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Jackson Middle School students (clockwise from left: Miranda White, Jake Purcell, Banah Graf, Annie New) strike a pose that teaches them about geometry, movement, and teamwork.

The Weave of the World:
What's Dance Got To Do With Math?   Just About Everything.

Story and photos by DENISE JARRETT

y keenly confronting the enigmas that surround us I ended up in the domain of mathematics. I often seem to have more in common with mathematicians than with my fellow artists.   -Maurits Cornelis Escher


She's a head taller than he is. They eye each other dubiously, then turn back-to-back. The boy plants his feet firmly as the girl leans into him, her shoulder blades pressing into his. Trusting their weight to each other, they strike a counterbalance and sink into a deep knee-bend.

Dancer Keith Goodman taps out an accompanying tempo with a clave, then pauses as mathematics teacher Michael Lang steps forward. Lang asks the other assembled eighth-graders, "When Melinda and Terrance were standing back-to-back, what kind of symmetry was that?"

A reflection!

"Okay. And when they lowered to the floor, what kind of transformation occurred?"

A translation!

Lang asks them to explain. A translation is when an object is moved to a new position without changing its orientation. He probes further: So, what would a glide reflection be? A glide reflection combines a reflection with a translation in which only one element slides, or glides, to a new position. Lang nods in agreement.

This is math class, but unlike any these students have experienced before. They are midway through a three-week unit integrating geometry and art. Right now, they're learning how choreographers incorporate tessellations and symmetry into dance. Goodman directs the students to break into groups. The youngsters, a combined mathematics class of about 60 students at Jackson Middle School in Portland, Oregon, disperse across the auditorium floor in boisterous but intent clusters.

As a choreographer and dancer with Conduit, a Portland contemporary dance studio, Goodman often incorporates tessellations-arrangements of shapes into symmetrical and repeating patterns- into his works. His dances influenced by the African Diaspora, for instance, resonate with images, patterns, and rhythms found in the dances of Africans who were displaced around the world by the slave trade. But it wasn't until Goodman began coteaching with mathematics teachers Lang and Ken Reiner in this geometry project that he recognized the extent to which he relies on mathematics when choreographing. He's eager to share this revelation with these students.

"Okay," Goodman calls above the din. "You're going to create a movement tessellation that lasts from eight to 24 counts that you mirror, or reflect, on either side of a line. Now, at some point in that movement, you're going to rotate one of the sides 180 degrees, keeping the movement going, then you're going to do a glide reflection of it."

The students begin striking poses, mirroring each other's gestures and measuring dance steps- exploring their creative powers at the same time that they are developing their understanding of geometric principles.     more...