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Crystallizing concepts through dance

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Collette Kelly
(Photo courtesy of Colette Kelly)

Colette Kelly

PhD candidate
Earth System Science

August 23, 2021

“Nothing helps you understand the curved path of a charged particle through a mass spectrometer’s flight tube like actually visualizing and dancing that path yourself — turning the dance studio into a vacuum chamber and the piano in the corner into the magnet,” said Colette Kelly, a PhD candidate in Earth system science.

Kelly is a founding member of the Art in Science Communication Initiative (Art-SCI) which brings together artists and scientists that use dance, music and film to communicate science. She’s danced alongside other scientists to illustrate their research – from topics about volcanism to the gut microbiome – in collaboration with musicians and filmmakers. In 2019, she worked with graduate student Cansu Culha to produce “Ocean Trilogy,” an evening-length performance by a local, professional dance company about ocean science, which was the inaugural event for Art-SCI. Art-SCI also held a workshop for Stanford students to develop short dance-science vignettes.

“Some topics are understood more easily through embodied experience,” she said. “Dance has the power to crystallize and highlight concepts more thoroughly understood through movement, and thus to motivate a more effective response to environmental problems.”

Kelly uses dance to deepen her understanding of nitrous oxide cycling in the ocean, with a focus on regions of the ocean with little-to-no oxygen. Kelly also uses movement to explore and make comparisons to heteronormativity. In her latest dance piece, “N20 in Drag,” Kelly uses performance to explain nitrous oxide cycling in the ocean, as well as to subvert the assumption of cisgender-heteronormative masculinity as neutral, or the standard, in the field of chemical oceanography – that is, the idea that if a researcher isn’t specifically labeled as female, they are often assumed to be male.

“In the same way that ‘razors’ and ‘women’s razors’ make the assumption that masculinity is neutral,” Kelly said, “we might make similar distinctions between ‘oceanographers’ and ‘women oceanographers.’ My goal here is to disrupt that dynamic.”