Motion studies

The day began with my reading a New York Times news service report about a 4.4-million-year-old hominid skeleton found in Ethiopia by an international team of scientists. Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, stood 4 feet tall with a brain about the size of a modern chimp. The report noted that her hands and arms were like those of extinct apes–thus she still could proficiently climb trees. Yet though her feet lacked arches like humans, she was already walking upright on two legs.

Skip forward those 4.4 million years—plus about 12 hours since I read the newspaper article—and observe how much better we humans now can move (even if we’re not as adept at tree climbing as our primate cousins). To be precise, my wife and I had the pleasure that night of attending our first Alabama Ballet performance in a very long time. She had taken ballet lessons for several years as a young girl.

This particular performance was to be held in the Ballet’s rehearsal studio on Birmingham’s Southside, where the audience would see the dancers up close and personal. We didn’t want to pass up this chance, and the company certainly didn’t disappoint. The pirouettes! The jetes! The lithe forms that seemed to fly across the stage!

Humans may not move with the speed or strength of other animal species today, or with the prehensile dexterity of our foremother, Ardi. But, ah, the art with which a special few of us can move!

A footnote about motion: In 2011, we will bring another Smithsonian Museum on Main Street exhibition to Alabama, “Journey Stories.” The exhibition will focus on immigration, migration, displacement, travel and transportation. As the exhibition description suggests, these themes are really about mobility and movement.

While early hominids probably moved around highly constrained environments in search of food and shelter millions of years ago, today brilliantly talented ballet dancers spring across dance floors in search of the perfect aesthetic expression. Still, in American culture, where the dream of individual mobility was finally realized, our obsession with movement was about democracy and our search was about freedom.

Written by: Bob S.