Skip to main content
Nancy Scherich mid performance flipping with other dancers

Communicating math through aerial acrobatics

By Srila Nayak

Nancy Scherich performing aerial silks acrobatics

Mathematics alumna Nancy Scherich (M.S., ’13) has bridged the worlds of art and math to great acclaim. In the summer of 2017, she was adjudged the overall winner of the international “Dance Your Ph.D.”contest. The 10-year-old competition is a challenge laid down by Science Magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for researchers to explain their work with dance moves. In all, 53 scientists from around the world submitted dances.

Currently a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Scherich’s research is in topology with a focus on representations of the braid group.

Science wrote of Scherich, “She spends her days with ‘paper and pencil’ to find the rules that determine the unique representations of twists and knots in high-dimensional spaces. So naturally, she created a dance to explain it with aerial silk acrobatics and glowing hula hoops.”

Scherich began learning aerial silks acrobatics at the Santa Barbara Dance Center in 2016, which allowed her to combine her love of dance with mathematics in a math-dance video for the competition. She is trained in ballet, modern and ballroom dance and musical theater. Her award-winning dance, “Representations of the Braid Groups,” has been viewed over 81,000 times on YouTube.

Scherich’s unusual and creative interpretation of mathematics through the medium of dance has been featured in prestigious media outlets. She was interviewed by WGN Morning News Chicago and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Her dance victory was covered in Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal.

In her essay “Turning Math into Dance: Lessons from Dancing my Ph.D.,” Scherich writes about employing dance to communicate abstract mathematical concepts to the general public.

“From a mathematical perspective, the very language we use to describe abstract concepts are words of movement: rate of change, flows, mappings, loops, twist, motion groups, level curves, continuous deformations, etc. Dance is a stunning and novel choice of expression to communicate these ideas of movement and relationships.”

Scherich arrived at OSU after completing her undergraduate studies in mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles. She wrote her thesis, “The Alexander Polynomial,” under the guidance of Bill Bogley. She recalls OSU fondly.

“My years at OSU were two of the best years of my life. I loved living in Corvallis and the unforgettable numerical analysis courses with Dr. Robert Higdon. I made some life-long friends in my master’s program and learned a lot of great math.”