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JACKSON, WYO – Here’s a Mobius strip thought: How can art teach us about science, which in turn could teach us how to run better art organizations?
That is one of the questions I considered during a workshop led by local science teacher and dancer Amelia Terrapin. Terrapin is the founder of the aptly named “Mobius,” an elementary-age science curriculum taught through creative movement. Now she is expanding her repertoire to include workshops for adults and teenagers.
The workshop I attended was a prototype Terrapin is currently refining. Designed for adults, the workshop explains systems in nature through a series of movement scenarios. In one exercise, our group of 12 was given the challenge to move across the dance floor with only one restriction: our left hand could never leave the floor.
The comic relief alone was priceless. Nothing like awkward physical actions to break down barriers and get adults to bond. For me, the surprise was how many variations we came up with to get across that damn floor. The modern dancer in our group made it look elegant and playful, as if it were a dance phrase. Some people dove right into unique and complex moves, like rolling across the floor with their hand always touching. Others of us opted for efficiency, scooting ourselves on our butts while sliding or dragging our hand along.
This particular exercise illustrated how innovation happens in nature. Terrapin noted that innovation usually comes through an individual rather than en masse. We were adopting ways of moving from our fellow dancers/movers/scooters. In a natural system, a particularly elegant or effective way of moving might naturally be adopted across the group, and innovation takes a foothold (or in this case, handhold).
We explored other key aspects of ecosystems, including their non-hierarchal quality – a lesson certain art organizations in town would do well to learn. Also instructive was an exercise in dynamic equilibrium.
“Nature is always seeking equilibrium, and nature is always dynamic,” Terrapin explained.
In our non-hierarchal movement exercise, group members moved around the space at varying speeds, trying to keep an equal distance between oneself and anyone else. At any time, a group member could call out commands, such as, “stop,” “go,” “fall,” “walk backward,” or “crawl.”
As the exercise progressed, a natural rhythm emerged, with the commands being called out at almost regular intervals. Though some members spoke more often than others, each person felt compelled to take a turn. We instinctively wanted to do our parts to keep the group going.
It was a simple exercise with a profound lesson: the co-creative experience is easier and more natural than we might expect. In group situations I tend to be an observer or lone wolf and I was surprised at how automatically the group developed a dynamic yet sustainable rapport.
Terrapin opened the workshop with the important insight that systems are inherently relational. Though we tend to look at the components of a system as discreet entities – the elk, the mountain lion, the aspen tree, or the executive director, the art teacher, the student – in fact, what science shows is that it is the relationships between components that are key to how well a system functions.
If the organizing principle of an ecosystem, or an arts organization, is to thrive, then it is important for the components of the ecosystem to seek dynamic equilibrium. The components of a system need to adapt themselves to that ever-changing system. In order to do this, self-awareness and other-awareness are both necessary. We adapt and modify and adjust to one another, while still retaining our intrinsic uniqueness.
If we don’t, the system dies.