Surprised at the Science Conference

Ask A Biologist Podcast, Vol 111
Podcast Interview with Aidan Feldman and Shawn Brush
danceTactics performers on stage.

Dr. Biology:

This is Ask A Biologist, a program about the living world. And I'm Dr. Biology. For today's episode, we are continuing our series of shows recorded at the annual research conference for the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, often called SICB. We were invited by the Spatial-temporal Dynamics in Animal Communication Group. Oh yes, I know scientists love long titles. It is that last group that invited us to set up our remote studio so we could catch up with some of their scientists, as well as a few unexpected guests like the two we have in this episode. Now, let's go to the conference and you'll see what I mean.

[Conference sounds, and people talking in the background. Do you guys do the choreography? Who choreographs? This is our choreographer...]

You might not expect a dance performance to break out at a science conference, but that's exactly what is happening. The origin of the science and art collaborative is something we'll talk about in a future podcast. I will say that the collaborative was born out of the creative thinking between a group of SICB scientists and Keith Thompson, the artistic director of danceTactics and an associate professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theater at Arizona State University. danceTactics is a performance group. And while it might seem out of place to have several dance performances at a science conference, when you consider that many of the scientists at this conference focus their research on communication and movement, it all starts to make sense. 

For this show, we've been fortunate to grab some time with two of the performers, Shawn Brush is a dancer and choreographer from New York City. He's performed with many dance groups as well as danceTactics. We also have Aiden Feldman, who is a computer coder by day and dancer by night. But come to think about it, the coders I know, he probably does a lot of coding at night. And dance, well, dance can be both daytime and nighttime. For today, I'm just pleased that the two were able and willing to be on Ask A Biologist. I also predict it will be interesting to learn more about their work and how science and art are better described as kindred spirits than two different worlds. Welcome to Ask A Biologist, Aiden.

Aidan:

Appreciate it. Excited to be here.

Dr. Biology:

And thank you for being on the show, Shawn.

Shawn:

Yeah, thanks for having us. 

Dr. Biology:

OK. This is one of those wonderful podcasts because if you tune in, you're thinking, OK, it's the living world. He goes off and he talks to scientists, and we learn about organisms out there and we've gone to a conference and we're going to learn about some cool things that are going on there. What's amazing is we have something even more unexpected, and that's a dance performance. And I just got to see it this morning. The first of two, this is really…

Shawn:

Three.

Dr. Biology:

First of three?

Shawn:

First of three.

Dr. Biology:

First of three. Oh, I sit corrected. I'm not standing. [laughter] So the first of three, let's talk a little bit about this. And let's, I guess let's start at the beginning. How did it come to be that we have dance performances at a scientific meeting?

Shawn:

So, I think Keith was approached by I believe it was Nate [Moorehouse] who wanted to organize some sort of opportunity to incorporate art and science and find that kind of fold there. And we took two excerpts from two existing pieces and then generated a new piece, especially for this conference, with the idea that maybe we could get a different kind of audience to put eyes on this work and maybe analyze it the way they might analyze animals in the wild or other kinds of things they might study here.

Dr. Biology:

Right? It might sound a little far-fetched because we have dance, but we are talking about robotics and we're talking about communications. That's not far-fetched at all. Aidan, what do you think about this? I mean, have you done a dance performance at a scientific conference?

Aidan:

You know, I actually have [laughter] so my other life's in technology. And speaking at a couple of conferences, I kind of take an opportunity to have a little fun with it. So, I've danced at a performance as part of a presentation I have rapped at a performance as part of a presentation. I've done poetry, adapted to talking about software. So, yeah, I actually enjoy bringing in arts and performances into conferences that those wouldn't normally be present in, which is a lot of fun.

Dr. Biology:

Right. It's curious, we say that now. Aidan, the interesting backstory on you is coder by day, dancer by night, and I'm not going to make you pick well, maybe I will make you pick later on because there are some questions, I always ask them. [laughter] So I might have you do some picking, but how does that work out?

