Sunday, 6 July 2014

Maths in Dance - Elena Grinenko


Elena was born in Russia and began ballroom dancing at the age of 7. In 1994, while still at school, she won the Latin title at both the Moscow and Russian championships.

In 1998, Elena emigrated to America to pursue her dancing career. After turning professional, Elena won several awards and competitions in the "Rising Star" category, including the 2002 Closed American National Rising Star Championship with Maksim Chmerkovshiy.     

With Tony Dovolani, she was to become national and world champion in the American Rhythm section in two consecutive years (2005-6). Elena also appeared as one of the professional dancers in "Dancing with the Stars US" (series 3 and 4). 

As well as competing in Dancesport championships, Elena has worked in many professional dance performances and productions as a dancer and choreographer including stage shows, TV and live performances, worked with major pop musicians and entertainers and also adjudicated at professional dance competitions.

A truly dedicated and passionate dancer, Elena kindly agreed to answer some questions about how mathematics relates to dance. Here is what she had to say.

Elena with Tony Dovolani, 2006

The Questions and Answers

1. Describe what math lessons were like for you at school.

I actually finished high school with an emphasis on high math and geometry. In Russia after 8th grade you can actually choose your sort of major, like in college here. My school had: Literature and History, Math and Geometry and Physics

2. When you left school, did you expect to be using any of the math that you were taught ever again?

Yes always in my dancing. But not in college. I finished "Performance Art Academy" that had to do with dance and stage production. 

3. ­ Do you divide dances or movements into parts or sections that might be expressed as mathematical fractions?

Absolutely. When we talk about rhythms and very much about full bit, half bit and even quarters. Each dance has unique rhythms.
Cha Cha
Slow, slow, slow, quick, quick = full, full, full, half half
slow a slow
3/4 1/4 full
and so on

The more advanced a student is, the more intricate timing becomes. I say when you get to the high quality dancing, you control the music, not the music controls you, by the way you express that movement though your body rhythms.

4. How aware are you of angles in your technique ­ angle of body, angle of arms and legs, angle of movements?

Yes, yes, yes. We have very specific ways of how much you can turn and which direction you go after that turn, especially in basics. Which angle your arm can go in order to get the right look and where to place your feet. In the book of technique you can find descriptions on how much the turn is, and which direction to move after.

We use words like parallel or perpendicular to the wall or your partner, diagonal to the corner or inside of the line of dance and set.

5. When you are moving in a performance, how much is "mathematical thinking and calculating where the space is" and how much is "feel for the space"?

This one for me is more connected to the feeling and the story we want to show vs calculating it. We are not machines and cannot be in the perfect position all the time and if I practice that I have a certain amount of space calculated and my partner is too close or too far, that will lead to all kinds of problems. So in this situation you adjust immediately based on what is in front of you and where you need to be, in order to make it work vs. make it right.

I guess it also can be calculating but it's instant and based on the situation. It's like driving a car and reacting to everything around you. I don't think people really think they are calculating - they just react.  

6. Is estimation good enough or do you rely on accurate
measurement of distances and times?

Estimation for sure, it can never be exact because when we compete we have other couples with us at the same time on the floor. Plus the floors can always be different sizes. So you map out your choreography when you practice and the places you ideally want to be but on the day and time of the actual performance it might not happen because you have to make adjustments based on what is going on around you. If you're dancing show case numbers. which means you're the only couple on the floor, then you have a very clear idea of distance and directions you want to move to, but again it's never the same. For example the floor can be slippery or sticky and that will affect your movement
for sure.

7. How aware are you of timing and beat when you are dancing?

This is very similar to fractions that I mentioned earlier. That is definitely very calculated in advance and rehearsed a lot so that it becomes second nature. At high level dancing it changes to freedom to choose right at the moment based on the music and how you feel that particular split second to express the music. It becomes even more rewarding if your partner is in tune with what you are doing and reacts on those charges that just happened in your body. We do that a lot though practicing lean and follow, when two people can fell though connection what happens in the other person's body.

8. Have your teachers or choreographers ever used math and physics to explain your technique?

Of course people have different styles of teaching but technique is technique and does not change. So yes in the beginning it comes with instruction of timing, directions and amounts of turns. Good technique makes good dancers. Once you pass that level it take the whole new form of what you're learning. It become about story, relationship, acting, expressing your feeling though your body. Those are very emotional things that cannot be calculated or measured. That's what makes good dancers, great dancers, unique dances or even admired dancers. If dance can grab you emotionally and you can't take your eyes off the couple, it's not because they have perfect technique, it's because of all those other aspects of dance. 


9. Do you look at statistics much to analyse your training and performance?

Yes. I guess it will be on the sense how much time and practice you put into something to become good. I read an amazing book called "Outliers". it talks about successful people and how they got there. Part of that book talks about putting 10 000 hours into what it is you doing and you cannot fail to be good at it. I was very curious to see when I reached my 10 000 hours and did an estimate of hours from childhood of how often I went to classes and competitions and my estimate was, that I got to 10K by age 17 :-) I guess numbers don't lie - that was the year when my partner and I won Russian championship in Latin. I danced for another 12 years after that and I'm sure I passed my other 10K. By the end of my competitive carrier, I retired with two world titles.

As far as analyzing, absolutely.
We usually video tape our competitions or show and look at them after. You are your own best and worst critic (sometimes we are too critical of ourselves). But after looking at the tapes we can choose what things to work on or fix. Because we also need to take into consideration "it's not how much you practice, it's how smart you practice" plays a huge roll in your improvements. I can put 10K hours into practising something wrong then it will be impossible to fix it because it's going be such a big part of your muscle memory, which is the hardest thing to fix for a dancer. So knowing what to practice and how to achieve it is a very important part in our industry.


10. Do you have any other insights to offer into how you use mathematics in dance?

Yes. I personally use references to a compass :-)
I always say to my students, try to imagine your foot is like a compass: the ball of your foot is where the needle is and the heel is your pencil. Now keep your needle on the same spot and rotate that pencil around 1/4 turn, half turn or more :-) People always comment how cool that is, and they had never heard anyone else explain turns like that. With this I achieve a few things in one - they know the amount of turn and they will place their feet in the right position because they know exactly where they started and where it needs to finish.

Thank you Elena for giving your time to answer those questions so thoughtfully and passionately.

For more information about Elena, see her official website: 

1 comment:

  1. What a champion! Great attitude and mind of a learner. World class!


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