How Is Math Like Ballroom Dancing?


Over the summer I read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I loved it, and not just because Stephenson includes real mathematics and gets it right. It’s also really funny. One of my favorite passages is a 5-page description of one of the main characters, Randy, eating cereal and watching a video in an attempt to learn ballroom dancing for his date later the same evening. I won’t reproduce the whole thing (p475-9 in the hardcover version), but here’s the part that has to do with mathematics (i.e., the word “math” appears near the end):

On the TV, the dancing instructors have finished demonstrating the basic steps. It is almost painful to watch them doing the compulsories, because when they do, they must willfully forget everything they know about advanced ballroom dancing, and dance like persons who have suffered strokes, or major brain injuries, that have wiped out not only the parts of their brains responsible for fine motor skills, but also blown every panel in the aesthetic-discretion module. They must, in other words, dance the way their beginning pupils like Randy dance…

At this point in the videotape he always wonders if he’s inadvertently set his beer down on the fast-forward button, or something, because the dancers go straight from their vicious Randy parody into something that obviously qualifies as advanced dancing. Randy knows that the steps they are doing are nominally the same as the basic steps demonstrated earlier, but he’s damned if he can tell which is which, once they go into their creative mode. There is no recognizable transition, and that is what pisses Randy off, and has always pissed him off, about dancing lessons. Any moron can learn to trudge through the basic steps. That takes all of half an hour. But when that half-hour is over, dancing instructors always expect you to take flight and go through one of those miraculous time-lapse transitions that happen only in Broadway musicals and begin dancing brilliantly. Randy supposes that people who are lousy at math feel the same way: the instructor writes a few simples equations on the board, and ten minutes later he’s deriving the speed of light in a vacuum.

You can read more about the cereal eating here, but you should really just go read the whole book.

One Response to “How Is Math Like Ballroom Dancing?”

  1. Maria H. Andersen Says:

    You know that Stephenson has a new book out? Anathem

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