Aidan:

Yeah. So, growing up, I was a kid that was always into Legos and building things and math and all that. And simultaneously, you know, for summer camps and things like that would do musical theater. And that turned into double majoring in both computer science and dance at the University of Michigan and have continued both since. So, I have found a way to both have a very rich life in terms of working in the tech world and then also being part of dance companies like danceTactics, which is the one we're here performing with, as well as other groups.

Dr. Biology:

Sean, what about you? I mean, what's your balance? I come from the arts.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

Some people will know that to my undergraduate degrees in fine arts. So, I'm a painter and a sculptor. And I always say I was - Depends on if I'm in a science audience. I say I was enticed to the science side and if I'm in the arts, I would say I went to the dark side. [laughter] Just teasing on that. So, the end result is it's one of those things that we often can't make a living out of the performing arts or the arts. So, most of us have two gigs. Do you have two gigs?

Shawn:

I have more than two games. Recently, I've been able to strike kind of another 50/50 balance outside of performing with danceTactics. I'm also with another dance company, Falcon Dance, and have been a guest artist on a couple of other projects here and there. Actually, another project with the dance exchange in Washington, D.C. is another project that we're doing that's partnering with scientists at FRIB at Michigan State University. So, kind of another cool opportunity to mix science and art. 

Beyond that, I've also been a dance educator and I've been part of a program called Dance to Learn where I would bring about a 16-week class set to public schools in New Jersey, working on creative movement with second graders, third graders, fourth graders. But beyond that, just kind of the less glamorous jobs of tutoring and cater waitering to make the rent in Brooklyn.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah, that's not an easy thing to do in itself. Let me ask, and it'll be for both of you. But I'll start with you, Shawn.

Shawn:

Sure. 

Dr. Biology:

There has to be a passion, right? Scientists are passionate. That's all there is to it. It's not that every day we love doing math. Well, actually, I have to take that back. There are a lot of people that really love doing math. Some of us use math as a tool, and that's the part of math I love. So, with your dance, there's a passion that's keeping you in this - keeping you doing it. So, what's this passion?

Shawn:

Hmm. I think it is. That's a good question. It's also a question that I've had to think a lot about in the last two years as well. I went to university for dance and kind of like Aidan, and I grew up dancing and actually didn't declare a dance major until my second semester there. I went to a university where I knew they had a dance program but didn't know if I wanted to, like, take that plunge and make a career out of it. But I took a course with the director of the dance department there, who kind of noticed that I had a background in dance and asked me to join the dance department. 

And that was kind of the push I needed, which is actually where I ended up meeting Keith Thompson, the director of danceTactics. So, I think it speaks to kind of what we're trying to do here today, as well as is using art and especially dance as a form of communication. I think that's what brings me back to it is that no matter what your subject matter is, or you know where you're performing. I think that good art and good dance has a way of opening many windows for many different kinds of people to enter the work. So, I think that using art as a form of communication is what keeps me in it.

Dr. Biology:

Okay.

Aidan:

Just to jump off of that story a little bit, I noticed, you know, talking about the head of the dance department who kind of pulled you in and it was not too different for me. There was high school before that. But, you know, I had a friend that kind of challenged me. Well, if you're going to be serious about dance, you need to like, really take classes, and get serious about it and that kind of thing. 

And then at the first dance school I went to the head of that program, you know, kind of took me under their wing and, you know, would give me a job, as you know, the kind of assistant teacher for little kids. And you know what encouraged me to take all these classes and things. So, I just notice the connection there between, like, kind of having mentors and people that are like pushing or pulling, pulling you into this

Shawn:

Yeah, there's that cliff that you need. Like that extra little push?

Aidan:

Yeah, but it's cool that.

Shawn:

It's very cool.

Aidan:

It's cool that there's people that, you know, shape your kind of life that early and so pivotally.

