Pairing science with the paso doble

PHOTO COURTESY OF ROSS DEN PHOTOGRAPHY

The Spanish Gypsy dance resounds aggressively, almost menacingly, at 120 beats per minute from every unattended corner of the polished but visibly beaten space. The sound slices through a sweat-induced dew. Layers of net, stretch satin, chiffon and organza adhere to tiny, curve-embracing bodysuits through which every taut, elegantly sculpted muscle can be seen moving in rhythm with the reverberations. Neons, rhinestones, cheetah prints and fringe flash swiftly in human whirlpools of sweat and sparkle. Figures appear in many places at once, the changes in speed and direction making it impossible to discern between object and image reflected in floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirrors and in the reflections of the reflections. Heels click sharply against the floor in step with the flamenco rhythm. Bodies drop or fly with every buildup and crash of the music. Wrists and ankles writhe and whirl. Fingers curl. Pelvises thrust vigorously toward one another and then recoil. The breath surrounds, mounts and attacks, saturating the music with its greedy inhales and loud, urgent, carnal exhales. These are professional ballroom dancers. This is the paso doble.

The paso doble, or paso, is one of five dances in the international Latin division of competitive dancesport. The others are cha-cha, samba, rumba and jive. Together with the waltz, foxtrot, tango, Viennese waltz and quickstep, the Latin dances fall under the umbrella term “ballroom dance.” Paso is a pair dance set to march music that was played at popular and gruesome Spanish bullfights, marking the bullfighter’s entrance into the ring and the final kill. Today, paso is performed at dance competitions worldwide, most frequently to the song “España Cañi,” a piece of music so complex that it must be choreographed bar for bar. In addition to being the most choreographically demanding, the paso also requires a strong dose of acting skills, as the man plays the combative matador and the woman his swift, sinuous cape. It is the fiercest of the five international Latin dances.

I spent years watching the paso and decades mastering it. In that time I went from high school to college to graduate school, lived in three of five boroughs of New York City, and traded in bell-bottoms for skinny jeans, all the while working on my chasse capes (a classic figure of the paso). Lest you think this is a perspective on classical dance, allow me to add that I was simultaneously pursuing a career in biochemistry and am now finishing my Ph.D. in biomedical research at Weill Cornell Graduate School for Medical Sciences. This is not to list my accomplishments, but to explain that in recent years I’ve learned quite a bit about learning and the way in which efficient learning differs across disciplines, and to lay the foundation for the topics I’d like to explore, which are the somewhat unexpected similarities and differences between learning the science of dance and learning the art of science.

As a dancer and scientist, the writer has benefited from trusting in technique.

The talent dupe

To begin with, common misconceptions abound about both dance and science. The first is the pervasive and inaccurate idea that dance, along with most other art forms, is primarily an innate, talent-based vocation. In reality, the 10,000-hour rule applies as much to dance as it does to astrophysics. This has been demonstrated time after time by ballerinas like Misty Copeland, who was told repeatedly that she did not have the natural form characteristic of a principal dancer but prevailed despite these alleged genetic disadvantages.

The importance of the 10,000-hour rule also has become overwhelmingly apparent in my own experience, as many dancers that the industry deemed untalented have risen to the American and world ballroom finals as a result of raw, unadulterated dedication. One friend who was deemed average as a young dancer was so motivated and exhibited such a vehement work ethic that he landed both on the big screen with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook” and in the national final, far above many others who were considered inherently gifted.

Talent may help you get noticed, but hot, sweaty, calloused labor takes the prize.

Spacey artists in white coats

The reverse stereotype, that the best scientists are those who work the hardest and study the most, is similarly false, as it masks the equally important qualities of creativity and vision, words often reserved for artists. I am not saying that science is an innate talent — it certainly follows the same 10,000-hour rule that dance does. But the best scientists are not necessarily the ones who can recite every product and intermediate of the citric acid cycle and calculate molarities in their heads. Nor are they those who can pipette the fastest and perform tail vein injections with atomic precision. The best scientists are the ones who get curious, creative and emotional. They realize that in order to do something new, you may need to get a little chancy, a little uncomfortable, and deviate from much of what you learned in those 10,000 hours.

Just as great choreography is often a result of mistakes and digressions from the director’s vision, so are some of the most pivotal discoveries the offspring of fortuitous accidents. Penicillin was discovered when Alexander Fleming’s poor sterile technique resulted in an infestation of mold on his Petri dish, leading to the realization that some molecule released by the fungus has antibacterial properties. Viagra was discovered as a result of a failed clinical trial meant to alleviate hypertension. Accidents are the driving force of groundbreaking innovation, and it takes an open mind to perceive fortune in the misfortune of these costly and often demoralizing events. Studying, memorizing and knowing will make a good scientist. Wondering, daydreaming and stumbling will make a great one. The best scientists are just spacey artists in white coats.

