Dance partners, lab partners

For these three alumnae, the study of science and the art of dance create perfect harmony.

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By Linda Schmidt

Three dancers swirl in tandem, their graceful movements accentuated by long, full skirts and bright floral shawls. Music fills the air as they step to the gentle rhythm of a Philippine love serenade, played by a rondalla string ensemble. Their polished teamwork isn’t surprising—they’ve been dancing together since they met as first-year students at Mills. What is surprising is that this dance began in chemistry class.

Rhani Bigay ’14 met Honomi Ijima ’14, an environmental science major, on the first day of chemistry lab; and she got to know biology major Kelly Wong ’14 in the dance building between classes. Since that fortuitous crossing of paths, Bigay says, the three friends have been lab partners, study buddies, and dancers together.

For Bigay, who minored in dance, the combination of dance and science makes perfect sense. “Because studying the sciences is extremely heady and sedentary, it is crucial to have an artistic, stress-relieving physical activity,” she says, so the friends came up with the idea of the “dancing scientists.”

“Some people think that scientists don’t have any artistic agency,” Bigay adds. “But scientists are not just stuck to their books with two left feet. At the same time, dance is more than just frilly fun; it can be a theoretical and scholarly area of research.” Universal to all cultures, dance provides extensive information about cultural history, fashion, and social structure, she says. “And when paired with a music tradition, there is even more data to evaluate.”

Bigay, Ijima, and Wong performed in Dance Department events their sophomore and junior years and, in August, debuted as the Maganda Filipinas Dancers at the Filipino-American Pistahan Festival in San Francisco. (Maganda is the Tagalog word for “beautiful.”)

Today, in addition to performing with her friends, Wong works as a behavioral interventionist with youth on the autism spectrum, attends City College of San Francisco, and is exploring potential careers in biology. Ijima, who is also a talented cellist, conducted a post-graduation year of research with Kristina Faul, professor of geochemistry and environmental geology at Mills, and is now taking additional coursework in environmental science at Merrit College in Oakland.

And Bigay is working with the Tradicion Rondalla to reconstruct historically accurate Philippine dances in order to educate the public about traditional Philippine dance and culture (for information, contact her via the alumnae community, She has a further goal of pursuing a graduate degree in dance ethnography.

“When you pursue both science and dance, your brain and body are a whole team and satisfied,” says Bigay. “You exude a happy spirit, and that happiness is contagious.” ◆