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Swingin' Engineers: Dance Class Inspires Creativity, Enhances Collaboration

A new swing dance class is helping predominantly left-brained engineering students to exercise their right brain -- and maybe even conquer their two left feet.

Offered through the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Office of Personal Development and taught by School of Communication dance professor Billy Siegenfeld, the non-credit, five-session course grounds students in the basic steps of the Lindy Hop, a partner swing dance, before introducing the concept of dance improvisation.

This is often uncharted territory for students who are more comfortable doing things by the book. And that’s the whole point.

“Yes, you have to learn this form called the Lindy, but the idea of it is to not only fulfill the requirements of that form, but to use the basis of it -- the rhythm -- to take off and take flight,” Siegenfeld said.

Joe Holtgreive, assistant dean and director of the McCormick Office of Personal Development, first conceived the idea for the class nearly 10 years ago when he attended a lecture by Siegenfeld on his trademark Jump Rhythm Technique of dance. When Siegenfeld had the entire audience stand up and attempt the movements, Holtgreive said he immediately saw an application for engineering students.

“McCormick stresses the idea of whole-brain engineering™, but this is really whole body engineering -- the experience that engineers really have an opportunity to connect more with their physical experience, with their internal rhythm and kind of opening themselves up as they learn how to use and bring their entire selves to problem solving,” Holtgreive said. “This was a natural opportunity for students to engage in an activity that was maybe outside of their comfort zone or the traditional engineering experience.”

A pilot version of the class was offered in spring 2011, but the course was expanded to include more students and more sessions for its second iteration this quarter.

“Our students are very smart, and in the first weeks of the class, you can see them trying to intellectualize the experience,” Holtgreive said. “But Billy does a wonderful job of helping students to recognize the natural rhythms in their body, the natural rhythms in the music and connecting with that in a way that requires them to let go and connect to something outside of themselves.”

The idea of letting go is especially important when improvising but some rules still apply, Siegenfeld said. Since swing is a partner dance, the success of the partnership is paramount.

“Improvisation is great because it teaches you how to assert your individuality in the context of community,” Siegenfeld said. “In other words, you can be yourself, but not by violating the needs of the community. And in this case, the needs of the community are to stay on the beat.”

Dance and improvisation force students to rely on creativity while also frequently changing partners, Holtgrieve said. This helps them to develop a new problem-solving perspective that can be incredibly useful when applied to left-brain activities.

“It allows them to bring their entire selves to the experience and then hopefully in whatever problem they’re solving or whatever situation they’re in, it gives them a much broader palette to paint from,” Holtgreive said. “It’s also just a lot of fun.”

-- University Relations