Ballet Dance: A Lesson in Physics

By Hannah Wilk '17

BrownLeotard.jpgRosalie O'Connor Photography ©2013 

When people think of engineering students, or alumni of engineering schools, they think of hard working people with jobs in technical industries. Liberal arts, dance, and music are not generally included in this stereotype. Olin's alumnae once again defy the 'norm' in the engineering world with the story of Molly McCormack, '07.

Molly is currently a freelance ballet dancer working on two different productions and teaching ballet. Molly is working with separate dance companies for two holiday-themed performances. The first group she is working with is the Northeast Youth Ballet (Reading, MA), directed by Denise Cecere. She is putting hours into practicing for her roles in the Nutcracker, where she plays Clara's mother and alternates between being a Russian dancer and the Dewdrop fairy. The second company she dances for is Contrapose Dance, based here in Cambridge,  and directed by Courtney Peix. With this group she is performing in "A Christmas Toy Story."  In this ballet, the story revolves around un-damaged toys mocking and shunning broken toys. Molly plays a penguin that has lost its suit. This production works with children as well as professional adults. Here Molly's experience working as a teacher comes into play.

Headshot_Molly.jpgRosalie O'Connor Photography ©2012

In addition to working with The Northeast Youth Ballet, Molly teaches ballet to students at the associated school, the Northeast School of Ballet (NSB).  She teaches youths age 7-16 different levels of ballet. While she teaches her students, she is able to draw parallels between physics and dance. People usually assume that these two things are completely separate. How could an art form be similar to physics? According to Molly, there are undeniable connections between the two. A person cannot dance without paying attention to physics concepts, like the center of one's mass while grand jeteing, or rotational inertia and speed while pirouetting. Also, a dancer must be able to quickly think and act, much like an engineer. Engineers are problem solvers, and so are dancers. If dancers are given a difficult set of movements, they have to learn it and implement it right away. They have to think through what their bodies are going to do to complete the task. When engineers are given a problem set, they have to think through what the next logical step is to solve the problem. Not too different after all!

The idea of connecting physics to dance came from Dr. Kenneth Laws, who worked at Dickenson College (Carlisle, PA), when Molly was in high school. Molly met and worked with this professor to help with her senior year science fair research. Dr. Laws' research worked to draw parallels between physics and the ballet. He focused on kinesiology and the body as a mass in space. He helped Molly realize that you can get better technique in dance, by understanding and focusing on the physics related to the movements. For Molly this was a very important time, because she realized the fascinating parallels between physics and dance.

Nutcracker Flower.jpegLiza Voll Photography ©2012

During high school, Molly was trying to decide whether to go to college or to work professionally as a ballet dancer. Dance had been a part of her life since the age of three and she was on track to work for a dance company professionally. However, when she was invited to Candidates' Weekend at Olin in 2003, she realized it was the place she wanted to be. She was thinking about deferring, but the she liked the group of students she met, and really loved the idea of experiencing four years of Olin with her new friends. 

While at Olin, Molly pursued a degree in mechanical engineering. Dance started to fall by the wayside, even though she thought about it all the time. She participated in the Babson Dance Ensemble, and the short lived Olin Dance Ensemble. Though she missed ballet dancing, she still loved engineering. Other than dance clubs, Molly was a TA for Dr. Michael Moody in Linear Algebra, Differential Equations, and Probability and Statistics. In 2010, she was a TA for Mark Somerville and John Geddes, in their first-year integrated course block. As with many multi-faceted Olin students,  Molly showed that she had the talent to dance, and the spark to be an engineer.


After graduating Olin in 2007, Molly worked for the Cambridge Polymer Group (Charleston, MA). A year later, she realized that dance was too big a part of her life to abandon. She believed that her body had a limited amount of time, until it became unable to dance professionally. Her mind, however, would outlive her body. So she decided to get back into dance. The best way for that to happen was by teaching. She started teaching at the Northeast School of Ballet, and has been a part of the "family" there ever since. At first she got a job as a substitute teacher. In 2011, she was invited by the director of the school to perform in the Nutcracker.

Nutcracker Russian.jpegLiza Voll Photography ©2012

After sampling a taste of performing on stage once again, Molly quit her engineering job at L-3 ESSCO (Ayer, MA) and moved back home to Philadelphia in 2012. Even though she loved engineering, she believed that dance is where she should focus her time for now.  In the 2012-2013 season, Molly was a company member with Roxey Ballet in Lambertville, NJ under the direction of Mark Roxey. Here she worked on three different productions, and got to perform in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade which was broadcast locally on ABC.

Now Molly has returned to Massachusetts once again. When she isn't dancing or playing with her chihuahua Dewey, she loves sitting by wharfs, crocheting, and watching movies. As an Olin alumna,  she also had this advice about leaving our little bubble.

"Take classes at all the colleges Olin is associated with," Molly advised. "This will help you break out of the bubble and learn from different styles of teaching."

Hard working, independent, and determined, Molly McCormack is a woman who exemplifies the idea of the Renaissance Olin Alum.   Not only was she able to decide that dancing was what she wanted to do, she will one day be able to fall back on her engineering background.

And who knows?  Hopefully one day she'll even be able to land her dream job of designing sets for Cirque du Soleil, where she'll be able to integrate both of her passions -  engineering and the performing arts.


Posted in: A Different Path, Alumni Speak, Because I Wanted To, Just Plain Fun