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Bringing biology to life: Dance students to showcase Michigan’s sand dunes

Students to perform in Detroit at REGENERATION event

​​​Two Central Michigan University students glide across the floor like wind-swept sand and later feverishly step like sandpipers. They're preparing for a dance performance that replicates the formation of Michigan's sand dunes.

The students and four faculty members have brought together dance, biology, theater and music to create "Dunes." They'll perform their piece at REGENERATION — an event featuring performances by 28 artists from six states at Detroit's Marlene Boll Theater April 22 and 23.

"We started with the idea of regeneration," Heather Trommer-Beardslee, dance program coordinator, said. "We talked specifically in terms of regrowth. And, we chose sand dunes because of its connection to Michigan."

School of Music faculty member Jay Batzner is creating the music.

"The structure of the piece lends itself to a more abstract, ambient kind of sound," he said. "The most exciting and tricky part is that the piece includes the live manipulation of video and audio. I'll have a video camera pointed at the dancers and their movements will affect the sound of the music as the piece unfolds."

Trommer-Beardslee is developing the choreography for "Dunes" using scientific charts, data and biological concepts provided by biology faculty member Wiline Pangle. Costume design was created by theater faculty member Ann Dasen.

The interdisciplinary collaboration has changed the way Trommer-Beardslee makes art.

"Instead of just going into the studio and improvising and figuring out what movement works best, conceptually and in an aesthetically pleasing way, Wiline talked to us about the biological standpoint of regeneration and Michigan's sand dunes," she said. "I am taking the scientific representation of data and turning it into artistic sequences. I've never created that way before."

Students rehearse danceBig Rapids senior Ana Lossing, a neuroscience major, and Saginaw junior Jasmine Jones, a sociology and communication disorders major, worked closely with Trommer-Beardslee to create the artistic dance sequences for "Dunes." Both students are dance minors.

Blending the humanities and sciences for student learning

"Dunes" is this group's third large-scale multidisciplinary partnership.

"We work together to create projects that are truly interdisciplinary — a collaboration of ideas, concepts and genres," Trommer-Beardslee said. "The humanities and the sciences work well together because it's a blending of ideas."

Several years ago, Pangle asked Trommer-Beardslee to bring a group of dance minors to her general biology class to show the students how cell division worked.

"It was a biology flash mob," Trommer-Beardslee said. "The students didn't know we were coming. We do it every semester. The relationship grew from there."

Ana Lossing dances like a sandpiperPangle said the flash mob helped students remember the concepts behind the science.​

"On written exams, students referred back to the dance when answering questions regarding that concept, so it was really helpful in long-term retention of knowledge," she said. "In addition, it made this concept fun."

Batzner said one of the best parts of working at CMU is the ability to experiment with others.

"Composition can be a little isolating. I'm limited by my imagination," he said. "When working with colleagues in other disciplines, I get to draw upon their imaginations, too. One of the things I love about this group is that we aren't afraid to try new things and learn along the way."

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