Luther Alumni Magazine

Biology and dance students are inspired to movement by a water feature during a trip to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. Photo by Chelsey O’Connor ’15

Biology and dance combine in the classroom

At the heart of Luther’s education philosophy is the idea of crossing disciplines to learn richly, think perceptively, and work creatively. Paideia is the hallmark of this philosophy, but sometimes a class comes along that takes cross-disciplinary learning to an extraordinary level.

Last fall, two dance and biology professors teamed up on a dance practicum that explores water, from its molecular interactions to its oceanic movements to threats that endanger its quality. The practicum will culminate in a new dance piece, Body of Water, which endeavors to connect people with a valuable and often overlooked resource.

Jane Hawley '87
Jane Hawley '87

The teaching partnership between professor of dance Jane Hawley ’87 and professor of biology Jodi Enos-Berlage extends back to 2006, when they began visiting one another’s classes. After seeing how dance instruction could benefit biology students, Enos-Berlage, with Hawley’s help, began using movement to teach concepts, demonstrating the attachment of protein types to chromosomes using PVC pipes and students’ bodies, or demonstrating an immunology lesson based on the defense system, with molecules and cells interacting to generate and launch a defense. “It’s a very attractive set of things to embody,” Enos-Berlage says. “And learning it as a piece of choreography allowed students to access the subject in a new way and achieve a new angle and level of learning.”

Hawley, a scientist at heart, adds, “When you open up new ways to access information, you can repattern the brain. When we watch—versus read—something, we form new neuromuscular connections.” The effect can be amplified by doing something, as in the case of the students who performed the lesson. “Students who performed it understood the material in a much deeper way,” she says.

For her part, Hawley started using standard science research methods as a framework for her dance students’ research, and after attending a few microbiology lectures, thought,
I could make dances out of all these concepts.

Water is intellectual

In April 2014, Hawley’s students—with the help of Enos-Berlage—took part in the National Water Dance, a nationwide “movement choir” in which about 75 groups participated by sharing a set of movements that each one incorporated into a dance. The 75 group dances were live streamed in a simultaneous performance on April 14 in a bid to bring awareness of water usage to the public.

Jodi Enos-Berlage
Jodi Enos-Berlage

As its backdrop, Luther used Dunning’s Spring, lining it up and down with small groups of dancers. “The most powerful part of the performance for me,” Enos-Berlage says, “was that afterward, when everyone was leaving, a group of five or six students continued to dance for themselves. They felt interested and empowered to do that. And that is a symbol of Jane’s teaching philosophy: self-empowerment.” 

About the Luther dance program, Hawley says, “Instead of teaching steps, we teach concepts,” which is in its own way a scientific, or at least intellectual, approach to dancing. “Our dancers create procedures to convey ideas,” she adds. And so it was only natural that this academic year, when she decided to mount a more ambitious dance about water in her practicum class, she wanted her students to understand water in a profound way, down to its very molecular activity, which is where Enos-Berlage came in.

The performance that Hawley had in mind would explore water on both a micro and macro scale, from the cellular to the oceanic, and it would have a strong conservation message. Hawley enlisted Enos-Berlage from the start. The biology professor began several of the dance professor’s classes with elements of a general bio lecture, explaining how a water molecule interacts with other water molecules; that it’s the only molecule that exists naturally on earth’s surface in all three phases—liquid, solid, and gas; and that water is critical to the formation and structure of all cells.

Hawley says, “For the dancers to understand that chemistry—that it’s holding our bodies together—connects them to water in a profound way.” When it came time to dance out the chemical phases of steam, water, and ice, she says, the dancers fell to it naturally, almost as if the processes were intuitive.

The water threat

To learn more about some of the challenges facing our water supply, which will be a big component of Body of Water, Hawley’s practicum class tagged along with Enos-Berlage’s microbiology class during a tour of the 20,000-acre Dry Run Creek watershed, which Enos-Berlage has been researching since 2010. The two class shuttles communicated via walkie-talkie as Enos-Berlage challenged the students to think about how and where water flows and how the use of the surrounding land affects both the amount of water flowing and what’s in it. Along the tour, they talked about threats to water quality and tried to identify conservation practices that area farmers were engaged in. Hawley’s students have also been participating in the labs in which Enos-Berlage and her students work with water samples from the Dry Run Creek.

And in October, student in the two classes again joined up on a field trip to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. While there, the dance students were drawn to one exhibit feature like dolphins to fish: the “water wall,” an eight-foot-tall, translucent, undulating screen with
a thin sheet of water cascading down the front. Without prompting, they stepped behind it and began an improv dance, calling to mind a chorus of sea anemones waving under the water.

Water is emotional

Both Hawley and Enos-Berlage want to get people thinking more carefully about water—what we put into it, where it goes after we’re done with it, and how much we use of it—and part of their strategy is to use dance to help people form an emotional connection with water.

Enos-Berlage explains, “We want to create an affection for water, to remind people of the essentialness of water so that they care enough to know what’s going on with it—and act!”

Hawley concurs, admitting the challenge: “This means I need to find a way to create affection for the water molecule!”

In order to create an affinity in the viewer, Body of Water will incorporate lots of sensory experiences through mundane expressions of water—washing hands, taking a drink, floating in water, or crying. These mundane activities, Enos-Berlage says, “help a viewer make a connection. My first response to them was ‘I can see myself doing that.’”

Senior management major Kajsa Jones, who is taking the practicum and will be performing in Body of Water, reflects, “We have so much engagement with water that isn’t obvious. It’s so much a part of our daily lives, and it connects literally everything. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how water affects my daily life movements.”

Senior dance major Jenn Schmidt adds, “We want to take ordinary movement and show how it evolves in an extraordinary, storytelling way. Then, the next time you do these daily movements, you’ll remember those imaginative moments, and the performance—and the message—will have more impact.”

While Hawley and students were busy transforming water concepts into choreography during the fall semester, Ian Carstens ’14, who’s currently interning with the Pepperfield Project, was capturing video footage of local water, land, and people to integrate into the performance.

Working together, Carsten and Enos-Berlage have generated hours of interviews with Decorah-area farmers and community members, focusing on their concerns and connections with water. “We want to include community voices,” Enos-Berlage says, “so that it won’t just be us telling people things. Water quality is a community problem and will require community-based solutions, and we wanted the performance to reflect that.” Phase two of the project is also planned: using the video more extensively to create a documentary that can outlive the live performance and be broadly shared.

As for the science lessons that don’t come standard with every dance class, junior dance major James Mueller appreciates the expanded awareness that the science background brings to the choreography. “Initially we came at the project from the concept of mundane water use,” he says. “But when Professor Enos-Berlage came and talked about chemistry and biology and the watershed and agricultural runoff, what started coming into our movement phrases work was the idea of how we use water and where it goes, and how agriculture uses it and where it goes from there.” It’s rewarding to Mueller to dance with a message: “Water is a communal resource, and it’s becoming finite, like oil,” he says.

As a result of Hawley and Enos-Berlage’s teaching partnership, the students in both dance and biology classes learn more deeply; the audience that watches Body of Water will experience a more profound performance owing to Enos-Berlage’s input; and the message of water conservation will find a new mouthpiece in the performing arts. About collaborative teaching, Hawley says, “It isn’t new what we’re doing, but it’s so powerful. I always ask why aren’t we doing this more? Especially in the liberal arts." 

Hawley’s dance practicum students will perform Body of Water in the Center for the Arts, Jewel Theatre, on March 5 (9:30 p.m.), 6 (7:30 p.m.), and 7 (1:30 and 7:30 p.m.).