Dr. Biology:

Yes. And, you know, the mentorship both in the sciences and the arts are so critical and anybody out there can be a mentor. Please do. Shawn, you were mentioning the link, and in particular when you mentioned dance as a form of communication. And I was reflecting on your performance. Now granted, I was distracted because this audience doesn't know, but we're experimenting with some VR technology. So, I was a little bit distracted. But one of the things and maybe it's nice that I was doing the VR as I want to see the performance again because it was communicating so much. With really an elegant set of moves and dance that I actually want to go back to it and reflect on it.  

So, one of those things is what does it take to ensure that the audience actually grasp what you're doing and is that really important? Maybe it's just experiencing it is good enough. What's the feeling on that?

Shawn:

I think it starts with. Assuming that if someone is watching, they will be engaged with it, and so it's the responsibility of having enough there for them to chew on and trusting that they will take something from it themselves. I am more drawn to dance that doesn't necessarily tell you what it's saying but offers you ideas and structures and allows you to question them and with the hopes of wanting to see it again. 

I think what's really special about the work that we do with danceTactics, which it's something that I attribute to Keith a lot, is that there's always a little bit more that he finds in the movement. So, you might think you have the skeleton of it, you might think you have everything to it. And then there's always like one little screw that he can turn a little bit tighter and make a little bit make a little denser. I think that the work that we do with danceTactics is incredibly dense.

Dr. Biology:

So, when I was watching the performance, I couldn't help it, but the scientist comes out in me. And when you were doing some of the moves and the lifts, you make it look easy. But the reality is it's not. And there's mechanics behind that. And when we were talking about robotics as being part of this conference, can we talk a little bit about the basics of the mechanics behind dance that makes these moves possible?

Aidan:

Yeah, it's one of those things where there's certainly a lot going on. But first of all, we train and practice a lot during those specific movements and then train a lot in general just to, you know, be comfortable with our balance and have strength and that kind of thing. But beneath all that there is an intuitive knowledge of how to move that, you know, how to walk, and you don't think about it. You know how to make toast and you don't think about it. There's a lot going on biologically and mechanically and all of that for those things to happen, but they've become sort of integrated to where you're able to do them subconsciously.

Dr. Biology:

I guess what I'm thinking is I put myself in your shoes or and you weren't wearing shoes [laughter] on your feet and I'm trying to think of. I can't imagine lifting another person over my head. That's part of the mechanics that gets me. And I was wondering if there's work in that. I mean, it's part of the tradition and you train, but I'm trying to get back to the science is there any anyone that spending any time thinking about that and in the way it works?

Shawn:

Maybe not necessarily in scientific terms, but we do talk a lot about the levers that are in a body and things like that. So, I think we spend a lot of time and I guess it's also kind of gets back to the idea of science is that we talk about it a lot in rehearsal as research as well. Maybe not necessarily to an empirical end, but in a way to create better efficiency, which I'm assuming goes back to robotics as well. 

So, for example, the first lift that we do in the piece, I basically have to get Aidan from my side and then I have, like, a downward motion where I get his way directly over my hips and shoulders. And once that everything gets aligned, then I can drive down to get him up in the air and keep him there. So, there is a lot of those firing synapses that kind of make those, I guess you could call them calculations pretty quickly.

Dr. Biology:

And to Aiden's point is you trained for it. So, then it becomes second nature.

Aidan:

Exactly. And there's experimentation. Again, it's not quite the, you know, we're not measuring it quantitatively in that kind of thing, but we'll try it once and say, OK, we sort of fell backwards. That means we need to compensate in this way or OK when you change your rotation of your body, that makes it easier and that kind of thing. So, there is a trial and error, even if it's not to the same extent of measurement and that kind of thing that you do in a lab. When we're dancing, we're trying things or.

Shawn:

Calibrating and calibrating.

Aidan:

All the time. Yeah.

