Modern dance inspired by science

There's a couple of very cool things going on with this dance routine. First off, it's based on the principles of fluid dynamics—physical laws that predict the movement of liquids and gases.*

Second, the dance you're watching was recorded live. That means all the nifty "70s Sesame Street"-style tracer effects on dancer Hope Goldman's body, and the visual elements tracked to her movements, weren't added in later. Instead, Goldman and visual artist/programmer Andrew Moffat used "infrared lighting and a custom-modded, $40 webcam along with custom software running on the GPU."

This dance was Goldman's master's thesis for her program at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Great work!

*Awesome fact that I always forget isn't necessarily common knowledge: The gases that make up Earth's atmosphere and the air you breathe are fluidsbehave like liquids. So fluid dynamics doesn't just affect things like oil running through a pipeline—it also governs how hot air from your furnace flows through your house, and how weather patterns move around the globe. (Screwed up the wording there at first, with my layperson's tendency to get "fluid" and "liquid" mixed up. Sorry about that.)

(Via Ferris Jabr)


  1. Gases don’t behave like liquids – they expand to fill their container, and change in density very easily. Both are different types of fluids.

  2. I am far from a fan of modern dance, but I really, really liked this. However, I did not like the atonal music being used. Atonal stuff always throws me back to Composition III at college, where I secretly thought that atonal music was nothing more than three year olds banging on a piano.

  3. With all the negative criticism of the soundtrack I felt compelled to comment that the music is my favorite part of the piece.

  4. I feel like this piece is a lot more about the visuals than about the dancer and showcasing her talent. As a senior thesis the focus should have been on the dancer herself and what she learned rather than fancy visuals and the talent of her lighting/projection designer.

    1. Depends on whether the thesis being defended was about dance or about the fluid dynamics model and/or the interaction technique. If the latter, this *does* demonstrate what she learned.

    2. I agree. I’m a ballet dancer who has a lot of modern dance training, and from my perspective the concept and lighting were ridiculously awesome, but the movement seemed a little… lacking. I think there was a lot of potential for more interesting choreography that went unfulfilled because the piece could rely on the technology to look good. On another note, I’m still very happy to see a dance-related post! The more the better ;D

  5. It is not an atonal piece. There is clearly a tone-centered minor chord progression underneath the weird noises. Atonal implies no key center. Non-composers/non-musicians use the term atonal as a description of dissonant “climates.” It fits the latter description.

    1. Granted it isn’t atonal. However, even though I like “new music” — or perhaps because I do — I am unsatisfied with this sound track for this piece. You don’t need melody, or rhythm, or chord progressions, or the constraints of a 12-tone bar… but there has to be *SOME* structure that permits creating and then creatively breaking expectations. And I really was unable to find any strong connection between the audio and what was happening physically or visually, which again means that the interplay with the viewer’s expectations is weak to nonexistent.

      One can be angular and still be interesting. This really struck me as someone trying too hard to hit the former and losing the latter. Good programming, good concept… but the failure to actually integrate the audio into the performance or vice versa is a demerit as far as I’m concerned.

      It’d really like to like it more than I do.

      1. Good points. I didn’t even think about the connection between the motion and the music.

  6. I like the dance, the fluid dynamics, and the music! They work together beautifully. A less aggressive soundtrack would make the whole piece seem a little fluffy and lightweight to me.

    It does sound like the music was recorded badly, with an amount of distortion that makes it hard to hear the notes. It must have been wonderful to hear it live.

    1. The sound track reminded me of Amon Tobin’s style. Especially the growling bits. I agree there is some wicked clipping or something similar going on. Would love to hear/see a high quality version.

  7. Pretty cool but it would have been way more effective if she learned isolation and used that to more properly express the nature of water. The styles of waving and liquid already go very far in mimicking the motion of waves, tides, streams, eddies, etc. There seems to be a lack of definition in her dance that is made up for by visual effects. Seems almost more like an a/v project than a dance thesis…

  8. I liked the visuals (the whole look of it) and the music.

    I agree with those who thought that the dance itself was a little lacking. I felt that there was very little about it that suggested “fluid” (although this contrast may have been part of the point), and that the dance was very focused on the arms. I would have loved to see more body movement and more playing at different levels — at a couple points she brought her hands to the floor and a leg up, but it was pretty rare.

    That said, I am not a dance professor, and, anyway, I thought that whole thing was very cool. I especially loved the second half, where she was a black, ill-defined figure in front of the flowing whiteness. I thought that was really cool and beautiful.

  9. As long is we’re offering opinions, I didn’t mind the music, loved the visuals, and, for me anyway, the dance was ‘merely’ the brush used to paint the visuals. Now, one can say that that only shows of the excellence of the programmer, but I don’t think so. I think that this is an interesting look at how dance, or certainly the principles learned in dance, can be used to provide control to a chaotic, interactive system. It became very clear, very quickly (and, I imagine, by design) that rapid movements were what ‘generated’ visible fluid. Slow movements did not. This looked to me to be a deliberate choice of the programming. ‘Fluid’ appeared wherever her body sillhouette occupied and then suddenly did not.

    I think her dance was specifically, and carefully choreographed with this in mind.

  10. I pity all the music nay-sayers. It really adds to the piece.

    MTV has really killed people’s open-mindedness towards music :(

    1. I disagree. People can be open-minded and still not like something. I like all sorts of music, especially experimental stuff (Brian Eno, David Byrne, etc.). And while I thought that some of the more jarring discordant sound-effects could have been effective if used more sparingly, I thought they were overused to the point of obscuring the piece. That’s not closed-minded – just my own opinion based on my particular tastes.

      I also thought her movements were a bit erratic. Though this may have been an echo of the discordant sounds, I didn’t find it particularly interesting or compelling. I thought the graphic effects were interesting, but again…it didn’t evoke much of a response from me other than “Okay…so what?” If that’s what she was going for…brava! Again, just my opinion which is worth exactly nothing. :)

  11. 2:35, 36, 37 in, can you say shoryuken??

    Not sure the dance or particularly the music was to my taste, but loved the effect. Its like visualising what the dancer was doing to the air in the room. Very cool.


  12. The audio was without question nerve-wracking, obtrusive and unsettling. I know nothing about music composition, but it seemed completely random, and w/o any basic structure. That said, I think it was intended to be.

    This isn’t a quality example of modern dance in the least. If are interested in unconventional dance, check out the Japanese dance style known as “butoh”.

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