Calculated moves 

Dancing to the beat of a mathematical drum

Had I seen Math Moves when I was a little slip of a first or second grader, things might have turned out differently. I might have looked at adding and subtracting with wide, shiny eyes. I might have secretly loved memorizing my multiplication tables, or tackled long division on giant multi-digit numbers with relish. Had I seen Math Moves, I might have not spent math classes from elementary school on counting the minutes until English class, writing period, gym, and lunch.

Written and choreographed by Karen Kaufman, education director of Mo-Trans Dance Company, Math Moves brings this loved-by-some, loathed-by-others subject to life on stage through story, dance, and zany, Seussian costumes and sets.

“I created the piece to show kids how dance is put together mathematically,” Kaufman says. “Through the story and the dance, kids learn how dancers use counting, phrasing, and geometric lines and shapes. Dancers wouldn’t be able to dance without math.”

Co-founding Mo-Trans nine years ago with a background as a freelance dance educator, Kaufman created two dance/curriculum shows: Dancing Waters, a show combining dance with the study of earth sciences, and Moving Words, a piece bringing grammar, spelling, and parts of speech together with dance. Math Moves will be Kaufman’s third piece that ties dance into the elementary school curriculum.

“I began researching the piece by looking into national standards in math education,” Kaufman says. “I pulled out concepts that related to dance like counting, lines, and shapes, and then wrote the story from there.”

The story itself is centered around a little girl named Traipse who goes on a quest to find her place in the world, a place that combines the world of her Uncle Euclid—a straight, orderly world—and that of her Uncle Archimedes—a world of swirls and spirals and jiggly corkscrew turns.

Everything in the show about Uncle Euclid—based, of course on Euclid, the father of geometry—is straight and orderly. He talks in neat, linear sentences. He is bedecked in a long, formal overcoat and top hat and lives in a city of pristine, exquisitely measured lines and cubes. He never slouches. Uncle Archimedes, on the other hand, is based on the Greek mathematician known for his invention of the “Archimedean screw” and can’t even move in a straight line. He twirls and twists and talks in circles and gyrations. His clothes are anything but orderly. His coat is short on one side and long on the other and covered in colorful, springy designs. He sports a swirled, lopsided hat. He bounds. The city in which he lives is right out of a Dr. Seuss book, a land of giant geometric shapes that seem to have no rhyme or reason to them.

Though Traipse loves both her uncles and enjoys spending time with them in their cities, she wants to find her own place in the world. “The character of the Math Magician, a contemporary wizard of sorts, tells her in a dream that she can dwell in both domains. She can live in a place of reason and intuition. It doesn’t have to be one without the other,” Kaufman explains. “There is a deeper truth in the story about what it means to be human. The underlying commentary is that life is about finding balance, learning to use intuition sometimes, reason other times.”

During her journey—told through dance, music, and narration—Traipse bumps up against a whole cast of characters, reminiscent of those that Milo meets in the children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth. She helps the Birdwatcher learn to count her birds through a method of logic and problem solving. She stops the TweedleDee- and TweedleDum-like characters, Plus and Minus, from arguing by showing them that they need addition and subtraction to get along.

Though Mo-Trans is presenting only one public performance of Math Moves as a part of the Northwest Regional American Dance College Festival, the show is primarily for elementary schools and has already started touring throughout the northwest, a tour which will conclude in May. “So far the kids are delighted by it,” Kaufman says. “They are so animated and just bubbling over with questions and comments as well as their own experiences taking ballet and dance classes.”

The first part of the show entails introducing themes and math terms and asking the kids questions like “What shapes are the dancers making with their arms?” and “If you were measuring this movement and then that movement, which would be taller?” As many as 25 children come up on stage during the first part of a show. “They actually end up dancing,” says Kaufman. “We might ask a child to draw invisible straight lines all over the space on stage and suddenly he is moving and dancing and feeling the connection between dance and math.”

The second part of the show is the story of Traipse set to original music by Jee Wong, sets by Mike Monsos, and costumes by Denise Massman. Kaufman also created a Teacher Resource Guide for teachers to use as an introduction before the show, with follow-up ideas for activities and discussion.

When the curtain closes, each child receives a plastic Mo-Trans ruler with which to measure straight, orderly lines in a world of reason, or use it more intuitively to measure and understand the integrity of a spiral or helix, whether it is drawn in pencil or danced through the air.

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