Dance that’s really (fluid) dynamic

Being told you dance like a scientist may not be an insult.

At the University of Michigan in the US, fluid mechanics professor Jesse Capecelatro and choreographer Veronica Stanich have teamed up to create Kármán Vortex Street, a dance improvisation guided by physics properties.

And that’s because they actually have much in common, says Capecelatro. 

Fluid mechanics is extremely visual, and solutions to classic fluid mechanics problems are highly aesthetic. At the same time, social dances, such as tango, “have a collection of rules that maintain structure, both collectively among all dancers and individually between pairs of dancers, that enable a coherent flow”. 

“Examples include the specific connection and embrace between dancers, maintaining a line of dance, establishing an axis of rotation during turns, and so on,” he says. “A similar set of rules exists in fluid mechanics.”

There’s been a bit of work involved in making it work, however. For one, Capelcelatro had to spend time teaching the basic principles of fluid mechanics to the dancers.

“The difficulty comes in attempting to simultaneously capture the relevant physics while keeping the dance interesting and aesthetic to watch,” he says. 

“In the end, we produced a ‘physics-constrained improvisation’, in which Veronica had complete freedom over the structure of the dance as long as a certain set of ‘rules’ I provided were met.”

The dance has been filmed – with support from the University Musical Society and University of Michigan Arts Engine – and editing is under way. 

Capelcelatro told this week’s annual meeting of American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics that the goal was to produce a five-to-eight-minute educational video “that demonstrates flow past a cylinder at varying Reynolds numbers through dance”. 

He noted that fluid mechanics is typically introduced to undergraduate engineering/physics students “through tedious derivations that sometimes lack a clear conceptual interpretation”.

Dance has to be better.

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