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The Science Of Samba

Published: July 15, 2014

Geography’s Hyowon Ban is using Geographical Information Science (GIS) to build a better understanding of samba dancers.

The lively, rhythmical dance of Brazilian origin is performed in 2/4 time everywhere from Panama to the U.S. with special attention to Brazilian-American communities in California. Of course, the most recognizable event on the calendar of samba dancing takes place at Carnival, the legendary annual event in Rio de Janeiro.

Ban, a member of the university since 2009, is an expert in Geographical Information Science, a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present all types of geographical data.

“I’ve always been interested in the artistic applications of GIS research,” she said. “I have even thought about creating a stage performance of my research using GIS to represent dance. I want audiences to know more about GIS and to enjoy my research. It can be presented in the beautiful format of art. It offers that rate moment when art and science work together.”

In 2009, three entities at The Ohio State University (Advanced Computer Center for the Arts and Design, the Dance Department and the Wexner Center for the Arts) showcased an innovative collaboration revolving around the work of choreographer William Forsythe. By using GIS, Ban, on her way to earning her doctorate at Ohio State in 2009, was able to map how the dancers moved and interacted. She presented one short paper from this project before the International Cartographic Conference held in Paris in 2011 and has published a few articles that deal with GIS and dance.

Ban’s ability to visualize dance using GIS was recalled in 2013 when a Ph.D. candidate from Belgium’s University of Ghent visited her at CSULB to discuss expanding her research using dance data from the university. This time, GIS was to be applied to samba dancing.

Her Belgian counterpart, an amateur samba dancer, was eager to apply her approach to samba dance. She agreed to work with him in Belgium and visited the university in the summer of 2013. Eventually, the team published a paper about their samba research in a manuscript in the Journal of Applied Geography.

“We applied spatial analytical methodology to discover if the dancers were following their instructions correctly, she recalled. “There were three dancers in the samba project. One was the Belgian educator and the other two were students. The challenge was for the students to follow their teacher’s movements exactly. Every small movement of each individual ought to be identical in samba.”

Her Belgian teammates chose the new “motion-capture” system to record the dance provided by the University of Ghent. Motion capture is the process of recording the movement of objects or people in time and space that has dazzled movie audiences in everything from “The Lord of the Rings” to “The Planet of the Apes.” In filmmaking and video game development, it refers to recording actions of human actors and using that information to animate digital character models in 2D or 3D computer animation. In motion capture sessions, location information of moving actors are sampled many times per second. This animation data is mapped to a 3D model so that the model performs the same actions as the actor.

“The dancers wore motion-capture suits,” she said. “The system of electrodes enabled my Belgian colleagues to collect information about each dancer’s position, whether it was the dancer’s elbows or knees. We overlaid all three dancers’ data over a map and differentiated colors for each of the dancers. The teacher was visualized in blue while the students were visualized in green and pink. When we overlaid all three dancers’ data, we could see how they were moving differently and how they moved similarly.”

The team also was interested in how dancers maintain their timing for their motions.

“If a certain movement exists in samba from the hand or arm, it is best to work on the same time table,” she explained. “We analyzed the dancers’ patterns. This person would choose a certain motion at the beginning of the dance. The next dancer made the same motion a little after. That way, we were able to create 2D and 3D maps of the dancers’ movement patterns. We pointed out in our paper how our methodology could be applied to more diverse themes. Say there is an emergency and a building must be evacuated. Most people will follow the leader. Our study of movement could help to understand safer evacuation methods. Similar methodology could be applied to further understanding such natural phenomena as tsunami safety. When the proper data set is in place, then we could better understand the patterns of tsunamis.”

Ban believes there are plenty of improvements waiting to be made in GIS that could move beyond sambe to mapping behavior patterns or emotions. “Due to technological development, we will be able to better deal with large data sets. There will be changes in magnitude and quality. We will know things we never could before. We even could map new relationships with other people. The example of the dance is a good one.”