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Can you teach astrophysics through dance? Academics and dancers in Manchester have been giving it a go. And tackling gender inequalities to boot, says Deb Ashby.

Photo of girls dancing
Rowan Smith with the Stellarium dancers

During Manchester’s year as European City of Science 2016, the opportunity opened up for Dance Manchester, the dance development organisation for Greater Manchester, to collaborate with the Science & Engineering Education Research and Innovation Hub (SEERIH) of the University of Manchester.

Initially, a conversation I had with Lynne Bianchi, Director of SEERIH, focused on getting some dance into the Great Primary Science Share, an event held at Manchester Town Hall in July. This led to Stellarium – a youth dance performance with the purpose of communicating contemporary astrophysics through contemporary dance. 

We inevitably collaborate with university dance departments, but this project has opened up the potential for partnerships with different academic fields

We developed a mutually beneficial relationship with SEERIH and the University of Manchester, contributing finances and staff time, but additionally we each gained access to new expertise, contexts and audiences. The choreographer was guided by the expert knowledge of the astrophysicists, who ensured the science was conveyed accurately.

Over 200 primary school children saw Stellarium at the Great Primary Science Share and then secondary school students saw it at the Great Science Share Takeover at the Museum of Science and Industry. It was also performed at outdoor community events, including Manchester Day organised by Walk the Plank, and as part of Signatures Youth Dance Trail, a project with the Lowry, presented as part of UDance, the national youth dance festival. This gave us all the opportunity to profile a genre with new organisations, teachers, students and audiences.

Female leaders

Both the dance and science sectors have issues around a limited profile for women in their respective fields. There are differences in that creative dance as a non-competitive activity traditionally attracts more women to participate, whereas the science sector has issues with attracting women into the field in the first place, starting in education.

Therefore, it was important that Stellarium was led by an all-female team, bringing together a female choreographer alongside three female astrophysicists, arising from a partnership started by two female leaders. Dance therefore has the potential to contribute positively to attracting more young women into science, as well as communicating the equal value of both subject areas in schools.

Moving Space sessions

Dance Manchester is now piloting Moving Space, a Stellarium spin-off, providing other schools and colleges with the opportunity to supplement the existing curriculum with this kinaesthetic approach to learning.

So far three colleges have booked sessions and engagement has been with dance students, but has also included sessions for science students, part-resourced by science department budgets. This suggests the potential for additional resourcing options for cultural delivery in schools as budgets and choice become squeezed by the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

Communicating science

Stellarium focused on creating a performance by secondary schools students, performed to primary school students and others. We used dance as a vehicle to communicate science, but future collaborations may look more closely at how scientific and dance experimentation are similar and also different, while expanding the reach to primary school children.

Lynne Bianchi said: “What we’ve realised through this experience is that scientists and artists work in very similar ways – we all experiment, we all play with ideas, we all push the boundaries a little bit and we all need to communicate.”

We would like to broaden the range of science areas explored through dance. Plans are being refined through our own exploration with the university, before seeking funds to support more extensive field research to provide evidence of the impact.

As a dance organisation, we inevitably collaborate with university dance departments, but this project has opened up the potential for partnerships with different academic fields. Fundamentally, creativity underpins successful work in both fields.

Opportunities for future generations

Both partners believe their own subject areas are of innate value. However, through collaboration perhaps we can instil an understanding of their similarities, complementary nature and equality, so that opportunities for future generations are not limited by an unsubstantiated educational hierarchy.

Deb Ashby is Director of Dance Manchester.
Tw: @ManchesterDance, @Debsashby

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Photo of Deb Ashby