When hip-hop meets endoplasmic reticulum


doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.52 Published online 22 April 2015

How does a molecule move from one side of a cell to the other? How does DNA vibrate inside the nucleus? How does an organism take shape from an egg?

And what if answers to all of these came to you not through tough biology jargons or serious sounding power point presentations but through the magical movements of a dance form?

BLM dancers demonstrating biological functions through dance

© Dyche R Mullins

An international group of dancers will be descending on Bangalore this week to do just this -- breaking down complex biological processes into simple dance movements and making science as fascinating for non-scientists as it is for scientists.

The idea is simple: what biologists regale seeing under their microscopes, everyone else can, if movements at the cellular level were to zoom out multiple times on a stage as dancers recreate the fluidity and restlessness of the tiny cells and their enigmatic innards.

Starting April 25, a week-long amalgam of science and arts at the National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS) will feature the Black Label Movement (BLM), a dance company headed by Carl Flink from the University of Minnesota. Flink and David Odde from the university’s department of biomedical engineering together put scientists and artists in sync to explain science concepts to the general public through a medium everyone can relate to.

Their initiative is called ‘bodystorming’ where the body, not the brain, takes over. Using human agents, they model biological processes that are usually simulated using computational approach, says scientist-turned-Odishi dancer Aparna Banerjee, head of the science and society department at NCBS.

“The programme builds awareness of science using dance as a tool for science communication and investigation,” Banerjee says.

Dance, Science, Communication

The dancers simulating a cell

© Darius Koester

Flink says dance, science and communication are creative endeavors with different objectives. Yet, each requires imagination and this is where they intersect making a case for dynamic collaborations. “Collaborations between these seemingly odd bedfellows can lead to truly path-breaking research and new perspectives on well-worn pathways,” he says. “The unexpected can happen at these crossroads.”

For Odde, dance and cell functions are related in their movement, aggression and intense group dynamics. “The cell is a violent place, where molecules are moving at hundreds of kilometers per hour. This allows cells to be dynamic, but makes it difficult to maintain order and function. Working with dancers allows us to recreate these opposing aspects – dynamics and order – in a creative and safe manner.”

Odde admits that bodystorming has not led to solutions yet. “It has better defined problems by helping us deconstruct mathematical-computational models.”

Darius Köster, a trained dancer who participated in bodystorming earlier and is a postdoctoral fellow at NCBS now says, “When you see your scientific problem or question from another angle, you start to see elements that are not so obvious, that you didn’t notice earlier. New things open up.”

Peek into a scientist's world 

Depicting cellular processes with dance movements

© Dyche R Mullins

One of the organisers Mukund Thattai of NCBS says it is a novel attempt to reach out to people who don’t have much insight into the world of scientists.

“People see the results, the findings of the scientific enquiry, not the method.  Modern biology is quite complicated. The method is much more unstructured, undefined, much more random. This programme will give people an idea of how science is done on a day-to-day basis,” he explains the rationale.

The programme will have a workshop for 25 chosen professional dancers in Bangalore followed by a joint residency of BLM and 10 Indian dancers at NCBS. This will help the dancers identify scientific aspects of biology that can be interpreted through dance. There will be public presentations and talks through the week to showcase the idea of bodystorming.

Says Sarah Iqbal, the public engagement officer for the event funders Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, “Such public engagement of science needs to be institutionalised, and this is a great step in that direction.”