Professor Dances To A Different Drummer

NEWARK, March 19- After a long day in the laboratory investigating the intricacies of silicon microfabrication, micromachining and bonding for conventional Metal Oxide Semiconductors and novel microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) device applications, Beau Farmer could feel it coming. His lab coat feels uncomfortable. His foot taps, his fingers snap. In the distance, he can hear the music--a bit of bluegrass, a bit of Cajun-increasing in volume until it reaches the point he can no longer resist. He must succumb to his alter ego Beau Farmer, Ph.D., associate professor of physics, director of the Microelectronics Research Center, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark. It's contra-dancing time!

If you think Farmer is headed to some hay barn 10 miles off a dirt road in the middle of a corn field for a hootenanny, you're wrong. In all likelihood, he's off to a neighborhood dance hall near you. Contra dancing is a form of American folk dance in which the dancers form a set of two parallel lines, which run the length of a hall. Each dance consists of a sequence of moves that ends with the couples having progressed one position up or down the set.

Many basic moves resemble square dancing - swings, allemandes - but contra dancing is more, a sort of amusement park ride that the dancers make for themselves. A square dance set comprises only four couples, whereas the length of the hall limits the number of couples in a contra dance set. To join a set, only a partner and soft-soled shoes are necessary.

"You start out dancing with your partner and another couple called your neighbors," says Farmer. "Then you dance with some new neighbors and then some more neighbors until you dance with everyone in the hall. And you've got all styles of live music backing you up. Scottish, country, Irish, fiddle tunes. So, it's very social and very energetic."

Contra dancing originated in England and found its way to the United States with the early settlers. By 1800, contra dancing was all the rage. Although Farmer didn't realize it, contra dancing has been in his blood since he was a little boy listening to old-time music growing up in the mountains of Virginia. But, not until attending graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, did the transfusion begin. Farmer would watch the dancers. "Watching everybody else having so much fun kind of made my feet want to dance," he says.

Farmer hasn't stopped watching. He caught on quickly, but there was more to this compulsion. He could feel the force on the dance floor as his alter egos battled for control. "I would watch the caller who was a very careful teacher," says Farmer. "Being a professor at NJIT, I've always had the desire to teach. So, I'm watching the caller and thinking `Hey, that would be
cool.' You know, to teach the dancing myself."

He began teaching the newcomers. He orchestrated moves as he hollered over the music like an auctioneer at a cattle sale, all with the same energy and enthusiasm that he now brings to the classroom. "It's really cool to generate the audience participation, to get them out there hooting and hollering and, having a good time," says Farmer. "I can be a very fast talker. Sometimes, I get talking so fast that after I'm finished instructing a move, somebody in the audience invariably says, sold!"

As Farmer's reputation spread, he was invited to call dances up and down the Eastern seaboard. He became known as a wild avant-garde dancer: "I didn't just dance normally," says Farmer. "I was a little funky in the way I moved my body. That's hard to picture from a professor, church-going, upstanding guy. In fact, my students now would be surprised, maybe shocked, if they saw the kind of stuff that I did."

One night in Vermont, at what's called a dawn dance, where dancers go until the sun rises, the "wild-and-crazy" dancer caught the eye of a dance choreographer who was working to become a modern dancer in New York. "She heard through a mutual friend that I was dancing at the dawn dance," says Farmer, fondly recalling the evening. "When she got there, she asked a friend, `Where's that Beau Farmer character?' She looked out at all the dancers and saw me, although we had never met before, on the floor. She watched a bit. She tells me that at that moment, she said, 'That's the guy I'm going to marry.'" Two and a half years later, they finally did marry.

"There's this stereotype that it's a western square dance," says Farmer, who has introduced his colleagues, NJIT physics professors Roland Levy and Haim Grebel--far from cowboys themselves--to the fun. "That's absolutely not true. They're from all walks of life. They're just regular folks from all ages. My daughter, who is five years old, dances. I've seen people in there '80s. I've seen blind people dancing. It's just like a community. I've seen it bring a lot of people together. You'd be surprised of the diversity."

Farmer says that contra dance clubs have sprouted across the country and he wouldn't mind forming one at NJIT. Meanwhile, he dances as much as he can, calling about 15 events a year. "If you think of physicists, in general, we live kind of an isolated life," says Farmer, who is heading a major MEMS initiative funded by the New Jersey Commission of Science and Technology. "We're trying to push the frontiers of science and we have to be alone to think, to focus, to concentrate, to measure our data in the dark, damp basement laboratories and try to interpret it. So, sure enough, contra dancing is one way for a physicist to compensate for that kind of abandonment of society-to actually go far the other way."


NJIT is a public research university enrolling over 8,200 bachelor's, master's and doctoral students in 80 degree programs through its five colleges: Newark College of Engineering, New Jersey School of Architecture, College of Science and Liberal Arts, the School of Management and the Albert Dorman Honors College. Research initiatives include manufacturing, microelectronics, multimedia, transportation, computer science, solar astrophysics, environmental engineering and science, and architecture and building science. According to Yahoo! Internet Life magazine rankings, NJIT has been America's most wired public university for three consecutive years.

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