Dr. Biology:

We've been talking a lot about the dance, but we really haven't talked about the dance, the origin of the dance. Where it came from. Who would like to start with that?

Shawn:

I think I could take that. What we did today was a short excerpt from a piece called Love Alone that we choreographed back in. I believe Keith started it back in 2016, and it's based on a book by the poet Paul Monette or Monette. I'm blanking on, which is the correct pronunciation at the moment, but it was written in the eighties during the AIDS epidemic, when his partner had died of AIDS, and he wrote these 18 elegies. So, the book is called [Love Alone] Eighteen Elegies for Rog and Keith kind of took that as a basis for unpacking all those feelings from such a tumultuous time, and we took the first two poems and use the structure of the poetry and the language kind of as a score to create this piece.

Dr. Biology:

Did you pick this performance for this conference for a reason?

Aidan:

That would be a question for Keith, actually. I don't know what I was going to say on top of you, Shawn was. You know, there was an earlier question about how much the audience is supposed to understand about what they're seeing. And there are some pieces that are more explicit. You know, maybe they'll have a voiceover or narration or something, or they'll have a program that, you know, gives a title that's very, you know, obvious in terms of the content or description of that kind of thing. In this case, the excerpts we did today was just to music. 

But other parts of this duet do have a reading of that poem or at least parts of that poem. And so that would be a little more explicit. But even not necessarily knowing that it was coming from this Aides epidemic I think the important thing was getting across like the feeling the dynamic between the two of them.

Shawn:

A relationship.

Aidan:

Exactly. And so, the movement by itself, you don't really need to know the explicit context, but hopefully, that comes across.

Dr. Biology:

Right. My interpretation was I could see a tension at times. And then there was a point towards the end where it seemed like there was obviously discord, but then it seemed as if maybe there was resolution of...

Shawn:

Resolve.

Dr. Biology:

Right. And when we're talking about this performance, we're talking about less than five minutes. It was very quick piece. It's on the first day of the conference and a lot of people are flying in, so it's not packed. But it was amazing how many people are there to come and see this. And when I say amazing, we're talking about the scientists that came to talk about their work, but they want to come see this dance. 

Well, one of the things that's always been problematic and a bit unresolved is the fact that we have a tendency to separate. We actually say science and art. There isn't a word it describes both of them in just one word. And so, we have a tendency to think of them as two worlds. And the reality is they're not the very least they're symbiotic at the very most. my feeling is that they basically do exist. one with the other. The only difference is typically the output, the product that is created in the end. And I say that because there isn't a scientist out there that's successful, that isn't creative and there isn't an artist out there that's going to be successful, that isn't creative. 

And so, one of my questions from the perspective of the dancers the performing artist is. How do you relate to science and how is that part of your life? And I'll I'll let Shawn think about it for a moment, Aiden, because you do coding? I'm always curious, how does that impact both of your outlets?

Aidan:

Yeah, I was thinking about this coming into the interview. You know, I was anticipating a question of like, well, what's your crossover between the two? And while you know, practically they're kind of two separate worlds for me, you know, I have a day job doing technology, writing code and doing more management and that kind of thing, but working around technology. And then this other life rehearsing and dance projects, things like that. I was thinking about the crossover, and I was realizing that there's a lot of problem-solving that goes into both. 

As you said, the outputs are very different. Are you trying to get a quantitative measurement out and come to some explicit conclusion or with a performance or a piece of art, you're trying to produce an artifact of some sort? But your intention is to convey a feeling often or that kind of thing. So, the problem it's really like in the making of each you're doing problem-solving. So, we talked about doing lifting and that kind of thing while, OK, the lifting isn't working. Coming from this direction or without more speed or that kind of thing, and so there's trial and error there, of course, with coding, there's endless problem solving of, you know, I tried to write it this way and it maybe works in this situation but doesn't cover this edge case and that kind of thing. So, both involve trial and error. And that's one big connection I see.

