A parent recently referred me to a TED-Ed lesson about the physics of ballet pirouettes, specifically what we call “fouettés” (meaning whipped turns). In it Arleen Sugano explains terms like rotational inertia, friction, torque, and conservation of angular momentum, and discusses distributing mass closer and further from the axis of rotation as you turn. Now perhaps ballet students don’t usually think about these things, but hopefully they will run into them in a science class somewhere in their education.
I try to include tidbits of math, science, literature, music and whatever else I can in my ballet classes to demonstrate that we can use knowledge from all fields to enhance the science and art of ballet. I hope that being the mental math champion of Cleveland, Ohio in the seventh grade somehow helped me be more successful in my ballet career. I hope that studying ballet will help my students open up new perspectives on math, science, and all their academic studies. I know that studying ballet helps academic students to apply themselves with more discipline, concentrate better, withstand pain, deal with failure, and strive for excellence. They do it every day with me; I’m sure they do it every day in school.
Only a few national experts study the specifics of the physics of ballet (see also Kenneth Laws), but nonetheless there is a lot of science going on here whether we know it or not. Probably the more we know about it, the better we dance. Some people experience it naturally: they are naturally good turners, balancers, or jumpers. Others have to work hard at it and practice for many long hours to get better. Perhaps knowing the science would aid this progress.
If you go to this link, there is a quiz at the left of the page you can try, but the four minute TED talk is at the upper right of the page or here. The animated dancer does a few more turns that humanly possible, but she’s very entertaining! The science lesson would be good for any dancer to watch and enjoy. Many of us dream of turning zillions of times, jumping over people’s heads, and other super-human feats of dance, so go ahead…pretend that’s you doing all those fouettés!
Here are links to some other articles/projects about the physics of ballet: