Question: What are the similarities between ballet and
There are a lot of
similarities or things that fit together between, especially ballet and
mathematics. Ballet for one thing, it's all about spatial perception. To
give you an example, I had a student when I was teaching physics at
Kenyon College who was also a ballet dancer. And she was talking to me
one time because she really liked physics and I knew her from both
ballet and physics because I taught her as a physics professor and we
both took the ballet classes at the college.
And she said to me,
"Well, I'd really like to do physics but I know girls don't have as
good spatial perception." And this was for a while a misconception; I'm
not sure where it got started but the idea that girls somehow couldn't
do this. I think it's pretty much fallen by the wayside now, but at the
time she believed it. And I said, "Okay, I want you to answer a question
for me." She said, "Okay." I said, "You're taking that ballet class for
credit." She says, "Oh yeah, I'm taking quite a few dance classes for
credit." I said, "So you have to do an exam or a final project." And she
said, "Well yeah, of course."
I said, "What's your final
project?" And she said, "Oh I choreographed a dance." And I said, "For
how many people?" And she said, "Eight." And I said, "Okay, how did you
choreograph this dance for eight people?" And she said, "Well I put on
the music and I imagine in my head what they would do and then I went
and told them what to do." I said, "So you envisioned for a three to
four minute piece of music the steps of eight people moving in space and
you figured out and played with that and came up with a plan?" She
said, "Well yeah, of course." And I said, "I wish my physics majors had
that good of spatial perception."
And I think it was one of
those eye-opening moments. I know for me the realization that being able
to make the connection between different areas of what we do in our
life. If you can think in terms of imagining dancers or sports, and what
they're doing on the playing field you have very good spatial
perception. And that translates very easily into physics. Imagine the
theoretical physics and how wave functions, and wave forms move, and
that sort of thing.
The other part that's very connected is
ballet is very much about algorithms and patterns, and numerics.
Everything we do in an exercise, for example, at the bar is an
algorithm. And you learn them, they become incorporated in our body. You
think, "Okay two here, one here, one back, reverse it," and you have to
be able to reverse things very quickly, learn them very quickly. You
have to become so used to the patterns that especially if you become
professional, you can just go like that when someone tells you to do
such and such. That's means you're incorporating not only the spatial
perception aspects, but the ability to quickly see and make patterns or
algorithms in your mind.
And then of course there's also the
classical music connection. We've known for a long time that many
mathematically oriented people are also very musical. And even Bach,
there have been whole analysis of the mathematics of his music; you get
that in dance, too. So when you put all those things together, it's no
surprise to me at all that I found a connection between ballet and math.
And I'm finding it in my students, too. Now that you see more girls
going into mathematics, you tend to see more girls in ballet too, so the
connection is becoming more obvious. A lot of my best students who are
female were also dancers or something similar, something connected to
Question: When you are writing a novel, solving a
math problem, or dancing, what keeps you focused?
Asaro: If I were to try and find a unifying emotion that kept me
calm and focused while I was dancing or writing, or solving a math
problem, I think the one unifying thing about all those that keeps my
interest is creativity. It's what I like best about doing any of them.
It's the creativity and also having the technical ability to use your
creative impulses. To solve math problems, you need to know the basic
mathematics before you can start applying it. So you have to get
technical expertise in how to solve the problems.
To do ballet, I
love doing it, but you need the technical ability to do the steps. I
can imagine my leg up here but if I'm out of shape the leg won't go up
even if I want it to. And it's the same for science and for writing. To
write you have to be able to know how to put words together. So part of
the joy of it for me is the mastery of the techniques. Watching yourself
improve, seeing the improvement, seeing the leg go from here to here,
to here, knowing you're getting better at it. The satisfaction of going,
"Oh I can do that today and I couldn't yesterday."
that, in one sense, is the end to the means. And the means is that now I
can apply my creative ideas and I have the tools to do it. I can tell
that story that's been evolving in my mind. I have the tools now to put
it down on paper and make it on paper the way I see it in my head. So I
would say the creative part is the most satisfying for me.
Recorded on June 7, 2010