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Circles of Mathematical Women

ae dancersDancers pay homage to mathematical foremothers

The relationship between women and mathematics is historically underappreciated. But despite adversity, women, often self-taught, have made significant discoveries in the field.

The earliest known female mathematician was Hypatia, an intellectual in ancient Alexandria. She was murdered in AD 415 by a Christian mob for what they called pagan, unladylike behavior. Émilie du Châtelet cross-dressed so she could attend lectures in the 1700s, Sophie Germain published under a male pseudonym in the early 1800s, and Emmy Noether gave lectures under the name of a male colleague in the early 1900s.

Local mathematician, dancer and choreographer Karl Schaffer sheds light on the contributions of these mathematical foremothers, and a few contemporaries, in “The Daughters of Hypatia: Circles of Mathematical Women,” which runs Feb. 24 and 25 at Motion at the Mill’s Reinberg Theater.

“For 20 years I’ve worked on bringing out the mathematical in dance,” says Schaffer, co-founder of the Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern Dance Ensemble. “It’s showing people there is mathematics in everything we do and that everybody can do it.”

This year’s show is an expansion of a 10-minute performance about female mathematicians that the ensemble put on last year.

When community members encouraged Schaffer to expand upon it, he agreed.

“I knew there was plenty that people don’t know about, that has been hidden,” he says. “All my adult life I’ve tried to pay attention to people whose freedom and dignity has been repressed.”

Four female dancers, each of whom speak the quotes of female mathematicians, perform solos, and interact with a video projection. The projection depicts MC-Escher-like tessellations based on designs by mathematician, Marjorie Rice. Software designer Kevin Lee developed the TesselMania program suite used to compile the images.

The historical sections of the show are drawn together by dances exploring circular motifs, as the dancers recount stories from the women’s lives and perform patterns suggestive of their work.

Saki, who goes by one name, has danced with Schaffer for 10 years and will perform in the piece.

“It involves many disciplines or facets of being a dancer in terms of prop manipulation and scripted text, and being aware spatially in a different way than other choreography,”

she says.

Saki pulls out a copy of the script and recites:

“Sophia Koveleski says, ‘The poet must see what others do not see, must look deeper than others look, and the mathematician must do the same. It is a science that demands the utmost imagination.’”

Dancer Jane Real jumps in and recites the rest from memory: “It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet of the soul,” she says.

 Real’s hope is that people leave enlightened.

“Whether they go, ‘Woah, mathematics is all around,’ like they start seeing mathematics in the chair,” she says pointing to a chair. “Or they are enlightened in the way that I was, by the fact that there are a lot of women in history that made all these contributions to math.”

As evidenced by its title, circles are one of the major motifs of the show. The dancers create elaborate circles with their footwork, bodies and hands, and the digital projections play with circles.

Mathematical symmetries appear throughout the show via historically female activities—knitting and stitching patterns, and clapping games.

“More young girls than boys, have these clapping games,” says Schaffer. “There are lots of fascinating patterns in the games that can be seen as mathematical, and those are incorporated into the show and played with.”

The music for the show consists of recordings of Santa Cruz’s a cappella choir, Zambra, as well as songs by Vi Hart and Victor Spiegel. Hart is known for her YouTube “mathematical doodles,” in which she plays with mathematics in musical composition and art. Schaffer and Saki met Hart years ago at a mathematical event in Europe.

The show includes choreography by sarah-marie belcastro (who prefers lowercase), and contributions from the show’s four dancers.

Schaffer says the collaborative spirit of the show shines through in the dancers’ interactions.

“Often they’re dancing in circles, and in rehearsals there’s a great sense of community and camaraderie,” he says. Photo: Steve DiBartomoleo


“The Daughters of Hypatia: Circles of Mathematical Women” takes place at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at Reinberg Theater, 131 Front St., Santa Cruz. brownpapertickets.com.

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