Kinesthetic Aesthetics: Coding, orphanages and martial arts influence dance projects of three students

Kinesthesia - n. - the sense that detects bodily position, weight or movement of the muscles, tendons and joints.

"It's almost like a sixth sense," I remarked while sitting at a local coffee shop with a dancer, Lai Yi Ohlsen, who corrected me.  

"It's just another form of communication," she said.  

Movement is a way of expression, but also a way we connect with others. Dance is choice; how a person moves and reacts is an individual and personal will. It's a means of being yourself. At the same time, it creates a dialogue between people, whether it is spoken or unspoken, and can bring people together to achieve results that are much more than the singular.

I interviewed three dancers who are soon to graduate with degrees from ASU to see how they have channeled their own personal interests and journeys into their thesis projects.

Lai Yi Ohlsen

Ohlsen, a senior, has been dancing since she was 10 years old and a member of the ASU Hip-Hop Coalition. However, her interests vary and after taking a Java coding class she decided to major in computer science.

Her honors thesis, titled "complexMovement," combines her interest in computer science and dance into a performance piece that creates a dialogue about the nature of both.

"In all of my classes I've been very inspired by the overlap," Ohlsen said. "My professors will be at the front of the room talking about computer science, but I'll be realizing and seeing what they're saying through movement."

Her piece is entirely improvisational and not choreographed at all. Her goal is to show the audience how these two drastically different fields are actually closer than they appear. She emphasizes how agency and the act of choice are apparent both in the way a dancer moves their body, and in the algorithms a computer programmer creates.

"The way people design their programs, there's the same sense of personality in it and the same type of choices determine how they create," she said.

Ohlsen is graduating with a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, her honors thesis "complexMovement" takes place at ASU Gallery 100 on Thursday at 7 p.m.

Emily May

May's thesis is titled "Mi Firma," which is Spanish for "my signature." Her project is a discovery and exploration of the way dance can encourage a sense of identity and belonging. 

The conception of her project came from a stay in a Mexican orphanage where her brother was adopted.

"I had just graduated high school and was getting ready for college when things completely changed and I was living at this orphanage in Mexico," she said.  

While staying there, she became close with some of the children in this orphanage.  The experience, which she described as intense, had a lasting effect on her.

When it came time to start her thesis, the orphanage was still on her mind. A lifelong dancer, May traveled to the orphanage with two other dance students in the program the summer before graduating to conduct research about how dance can be used to positive results among these children.

In just two weeks, she noticed an overwhelming transformation in the group of students she was working with at the orphanage.

"What I found was that it was transformative to them because dance cultivated a dialogue around making choice," May said. "The personal expression of what is the movement I want to do here and how do I want to engage in that?"

The results were so positive that the nuns of the orphanage were overjoyed to select specific children that had made an outstanding change. May expressed a wish to continue her work at the orphanage and said she is likely to go back. 

Returning to Arizona, she wanted to capture her experience through the medium of movement and dance. "Mi Firma" is the culmination of this exceptional project.

"It's taking a lot of the things that really stood out to me that are unique to the place and unique to being with the children and the journey of dancing all together," May said. "Also becoming more aware of ourselves and the way we make choices and what kind of choices we make."

Emily May is graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in Dance, her thesis "Mi Firma" is part of Emerging Artists II.

See Cha

Cha's thesis is a play on the words "fusion" and his last name, "Fu-cha" (pronounced like fuchsia). It mixes his interest in both hip-hop and modern dance with influences from martial arts to present a yin and yang of styles.

He is both a choreographer and a performer in his set of pieces which works with a cast of 11 dance students at ASU.

Cha has danced for over 20 years, but this commitment to movement started out as a hobby with his friends.

"I took classes because it was fun," he said.

After receiving support from mentors and teachers over the years, he began to take a deeper interest in the way movement could have on his life.

"The biggest thing that dancing has taught me is taking a focus on my kinesthetic awareness," he said.

He attributes his lack of sustaining any major injuries throughout his career to the improved awareness he shares with his physical body. But he also states that the knowledge a person learns from dancing plays into other aspects of life as well. 

For "Fu-cha," he wanted to blend the various aspects of physical movement including martial arts into his piece that fuses multiple styles of dance together.

"With my section of the show, what I was doing was a progression," he said.  "The first two dances are the influences I have (hip-hop and modern), and as it progresses, you start to see the blend of the two."

In the future, he hopes to be able to share his knowledge with other students of movement. He wants to be a dance educator, not just a teacher, and guide students to a deeper understanding of life through his favorite medium of expression, dance.

See Cha is graduating with a MFA in Dance, his thesis "Fu-cha" is part of Emerging Artists II.

Emerging Artists II runs three dates, Friday Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Margaret Gansolo Dance Studio. For more info, click here.

Related Links:

ASU graduate leads life of professional dance

Students plan to help children through dance group Movement Exchange

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