Dance Your PhD

street-dancer-1756944_960_720The 11th annual Dance Your PhD contest is now open – closing date 14 January 2019. So if you’re studying for (or already have) a PhD in social science, chemistry, physics or biology, and you’re short of ideas for things to do over the holidays, why not dance your thesis?

I mention this contest in my creative research methods workshops and I’m always surprised by how many people haven’t heard about it. I rather enjoy watching their faces as I say “We’ll be doing interpretive dance this afternoon.” I’m joking, of course, but dance evidently does have a place in communicating science. Like many creative research methods, dance can engage your emotions and so aid retention of the messages conveyed. This also means dance is good for communicating across disciplinary and other boundaries. On the other hand, dance can only convey fairly simple messages, and usually needs to be contextualised through other modes of communication such as speech. Also, it is difficult to render in writing, though there have been valiant attempts such as by the autoethnographer and dancer Karen Barbour who used photographs alongside text to try to convey her experience. But then again, dance is dramatic, visual, entertaining, and memorable. These qualities make it an excellent vehicle for communication in some contexts, as the longevity of the Dance Your PhD contest suggests.

The contest was founded in 2008 by science journalist John Bohannon. In the first year there were 12 contestants; last year there were over 60. The first winner was Brian Stewart, a doctoral student of archaeology at Oxford University in the UK. You can see his winning dance here, and his prize was a one-year subscription to Science magazine. Today the contest is sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Science magazine, and the next winner will receive $1,000 in cash (maybe more if the organisers can find extra sponsorship in time).

John Bohannon has given a TED talk about dance and science in which he says that dance really can make science easier to understand. And this is not a 21st century phenomenon. In 1971, the Department of Chemistry at Stanford University in the US used dance to convey the concept of protein synthesis. This can still be viewed on YouTube (the dance part starts at 3:10 if you want to go straight there) and it’s an interesting glimpse into a bygone era as well as being a quite impressive production.

Dances from the Dance Your PhD contest can also be viewed online: pre-2015 dances on Vimeo and more recent dances on YouTube. If you fancy having a go, you don’t need any dance experience or qualifications; there are tips available to help you. And if you do, please let me know so I can watch your dance!

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