Movement, Grace and Embodied Cognition (2015-2016)

There is broad cultural agreement about what looks like graceful movement and what does not. But defining grace more precisely is a problem both of body mechanics and of cultural training and consensus.

This project explored a variety of performance contexts during which body schema and muscle control must go beyond everyday muscle memory, beyond signature body movements learned through a complex developmental process, in order to create new movements and body positions that require an exploration of the tolerable limits of movement and acceleration (for example, dance or a highly formal social event or performance limits encountered in an athletic contest).

Thinking more carefully about these exceptional performance moments allowed team members to ask a deeply fascinating broader question: What is graceful movement? More broadly, what is grace? Grace has a cultural and aesthetic meaning, even a theological one, closely related to social cognition through movement.

The team explored these connections using a variety of methods, from close readings of key cultural texts to movement measurements producing analyzable data to exploring the neurological bases of body schema and body movement.

Team members explored various contexts of dance performances in which there is an exploration of tolerance of movement and acceleration. In a collaboration with two dancers and an artist, they sought to arrive at an unbiased view of how the body expresses itself through dance. The artist sketched basic body movements using charcoal as a dancer performed these movements on a force plate. The team examined the correlation between the artist’s interpretation of grace and the data from the force plate. Next the team curated an exhibition on the Duke campus and provided a force plate for visitors to experience the differences between various body movements and data from force plate.


Summer 2015 – Spring 2016

Team Outcomes

Isolating Grace (exhibition at the Brown Gallery, Bryan Center, Duke; December 2016 - January 2017)

This Team in the News

Student Spotlight: Colleen Hamilton

From Lab to Museum, Students Share Their Brain Research

Faculty Perspectives: David Bell

I had no prior research experience before this project. It has really opened my eyes! —Stephanie Thompson

See earlier related team, Tact, Touch and Proprioception: The Culture and Neuroscience of Touch (2014-2015).

This project was selected by the Franklin Humanities Institute as a humanities-connected project.

Team Leaders

  • David Bell, Arts & Sciences-Romance Studies
  • Leonard White, School of Medicine-Neurology

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Colleen Hamilton, Neuroscience (AB)
  • Emery Jenson, English (AB), Global Health (AB2)
  • Anna Lombardo, Biology (BS)
  • Stephanie Thompson, Evolutionary Anthropology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Robert Butler, School of Medicine
  • Rosalinda Canizares, School of Medicine - Physical Therapy & Occupational Therapy, American Dance Festival
  • Daniel Schmitt, Arts & Sciences-Evolutionary Anthropology

/zcommunity Team Members

  • American Dance Festival