Dance and the Gliding Snake

It’s always satisfying when two seemingly unrelated parts of your life collide in interesting ways. I’ve been learning contemporary dance for the last couple of years from the phenomenal Nailah Randall-Bellinger, and one movement that’s central to how we practice dance in her class is the abdominal contraction. Nailah helps us get into the movement by telling us to pretend that we’re “wrapping our ribs,” imagining a sheet of cellophane paper wrapped tightly around our ribs and abdomen, sort of resulting in the ribs moving upwards and towards the spine (it’s somewhat independent of, but facilitated by, how you breathe in).

Gliding snake. Photo by Jake Socha.
Gliding snake. Photo by Jake Socha.

Recent research on the gliding or flying snake Chryosopelea paradisi by Holden et al. (2013) shows that these animals are basically “wrapping their ribs” to achieve a triangular or even concave cross-sectional body shape that helps them move through the air after they launch themselves off trees. The analogy with our dance movement isn’t perfect, of course, since snake ribs seem to be a lot more movable than human ribs, but it’s a decent approximation. This dramatic change in body shape allows the snake to achieve an impressive glide ratio of 4.5, which means that for every metre it drops, it travels 4.5m forwards.

The close association between dance, nature, and biomechanics is widely appreciated–check out this profile of my OEB colleague Glenna Clifton, who brings the three together quite beautifully in her work on the biomechanics of the stunning displays of Clark’s and Western Grebes.

Though my own research isn’t as directly pertinent to the interrelationships of dance and biology as Glenna’s work, I’ve always been interested in how one can communicate through movement, spawning my interest in the variation in how fan-throated lizards use their fans to talk to each other. 

Dance and nature have informed each other for centuries, and the Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam has some fantastic depictions of animals and nature. One of my favourite pieces was the story of the elephant king Gajendra who, when drinking water at a pond, is attacked by a crocodile. Eventually Gajendra is saved by an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, but to build the tension of the scene into which Vishnu intervenes, the dancer switches several times between depicting the initially majestic but increasingly suffering elephant, and the stealthy and vicious crocodile. As a dancer, thinking about how to embody these two very different animals can lead one to consider all sorts of aspects of their biology, such as their size and the speeds which they move on land and through water.  800px-Indian_-_The_Elephant_King_Attacked_by_the_Crocodile_-_Walters_W887One of my pipe dreams is to choreograph a dance of an ecosystem, building heavily on visual signals and communication in animals. I haven’t planned too much of it yet, but I’m certain that the hand-waving display of the now-extinct-in-the-wild Panamanian Golden Frog will play a central part.

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