I am an engineer with a tutu (yes, that is me and that is my tutu).
Most of my life I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer. A self-proclaimed artist, I spent my time dancing, writing stories, and most of all, avoiding math. I never once considered engineering because I thought that artists couldn’t be analytical like engineers. But then I was told that my dream could never become reality. I joined my high school robotics team on a whim and loved it, and now I’m studying mechanical engineering.
Ballet and engineering seem like polar opposites: dancers are creative, fluid, and expressive, while engineering appears so analytical and technical. In high school they felt like different worlds. My dance friends and robotics friends didn’t overlap. People thought I was brave, or crazy, to be so involved with two different worlds. Sometimes I did feel awkward as a bridge. When a show rehearsal conflicted with a robotics work day, I would run over to the next building to work on a robot whenever I had a break. It felt silly running between two buildings, and no one could take me seriously when I was giving design advice in a leotard and shiny purple leggings, but I’ve never been happier. The worlds don’t seem so different to me; they both let me further my love of motion.
Ballet and engineering are my Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are often thought to represent opposites, but it’s actually a representation of how seeming “opposites” are complementary, and often interconnected. Ballet and engineering keep me grounded, focused, and challenge my creative and analytical sides. They also help me better understand both subjects. Engineering gives ballet the “how” and ballet helps reinforce soft skills for engineering.
Ballet and physics are interconnected. Every dancer pays attention to physics, just not in technical terms. I used to struggle with controlling my spins. My ballet teacher told me to put my arms on my shoulders while turning, to show me that the power for turning is not exclusively from my arms. In physics class I learned the science behind my struggles. The torque to get me around comes from my foot, not so much my arms. When my arms are brought in too quickly, my speed increases as my rotational inertia decreases. The acceleration threw me off my center of gravity, and made me fall out of a turn. Ballet helped me visualize physics, and understanding physics help me improve my technique.
This is an interesting video on the physics of a famous ballet turn: the fouetté.
Engineers are problem solvers, and so are dancers. Dancers have to quickly learn a difficult set of movements for a show or even class. When something goes wrong, whether it be a prop in a show or messing up choreography, they have to act quickly to fix the error and make it look like nothing happened. I once watched the male lead of SF Ballet’s Don Quixote twist his ankle and fall over, only he disguised it so well that I didn’t realize anything happened until they announced his injury during intermission. Dancing helps hone thinking quickly on your feet (quite literally), incredibly valuable for engineering.
Discipline and a Work Ethic
Engineering is a discipline full of, well, discipline. It takes years to build a strong foundation in math, computer aided design, thermodynamics, and more before we can face the complex —but fun— design projects and experiments. Ballet operates the same. We spend years learning the building block movements: pliés, tendus (pointed leg), and relevés (to rise) before we can learn the magnificent jumps and turns that you see on stage. As much as it sometimes irks me, I have to practice these basics all the time. Strong foundations really do help when we move to more difficult work.
Attention to Detail
Details are crucial for engineers. A semi-colon in code or one wire plugged into the wrong port could be disastrous. In 1999, a Mars probe was destroyed in the atmosphere because the engineers forgot to check their units. In high school robotics we had a part that just barely didn’t fit because we forgot to add tolerance for the fasteners. Little mistakes can make a big impact. Ballet is about focusing on the big picture while also paying attention to the minutia. The slight angle of our foot, tilt of the chin, or lack of fluidity in the fingers can throw off our graceful lines. Learning to pay attention to the little things in dance can transfer into greater detail awareness in engineering.
These are only a few of the intersections of dance and engineering. They share teamwork, planning, awareness of surroundings, and more.
Dance is my passion, but it isn’t for everyone. Others might like graphic design, comedy, or fashion. What I hope you take away is that engineers can be technical and artistic. This is why I love Engineering Plus. Engineering only gets better when you combine it with new perspectives, like that of art.
Spring class registration is opening up in the coming months. While you’re stacking up on math and engineering courses, don’t be afraid to include dance in the mix!