. Learning Teamwork

Dancing is inherently collaborative. As children we learn to dance with others. We practice exercises in teams and in rhythm. Some of us get the pleasure to participate in performances and/or learn to dance pas de deux. Through these experiences, we assimilate the importance of being attuned to others, and surrendering to the harmony of the whole.

Scientists also advance their research through collaborations. Jim Watson and Francis Crick worked together to discover the DNA double helix. The resulting human genome project mobilized hundreds of people working in concert to crack the nature of human genes.

Learning teamwork in dance can help us work more effectively with others.

4. Learning to Transcend Limits

Dancers have a special attitude towards success. If you ask the world's best dancers if they are as good as they could be, they will undoubtedly say no.

As a young girl, my dance teacher used to say that every day we go to class to do better than yesterday - no matter our level (or how bad we feel that day). If we don't progress, we regress. We learn that our foremost competitor is ourselves. It is not good enough to be better than others. Peter Sims, best-selling author of Little Bets, calls it healthy perfectionism, a key ingredient for successful innovators.

Steve Jobs once said: "Most entrepreneurs get the product 90% right and feel satisfied. Great entrepreneurs, like great artists, push for the final 10% that makes all the difference." Every scientist would agree.

Conclusion

There's much more that dance and science share, and we plan to explore the topic in greater depth, but for the moment we just want to conclude by suggesting that next time a dancer meets a scientist or a scientist watches a dancer, instead of focusing on the differences, search for similarities (or better learn to dance). Dancers and scientists do share a common creative process, the mastery of complex skills, a drive to transcend limits, and a desire to excel. We can learn from each other!

This article is a collaboration with Dr. Robert Root-Bernstein, Professor of Physiology at Michigan State University.