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Square Dancing Takes a Mathematical Spin

December 24, 2007

"It's math in motion — you're walking through mathematics and would have no idea you're working with concepts that most college math majors don't study until their fourth year," observed mathematician David Schmitz of North Central College in Naperville, Ill., about square dancing. It's akin to "solving a Rubik's cube," he said.

The ranks of today's square dancers include an inordinate number of puzzle lovers, engineers, computer programmers, and mathematics teachers. Even as they swing and twirl through the motions, they stay attuned to mathematical concepts such as group theory, fractions, and permutations when they go through their steps.

North Central has a fledgling square-dance club called the Square Roots. It joins existing clubs at schools such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nonetheless, "it's a constant battle" to fight the stereotype, MIT computer programmer (and square dance caller) Clark Baker told the Chicago Tribune. "People think of a jug of moonshine and hay bales, and that it might be a nice activity . . . for your grandparents."

Most modern square dancers adhere to a set of about 70 calls, wearing traditional attire. But a small fraction are challenge dancers who may know 1,000 calls, 100 "concepts," and can add other moves to increase a dance's complexity.

North Central's Schmitz, a dancer for more than a decade, prefers the challenge format. To recruit dancers, he came up with a three-week course called the "Mathematics of Square Dancing." Those who put their best feet forward included math, science, and computer majors. They learned such moves as the "Ferris wheel," "centers pass through," and "acey deucey." Between dances came the theoretical mathematics: discussions about the number of permutations possible in one call or how a rectangle formation could be sheared to create a parallelogram "concept" of a typical call.

It's a far cry from the days of awkwardly clutching a partner's sweaty hands in a junior high school gym class.

Source: North Central College, Dec. 3, 2007; Chicago Tribune, Dec. 10, 2007.

Start Date: 
Monday, December 24, 2007