An hour before our first show last week, we broke out of the warmup circle on the stage. The dancers called themselves together and pulled in tight to give themselves a sending cheer before the performance. I was walking towards the wings when I heard them, all together, yell:
I stopped in my tracks and turned to them, revealing my wide grin. There are a few distinct and specific teaching memories that I hold onto, images that are painted and hung in some exclusive gallery inside my head. I added this canvas to the collection.
Why “stardust”? The dancers, immersed in the art of dance, have had to extend themselves more than just from toe to fingertip. They are tasked with conceptualizing and encapsulating big, crosscutting ideas of science. One of these, with background narration provided by clips from a Neil deGrasse Tyson interview, is the fact that our physical essence is something that has to have been “cooked” somewhere else. The original batch of universe would have only given us hydrogen and helium, for the most part. But we are decidedly structured around much heavier elements, such as oxygen and carbon. These are the byproducts fused within massive stars that have lived out their energetic lives and spread these materials out amongst the galaxy in a massive explosion. Our solar system is a later generation built from recycled parts. You, your DNA, your cat, your chocolate — all the important things have their origins in the hearts of some other long-passed stars.
The universe is in us; we are the universe. “Stardust” is as inspiring a cheer as any I can think of. Bodies in motion on the dance floor celebrate the long journey of each spec of carbon, whether we’re aware of it or not.
But as far as we know so far, we’re also the only pieces of stardust aware of its source. To be stardust is one thing; to know that you are such is staggering. I think it means that we have some responsibility. We act on the responsibility to understand what we’re made of, because who else is going to if not us? This is the role of science, and I suspect that on some level we all place value on scientific enterprise because it allows us to be conscious of our context in time and space.
And, I think it’s our responsibility to dance (as well as to sing, to paint, to write). It’s all what this bit of stardust is meant to do, billions of years in the making: to express that we are all a part of something, responsible to the whole while making sense of the self. It’s a hard job. But I’ve learned through this project that dance and dancers are up to the task.