Dancing Our Way to the Cosmos

Justine Walker looks at how space travel will change the mechanics of dance

While the balance between STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors and arts majors may continue to shift as long as Earth remains the third planet from the sun, Wooster’s Justine Walker is challenging the minds of both scientists and artists to think outside earth’s gravity. In an Independent Study that seemed to have been waiting for just the right student, Walker, a physics and dance double major, gave dancers the opportunity to experience what it would be like to dance on Mars.

Walker first came to Wooster from Yorktown Heights, New York, intending to major in mathematics and physics but quickly discovered that advanced mathematics wasn’t the right fit for her. Though she had never taken a dance class, she landed in two theatre and dance classes her sophomore year and realized a passion for post-modern dance. “It takes all the rules set by modern dancers and says goodbye. We can just go back to the basics of human movement.”

Equipped with two schools of thought—physics and dance—Walker and her advisors created a research project that truly combines both disciplines. “Both my advisors constantly bring different viewpoints to the project. We’re giving dancers an opportunity to experience actually moving in various lower gravities,” said Walker. “Choreographers have looked at lower gravity, but no one’s looked at the actual physics of how dance movements change at lower gravities.”

But why is this difference in gravity significant? John Lindner, Walker’s advisor and professor of physics said, “We’re used to Earth’s gravity, but it is really ferocious.” He and Justine explained: “On earth we all experience the force of gravity pulling us down at a rate of 22 mph per second per second. If you fell off the top of a building you’d be going 22 mph, after 2 seconds you’d be going 44 mph, and 3 seconds you’d be going 66 mph.” Lindner pointed out that 66 mph is highway speed. “You really accelerate rapidly which is why heights are so dangerous.”

Walker, Linder, and Kim Tritt, Walker’s dance advisor worked closely with Mike Schafer, technical director for the theatre department to rig up a system with a harness and weights in the Ebert Art Center. “By attaching the dancers to a harness, we’re able to simulate different levels of gravity by placing different amounts of mass on the other side of the pulley system,” said Walker. From there, they can experience 70 percent Earth’s gravity, 40 percent which is approximately Mars gravity, and 20 percent or lunar gravity. “It can be a lot for them to be at 40 percent gravity,” she explained, “so we decided that 70 percent is a good half way point to get them used to the feeling.”

Walker particularly enjoys seeing how the different levels of gravity affect the dancers, two of her fellow Wooster students who acted as paid participants in the experiment through the Copeland Fund for Independent Study. At lower gravity, they’re “lighter on their feet, able to do higher jumps, and more turns,” said Walker. “We see how the movement vocabulary that they know on earth varies in these gravities.”

“How would that change choreography? How would that change dance?” asks Tritt, professor of theatre and dance, who worked with Walker to choreograph moves for the dancers to perform for the experiment. Looking at not only quantitative but also qualitative data, Walker constantly asks the dancers about how they’re feeling at the different gravities. “When they reach Mars gravity, all of the sudden it’s like something just lights up on their face. The lightness brings out something in people, and I love to watch that,” she said.

Having tested the harness herself, Walker said, “Nothing beats that feeling of reduced gravity. That’s part of why astronauts always want to go back into space.” With the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a commercial vehicle tested this February with the potential to one day take people to Mars, Walker says, “Space exploration and space everyday living is on the horizon for the next hundred years or so. It’s important for people to start thinking away from Earth and about how we can do creative things in different places.”

While becoming an astronaut and extending her experiment to space itself would be a dream come true for Walker, her immediate plan is to return to her home outside New York City where she’d be interested in completing a work study program with a dance studio or working for a nonprofit that supports her passions for STEM education or the arts. She sees her I.S. as an example of why these two communities need to come together. “People on both sides tend to stereotype STEM and the arts communities, and they’re pushing each other apart,” she said. “Both sides need to come together in order for the world to progress and have a brighter future. If they actually combined their ways of thinking, we’d be able to do some amazing things.”

[A version of this story appeared in Wooster magazine.]