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Early Movement and Modern Apes: Dance Lessons with David Parsons

By Amanda Leslie

September 16, 2016

Earlier this summer, recent alumnus B. Douglas Whitmire, BA anthropology ’16, was working on an independent study project with Professor Wes Shumar, PhD, when Shumar received a call from the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

They needed an anthropologist to consult with choreographer David Parsons of Parsons Dance on a collaboration with Drexel’s ExCITe Center and the Westphal dance program. Parsons wanted to learn more about early human movement and evolution for a new dance performance that will highlight the relationship between man and machine and the development of technology.

Given Whitmire’s interest in physical anthropology, Shumar asked him to tag along for the consultation.

“Douglas is particularly interested in bone fossils and what they can tell us about different aspects of the past, what people ate, what they did, what diseases they had, etc.,” says Shumar. “He also knows much more about biological anthropology than me.”

The collaboration not only involves dancers, but also drones — lightweight, custom drones that are being designed by Drexel students under the guidance of ExCITe Center Director Youngmoo Kim, PhD, to specifically work within a theater space.

While Whitmire did not interact with the drones, he did end up spending a day and a half with Parsons and the dancers from Westphal who were stepping in for the initial chorography of the piece before Parsons Dance company members start rehearsals.

During one of the practices, Whitmire was asked to demonstrate the types of movements that would most likely approximate that of early hominids and modern apes, admitting having done so with embarrassing accuracy.
Our earliest human ancestors, he explains, were facultative bipeds, meaning that they walked on either all fours or two legs, depending on situational requirements.

“The location of the fornamen magnum (the hole at the base of the skull) in modern humans is right at the bottom and facilitates upright walking,” says Shumar. “In pre-humans, it is slightly further up the back of the skull, meaning that individuals would have to hold their head upright. We also have short hipbones that allow us to walk upright. Other primates have longer, narrower, less rounded hips. It’s harder for them to hold their bodies up.”

This was Whitmire’s first time working with dancers — or living people, for that matter. His previous experience includes cadaveric samples and archaeological specimens.

“I have zero artistic experience and this was quite outside my comfort zone,” says Whitmire. “I was amazed at how hard the dancers worked to perfect what needed to be sloppy, haphazard movements. David Parsons had an amazingly intuitive approach to locomotion and how that would have to be translated into dance.”

When the final piece debuts in the Prince Theater in December, drones and all, both Whitmire and Shumar are eager to see the outcome.

“Their interpretation of the evolution of locomotion was so expertly crafted, even in the earliest stages.” says Whitmire, “I am proud to have been a part of such amazing work.”