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DeFrantz taps across the water

Professor Thomas DeFrantz follows moves by a group of dancers in Singapore in a video conference dance class sponsored by the MIT-Singapore Alliance.
Professor Thomas DeFrantz follows moves by a group of dancers in Singapore in a video conference dance class sponsored by the MIT-Singapore Alliance.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Three MIT dancers in tap shoes and street clothes transformed the soundproof Ford Room (9-152) into an international conversation exploring movement, culture, passion and technology's role in teaching in an event sponsored by the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) on Tuesday, Sept. 14.

Over the course of 90 lively minutes, the trio in Cambridge exchanged performances and instruction with a group of dancers in Singapore via video conference. Thomas DeFrantz, associate professor of music and theater arts, presented a tap sequence with two student dancers, James Tolbert, a senior majoring in computer science, and Bradford Backus, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology.

Singapore choreographer Patrick Loo and six student dancers performed hip-hop movements to Indian music.

Called "Moves Across the Water: Tap and Hip-Hop," the SMA dance dialogue with the National University of Singapore (NUS) is the first in a new series, said Alan Brody, provost for the arts, in his opening comments.

The Singapore-MIT Alliance is a program that engages MIT, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University in a collaborative graduate education and research program.

"Until now, SMA has focused entirely on aspects of engineering education. But to truly represent an MIT education, some aspect of the arts should be included. The new series is conceived as a practice-dialogue on the arts and a genuine exchange of expertise," said Brody.

Brody, a playwright and novelist, collaborated with Edwin Thumboo, a poet and director of the Center for Fine Arts at the National University of Singapore, to shape the innovative project. The two men met when Brody visited Singapore.

The choreographers had neither met nor e-mailed before Tuesday's rhythm chat, so they had to rely on the language of dance. DeFrantz's instructions to Tolbert and Backus and to Loo's group in Singapore were, more or less, "digga-dot-dot. Yah-bah, yah-bah, oh! Right foot! Inside turn!"

Miraculously, across 12 time zones and 10,000 miles, Patrick Loo smiled, lay down his microphone, and reproduced DeFrantz's tap sequence, more or less, with his six dancers in sneakers and satin sweats.

Later, DeFrantz, Tolbert and Backus replicated Loo's hip-hop sequence. According to DeFrantz, there is a lot of correlation between hip-hop and tapping. "Hip-hop is the rhythm universe. Tap is talking with your feet. Both a tap dancer and a good rap M.C. must have something to say and say it in a jazzy, articulate way."

Steven Lerman, SMA deputy director and professor of civil and environmental engineering, described the "Moves" dance exchange as an "example of MIT at its best."

"It combined the use of advanced technologies with our long-standing interest in weaving the arts throughout our students' experiences here," said Lerman. "It also linked us with our partners in the Singapore-MIT Alliance in a way that went 'outside the box' of teaching engineering courses and working collaboratively on research."

"Dancers in both locations performed in specially equipped videoconference rooms, much like small TV studios, with special lighting, remotely controlled TV cameras and wireless microphones," said Peter Hess, SMA faculty liaison. "Behind the scenes, a CODEC (compressor/decompressor) took outgoing audio and video and converted it into bits suitable for transmission on a data network. Simultaneously the CODEC reconstructed incoming data and sent it to the large video screens and sound system in each room, on which dancers and audience saw and heard the proceedings," Hess explained.

The network SMA used for the collaboration was Internet2, a high-speed version of the Internet dedicated to research and educational uses.

The event also highlighted student partnerships, as MIT and Singapore students discussed balancing their studies and dancing. Both MIT dancers said they find art and science mutually nourishing.

New Hampshire native Backus started square dancing when he came to MIT and has been tapping for only three years. For him, choreography has become a "passion," he said. "How could I not dance? Dancing is healthy and creative. It helps me in doing science."

Tolbert, of Maryland, has been dancing since age two. A believer in "practice and more practice, since the show must go on," Tolbert said he hopes to combine computer science and dance in graduate work.

The dancers in Loo's Singapore group balance weekly rehearsals with course loads in medicine, science and social sciences, they said.

The student dancers in both performances used the same gestures to express their feelings while learning new moves--hands on hips for frustration; 'V's for victory and the right hand tapping the heart to denote affection, respect and goodwill.

"Moves Across the Water" ended with the now-global practice of a hurried exchange of e-mail addresses.

The next SMA arts event will be a dialogue on writing and cultural identity with Thumboo and Brody reading from their work. In the spring, George Ruckert will share his expertise on Indian music with an Indian dance specialist at NUS, and MIT's Gamelan Galak Tika will share its work with the NUS gamelan ensemble.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 2004 (download PDF).

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