Dr. Biology:

Right? And the ability to make mistakes. How about you, Shawn?

Shawn:

I think it's the excitement of asking questions. I think that all - maybe this is a generalization, but maybe you could say that dances, all works of art, start with a question or something that you're trying to discover. Same thing with science. And while, like Aidan said, they go about it two different ways or the product might be something different, I think there's a curiosity about learning something about the world, whether that's the natural world, the physical world, the social world. I think that, yeah, I think the curiosity, the discovery that asking a question is, is where I see them overlap.

Dr. Biology:

Perfect. Now, none of my guests get out of this program without answering three questions

Shawn:

Ah oh.

Dr. Biology:

Aidan: is nodding his head because he's listened to this program. So, you've got a head start. Shawn gets to do this cold. I'm modifying it a little bit. In this case, we'll focus on the world of dance. I've always wondered when and when I ask my scientists, is there an aha moment when you knew you're going to be a scientist? Is there an aha moment when you knew that? Yeah, I'm a dancer. I'm always going to be a dancer.

Shawn:

Hmm. I think going back to our similar stories before about that part of that one semester at school where we got that little push to join the dance program, I would say even at that point, I kind of maybe stepped a little tentatively into it. But then there were two pieces at school that kind of pushed me into the direction of saying, OK, this is exactly what I want to do. 

And one of those is a piece by choreographer Laura Peterson called Atomic Orbital. So, actually another piece associated with science. And especially, I mean, I grew up reading a lot of Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. I'm more interested, I think, in the physics side of science, which maybe kind of brought me here as well. But I think the abstraction and the connection to something that wasn't maybe purely artistic, I think, was the moment that I was like, OK, yeah, this clicks. This makes sense.

Dr. Biology:

Right. Aiden, how about you?

Aidan:

Yeah. I grew up with parents who had arts backgrounds, and so it was actually me doing engineering that was sort of the anomaly that my parents didn't really understand. [laughter] And, you know, they're supportive and all that. So, you know, they had me in arts programs and things growing up. But the real moment the real turning point was that friend I alluded to when I was doing these camps and things, it was sort of dancing, but casually. And she really laid it down of like, you're never going to do it professionally. You don't like, take it seriously enough. I was kind of offended by that at the time, but it prompted me to be like, oh yeah, I'll show you and signed up for nine classes a week and never really stopped since then. So that was really a pivotal moment of, OK, this is a thing that takes dedication and real investment of time, and so kicked it off.

Dr. Biology:

So, the next question is where I get cruel. I'm taking it all the way a.

Shawn:

Oh, boy.

Dr. Biology:

And you have multiple careers. I'm taking away coding and I'm taking away your dance. And I do this because I always wonder, you know, there's times when people fantasize about being able to be someone or be able to do something that maybe they don't have the time or the, you know, the actual inclination some ways. But there's that little hidden passion. What would you be or what would you do if you weren't a coder and a dancer?

Aidan:

A bike mechanic? So, love building things, as I mentioned, and there's just something really satisfying about, you know, having this mechanical machine in front of you and being able to swap a part or tighten a cable or that kind of thing. And it works and, you know, gives people freedom and exercise. And, you know, it's a lot of joy that comes from that. So...

Dr. Biology:

Yeah. Wow. Do you do a lot of bicycling?

Aidan:

Yeah, I uh, you know, just for fun. But yeah, I enjoy.

Shawn:

He has three bikes. [laughter]

Aidan:

And repair and repair all of the bikes.

Dr. Biology:

Sean, does he repair your bikes?

Shawn:

No. But actually, I should have him take a look at it.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah, yeah, OK.

Aidan:

This might be the other other career.

Shawn:

Other other other.

Dr. Biology:

All right, Sean. You know it's going to happen. I'm taking it all away.

Shawn:

Oh boy.

Dr. Biology:

What are you going to be?

