Kenneth Laws, professor emeritus of physics at Dickinson College, comes to his passion for the biomechanics of ballet quite honestly: He’s a dancer himself. At 40, Laws bravely followed his two young children into classes at the well-regarded Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. His kids outgrew the regimen, but he never left. CPYB became his personal mission as a teacher, performer, board member, and board president. However, his biggest gift to ballet may be his study of the science behind its magic, explored in a video and two books, with a third—Physics and the Art of Dance: Understanding Movement—due next February from Oxford University Press. On October 1, The Graduate Center at CUNY hosts Laws’s layperson-friendly presentation, “Science and Dance: The Physics of Ballet” shared with dancer Magrielle Eisen.
Dancers have minds like steel traps, Laws remarks. He enjoys telling how New York City Ballet’s Ashley Bouder—then an 11-year-old in Laws’s partnering class—floored her classmates by repeating his explanations involving some tricky scientific concept. “Dancers deal with visual modes of reality as scientists do, and young people have not learned to be afraid of physics. They eat this up.” His coaching helped one dancer exceed her expectations. “I asked her to perform a full tour jeté [a jump with a turn in the air] instead of a half-turn, and she actually did one and a half turns.” Can awareness of ballet’s physics destroy the fun of watching those soaring leaps and thrilling spins? On the contrary, Laws believes dancers seem more heroic when we can see behind the illusions they conjure.
Laws wants to inspire his colleagues to hang out more with artists and other laypersons. “We study invisible things—DNA, X rays, and nuclei—and there’s a gulf between us and non-scientists. The public’s support for science is fragile.” How better to heal that rift than through the dancing body, where mind, matter, and physical laws conspire to create beauty?