Knowing by trying

For better or worse, my own scientific career has been a hodgepodge of blunders, some of which led to discoveries, others to day drinking. One of my more fortuitous accidents occurred when I was trying to purify one protein but ended up purifying another, far more interesting candidate. I had been purifying a behemoth of a transmembrane enzyme (protein A) for six months, and the purification appeared to be working; that is to say, the protein complex and its activity were intact after purification. However, while the purified protein exhibited activity, the crude protein did not. Now, even an elementary understanding of protein purification is enough to recognize the peculiarity of this observation. After a month of titrating every reagent under the sun but still obtaining the same strange and inexplicable result, I finally presented the data (or lack thereof) to my boss, who chuckled and said I had two left hands and could not do an activity assay to save my life. I, however, had a more optimistic view of the situation — it seemed to me that there was an endogenous inhibitor of protein A in our system. Purification of this inhibitor would be a higher-impact project than the one I was pursuing. My boss declared, “I don’t believe it.”

In spite of his skepticism, I proceeded to test the hypothesis. Several weeks later, glowing and elated, I presented him with the evidence that confirmed that I do not, in fact, have two left hands. Only then did I become aware of the fact that his earlier challenge had been a clever attempt at reverse psychology. He had wanted me to pursue the unlikely theory.

“You never know until you try,” he proclaimed.

The writer’s discarded dance shoes, worn down by hours of practice and competition.

New thoughts

Actually, you often do not know even after you try, and between the trying and the succeeding there will be many hazy detours, discouraging obstacles and cryptic clues. Some would say that the best way to solve such problems of scientific ambivalence is to plow forward, work harder and generate more data. I would say that it is to go on vacation and drink a margarita. The endogenous inhibitor idea came to me at a friend’s destination wedding on a beach in Mexico. A colleague of mine solved all her cloning problems while speeding down a slope in Whistler. The key is to give ourselves time to think in a new way, with a different geographical or psychological perspective aiding in the process. Thinking, as it turns out, is a difficult commodity to come by when the protein column is leaking, the building fire alarm is wailing, three timers are beeping and the rotation student is bleeding after having cut himself with a scalpel intended for mouse surgery. But in the turmoil of going after that singular experimental endpoint and cleaning up the student’s wound, we may be overlooking some of the most interesting biological phenomena hidden in the data.

No thoughts

While analyzing and ruminating are critical in science, they are often detrimental in dance. Certainly, daily training requires a great deal of thought, but a great dancer is one who does not need to think when the moment comes to perform. My own meditative breakthrough came when I trained with a coach who taught me to disconnect my ego from my body. After two hours with him, I was able to improve more than I had in the previous two years. Learning how to go on autopilot is one of the best things that can happen to a dancer. On the other hand, prolonged autopilot can be one of the most detrimental qualities for a scientist. As my yoga teacher likes to say, “We are so busy as human doings that we forget to be human beings.” Believe it or not, doing too many experiments at the expense of being a scientist may actually impede scientific progress. A scientist who gets too comfortable in her techniques and routines risks not only missing what could have been a groundbreaking observation but also interpreting ambiguous data in a way that supports her desired hypothesis.

Trusting in technique

Thinking makes our science interesting and our dancing dull. If the goal for a scientist is to take a step away from pipetting and toward pondering, then the goal for a dancer is to train a body so capable that he no longer needs to ponder.

As a student of both science and dance, I discovered that there is one necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for achieving both hyper- and hypo-consciousness in these very different disciplines: technique. Sound technical training is the reason a dancer can trust his body to take over his mind and a scientist can trust his creativity to surpass his dogma. Technique allows us to execute all the banal tasks like pirouetting and pipetting so that we can cultivate the creativity, energy and artistry essential to moving from the studio to the lead role in a professional production or from the task-based experiments to the major discoveries. Inspiration can happen in an instant, but technique takes 10,000 hours to learn.

To this day I cannot tell you whether or not it was worth it — practicing the same rumba walks day after day, running the repetitive Western blots and PCRs. It was neither noticed nor applauded, neither glamorous nor sexy. But it was damn liberating: The constraint of technical training gave me the freedom of artistic expression. It is in those hyper- and hypo-conscious, post-10,000 hour moments of euphoric abandon that the real discoveries and the tremendous, hair-raising moves are made. To learn something until it is instinctual is to give yourself the ability to forget it all consciously and selectively in order to change your view and discover something new.

Natalya Gertsik Natalya Gertsik is a graduate student at Weill Cornell Medical College and is conducting her thesis at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.