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Dancing + Coding = Undisciplined

Tanina Urbanski is a dancer.

Her first memory of dancing was a toddler ballet class. “It was Halloween Week. We had our leotard, skirt, and ballet shoes (so fun). We also got to dress up in costumes (even more fun.) I dressed up as Batgirl, putting my hands on my hips in my superhero pose, everything. We were doing jumps across the floor. Because I had my cape on, I felt like I was flying.”

The superhero motif works well for her because by day she is Tanina Urbanski, a mild-mannered computer programmer. More accurately, Tanina’s alter ego is EXPLO’s Information Systems Manager, and she designs and maintains the code for all our proprietary databases.

There are apparent, stark differences between dance and computer programming. That someone could master both arabesque and JavaScript feels at least unfair and borders on cheating. To be good at both requires an extraordinary amount of discipline. Yet I think Tanina, like Batgirl, is also undisciplined (in an untraditional use of the word). And I think there are lessons we can steal from her when thinking about curriculum design.

The traditional definition of “undisciplined” is “lacking in discipline or control, unruly.” Consider an alternative:

Undisciplined: /ənˈdisəplənd/ adjective
A mindset in which ideas and great thinking traverse traditional academic disciplines (with just the right amount of unruliness.)

An undisciplined approach to curriculum design creates an environment where interdisciplinary learning is possible. This past summer, we offered a workshop on this topic that challenged teachers and academic deans to think outside their siloes. One of many things we learned is that faculty who teach in even the most niche discipline — Greek history for example — often have a wide array of interests and many areas of expertise. Our Greek historian had circumnavigated the globe in a 30’ sailboat. We also discovered how the gap between disparate areas of expertise is usually closer than it seems.

I asked Tanina to share a little of her story and to co-create a Venn diagram that looks for the overlaps between dance and computer programming. (If you’re a visual thinker, the diagram is at the bottom.)

We discovered how the gap between disparate areas of expertise is usually closer than it seems.

DH – What are the throughlines between what you do as a computer programmer and what you do as a dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher?

TU – How I make a computer code is similar to how I approach choreographing a dance. I can find a piece of music and think — alright — I know exactly what I want to happen during this chorus. I know what that movement looks like. In coding, I know we need to write these sets of repeating lines to make something happen. But I also have to add transitions to make the code or the dance flow. Transitions in programming and choreography are very, very similar.

DH – So, If we think about dance and software development as two circles of a Venn diagram, one thing that overlaps is “transitions.” What else?

TU – “Style” is another or even “language.” You might have that classical teacher that speaks all of the French terms for ballet (Elevé, Frappé, Saut de chat), and then you might have the contemporary teacher that just says, “Alright, hit and twist, and dot-dot.” Everybody has their own language for movement.

I would also put “audience” right in the middle. I consider who I’m designing for in both programming and choreography. I’m redesigning the front end of our web systems right now for three audiences: our families, students, and staff, and I have to think about what each group needs. In the same way, when I’m designing a dance, I’m thinking about what the audience will see, hear, and feel.

DH – What’s the biggest challenge you faced learning each?

TU – The biggest hurdle in dance was ballet classes because the training is specific and rigorous. But part of me liked it because, like coding, it’s repetitive. The rules were very strict, very controlled, little room for error. And then, once you get over the hurdle and figure out — okay — I know the steps, and now I can add my artistry to it. That changed how I approached ballet class. It doesn’t have to be so rigid. You can add your personality.

DH – Was there a moment when computer programming did that too?

TU – There is a time when you can type a program as effortlessly as you would write an email. There are parts where I know JavaScript. I know what patterns I’m going to write out. I have that muscle memory in my fingers. Just like I would feel in dance after mastering a sequence of steps.

DH – Can we put up the word “precision”?

TU – Yes. If you don’t tell the computer exactly what you want it to do, it will not work. Doing a dance step wrong might leave you in a position that makes it impossible to transition into the next movement. You have to be precise in your movements. Each discipline requires you to pay more attention to detail.

DH – I’ve heard you use the word “Designer.”

TU – Just “design” in general.

DH – Is there another overlap?

TU – “Stage.” There are multiple stages for dance, depending on the venue. Computer platforms are also a stage. There are multiple stages on multiple devices, right? Smartphone, tablet, laptop. There is also “responsive design” in computer programming and responsive dance. I have to respond to the different-sized stages and the different audiences.

Our Diagram:venn tanina

We quickly noticed a lot of overlap, and over the course of the interview, we actually struggled to find themes unique to just one circle or the other.

When we did find unique words, they were usually balanced by complements in the other circle. Tanina pointed out how dances are “open to interpretation” whereas computer programs are closed, how the “audience” of a dance is a passive experience, and the audience of a program (the users) is active. Human error in dance often inspires new possibilities whereas human errors in programming create bugs.

How can we use this for curriculum design?

One quick benefit is student engagement. If you’re teaching a computer programming course, chances are you have at least one dancer in the room. And that dancer’s ears might perk up if you start with the word “stage” instead of “operating system.” A Venn diagram like this highlights shared language. Instead of dangling one fish hook, you are dangling many. You give more students — each with different backgrounds, experiences, and prior knowledge — many ways to hook into the content.

The next time you’re planning curriculum, find a colleague outside your department and create a Venn diagram for your upcoming units – even (and especially) if the two units seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. In our course, our Greek teacher and a chemistry teacher found a throughline from the Acropolis to dill pickles, and it sparked a lively and engaging discussion. (Hint: it had to do with fermentation and lactic acid.)

At EXPLO Elevate we are curious about how we can be more “undisciplined” and what might happen if we taught in a more undisciplined way. What do you think? Is an undisciplined mindset a requisite characteristic for our future leaders? Let us know your thoughts, and/or send us examples of the Taninas you know.