Shawn:

I don't know if I would necessarily want the responsibility of running a restaurant, but I think maybe a chef. Love cooking. Love cooking. It's my favorite way to end the days is to make a big meal. You know, takes me hour to sometimes if need be, but I love food.

Shawn:

I love indulging in food and being able to have hands-on it and learn the process and experiment and things like that, and then have a delicious meal to reward yourself at the end of it. So, yeah, maybe chef.

Dr. Biology:

Yeah. Being able to eat your experiments is definitely a plus, [laughter] and I have to say we've had others, that are either - are chefs are bakers on the show. Food scientist really is science again, right? A really good chef knows how to work with ingredients that you would never think about putting together to come up with something.

Dr. Biology:

I think that's great. All right. The last question, you'll be able to relax here in a little bit. What advice would you have for someone who wants to become a dancer?

Shawn:

Don't. [laughter] I think one thing that I learned very quickly was to. And this could actually apply to just about anything but to define what success in that looks like to you. I think that especially in a field where you are constantly presenting yourself and you are constantly and sometimes in competition and things like that, I think. Circling back to what success as a dancer looks like to you and to surround yourself with people that share that vision of success and hopefully find a mentor out of that as well? Yeah, I think that often we as dancers get stuck in, you know, all I have to be in a touring company that rehearses six hours a day, you know, four times a week and things like that. But yeah, I think defining success for yourself is tough but important.

Dr. Biology:

Aden, how do you follow that up?

Aidan:

Yeah, kind of similar and I guess jumping off of it, obviously, I have these two parallel lives and then outside interests like bikes and that kind of thing. And so. I would say that in dance or performing arts or really any like career you want to go into. Know that it will take hard work, but that doesn't mean you have to be myopic about it. You don't have to only do that thing. And actually, the people in those fields that are more interesting and make work, that's a little more creative and well-rounded and pulls in, you know, different topics in that kind of thing are people that have experience in different areas. 

And then just practically of it's hard to be a full-time dancer. Even if you're good, it's hard to find that work. And so, you're going to have to do something else on the side. And so, it might as well be something you enjoy doing. And so, yeah, having multiple interests and figuring out if you want to make those for money or just do them for fun, but don't think that you just have to pick that one thing.

Dr. Biology:

Excellent advice from both of you. Well, thank you, Shawn.

Shawn:

Thank you.

Dr. Biology:

And Aiden.

Aidan:

Thank you for having us.

Dr. Biology:

You've been listening to Ask A Biologist. My guests have been dancer and choreographer Shawn Brush and computer coder and dancer Aiden Feldman from the performing arts group danceTactics. If you'd like to know more about the group, we will include a link to the danceTactics website in the show notes and transcript. 

The Ask A Biologist podcast is usually produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grassroots Studio housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is an academic unit of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. But for this show, we're at the annual research conference for the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology. 

And remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is askabiologist.asu.edu, or you can just Google the words, Ask A Biologist. As always, I'm Dr. Biology, and I hope you're staying safe and healthy.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Surprised at the Science Conference
  • Episode number: 111
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: February 9, 2022
  • Date accessed: May 16, 2022
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/science-conference-surprise

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2022, February 09). Surprised at the Science Conference (111) [Audio podcast Episode.] In Ask A Biologist Podcast. Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/science-conference-surprise

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "Surprised at the Science Conference." Produced by Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. Ask A Biologist Podcast. February 9, 2022. Podcast, MP3 audio. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/science-conference-surprise.

MLA Style

"Surprised at the Science Conference." Ask A Biologist Podcast from Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist, 09 February, 2022, askabiologist.asu.edu/listen-watch/science-conference-surprise.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Shawn Brush lifting Aidan Feldman over his head during the dance performace.
The geometry that is part of dance reveals itself with this lift that Shawn Brush does with Aidan Feldman during the dance performance. The short piece is from a longer dance work based on the book, Love Alone - Eighteen Elegies for Rag by Paul Monette.

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