Published June 24, 2022
Abigail Tweedale’s group embodied the genetic information that’s in charge of the development and function of living organisms. They danced as if they were one, instead of parts of a whole, to “We’re All in This Together” from “High School Musical.”
“You’re dancing and I’m killing Keira,” Tweedale said as she directed the others during their recent rehearsal in 190 Alumni Arena.
Suddenly, Tweedale — a lone cell — was the focus of the performance. She turned around and Keira Olsen lay motionless on the floor. The other members of the group shuffled to Olsen’s side and dragged her “dead” body out of sight. Death is a common topic of conversation in this class about cells.
Dancing DNA: Embodying the Human Genome (DAC199) explores the commonalities between movements that occur at the molecular level in DNA and movements that exist in the whole body while experiencing and creating dance. The class is the brainchild of Jennifer Surtees, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry, and Anne Burnidge, associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, who aimed to use their diverse intellectual backgrounds in STEM and dance to increase scientific accessibility among students.
Surtees and Burnidge wanted to offer a creative course focusing on genomic literacy and the practical elements of dance. They integrated STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) learning into a first-year seminar in a way that builds community. The students in Dancing DNA represent the complex lives of cells in a dance number demonstrating the intricacies of cellular function. It’s as if they’ve brought an off-Broadway musical to UB.
“Jennifer and I thought it would be a great way to get arts and humanities students who wouldn’t normally enroll in a science class,” Burnidge said, “as well as STEM students who wouldn’t normally enroll in a dance class, together in the same room, learning with and from each other.”
Under the guidance of their professors, students learn different movements that represent scientific concepts while developing into better dancers. It allows them to experience the lesson in a three-dimensional space, rather than viewing the elements on paper.
Mikenna Bishop choreographed a complex interpretive dance that represented leukemia, where she played the role of a healthy cell and the rest of her group acted as the abnormal white blood cells in bone marrow. She chose leukemia because her mother had the disease.
“It’s important for first-year students to think more broadly about the ways they are learning, and Dancing DNA exposes them to new ways of developing knowledge,” Burnidge explained. “Exploring this in a course that blends the theoretical with experiential across two different fields allows students to see a bigger picture that is less about silos of knowledge and more about the integrated nature of learning.”
The class has something to offer to all kinds of students: science-oriented, artistic or humanities-based, and those who do not identify with either sphere. They will be able to further develop their skills and knowledge without a predetermined expectation of proficiency. The exposure to creative ways of learning will deepen their knowledge of scientific concepts and artistic skills, Surtees and Burnidge said.
Before developing Dancing DNA, Burnidge had the opportunity to interpret the interdisciplinary concept as an interactive, dance installation at the Buffalo Museum of Science, sponsored by the Genome, Environment and Microbiome (GEM) Community of Excellence.
“Just to give you an idea, the titles of the dance installations were “Balance,” “Yogurt Dance,” “I like your microbiome,” “Wander Dawdle — a dance about the gut microbiome,” “Bacteria Balls,” “Wild Fermentation” and “Dirt,” Burnidge said.
The art exhibit took three years to develop. Burnidge’s collaborative project was comprised of choreography, songs, film and poems that used embodied research methods to explore and communicate concepts related to the human microbiome. Some of the themes included antibacterial resistance, pre- and pro-biotics, interactions of gut microbes, and the impact of the microbes in our physical environment on individual and public health.
Back at the Dancing DNA presentation, Brady Lock had to meet his untimely demise as a cell to end his group presentation. He glanced around the room and found that he was the last one standing. He looked up at the ceiling in despair and weakly reached up, before falling to his knees and fully collapsing.
An unfortunate fact of life, especially for a chromosome.