Back to all news stories

A Vital Rhythm

School of Music, Theatre & Dance students take part in a motion study at the Duderstadt Center video studio on North Campus. Research collaboration between schools and colleges is regularly encouraged at U-M to develop creative new solutions.

It’s an art form that begs for a demonstration.

So, when asked about the art and origins of body music, Robin Wilson naturally begins to clap, then stomp as she recites an irresistible rhythmic chant.

“Body music is all over the world, it’s ancient, it’s contemporary, and it’s a fundamental part of being human,” said Wilson, UM associate professor of dance, who noted the legacy of body music has special significance for African Americans.

“Drums, which were the center of celebrations and performances, were banned during enslavement,” she said. “So, African Americans created new traditions, using the body as a drum, including stepping, clapping and creating polyrhythms.”

Expressions of those traditions occupy a central place in American performance art with its influence apparent from pop tunes to hip-hop. The connection among toe-tapping, clapping, vocalizing and body rhythms may also reveal an indelible, universal cultural appeal.

In the latest incarnation of innovative arts exploration, Arts on Earth presents “Arts & Bodies,” a week-long series of performances, talks and happenings that aim to provoke a rethinking of the vital connection among the arts, education and societal values.  The events run from Nov. 1-7.

“With the many economic problems affecting people, we think it’s timely to explore ways the arts can help us gain some perspective,” said Theresa Reid, executive director of Arts on Earth, a university-wide initiative in creative work and learning directed by the deans of arts and engineering on University of Michigan’s north campus.

A major feature of Arts & Bodies is the residency of “body musician” Keith Terry, a leading expert in the cultural origins of the form, and the many ways to make music by using the body as the sole instrument, including slapping, clapping, stomping and vocalizing.

NPR tabbed Terry a “body music pioneer” for his vision and the force behind the 2008’s International Body Music Festival, held in San Francisco.  Terry, who is the first to earn a Guggenheim award to explore body music, goes beyond slap-and-snap techniques. He focuses on the universal nature of body music, and the rhythms as a cultural expression, according to Arts on Earth’s Reid.

Terry’s residency includes a two-day art lab at the Duderstadt Center, and two days teaching body music to Detroit Public School students. The labs are led by faculty and students from the arts, engineering, psychiatry, kinesiology, English and linguistics.

“Many students do not have access to arts education, or instruments, and with body music, you have full access to expression when you’re born,” said Theresa Reid. “Here’s an opportunity for students to understand the natural rhythms of the body and how to creatively express themselves.”

In its most basic form, body music is snapping or clapping along to a rhythm. In a more complex form, it’s deeply reflective of culture, politics and the irrepressible impulse to express a nonverbal connection. Notable forms include hambone, gumboot, Palmas and kecak.

“Body music in its essence is the purest form of music,” said Michael Gould, UM associate professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation. “Think about your heart beat. The sound of your nervous system. The rhythm of your gait as you walk down the street. Body music is simply being aware of the sound you make in everyday life.”

Arts on Earth’s latest series of programs is another chapter in offering an innovative approach to arts education, said David Munson, dean of UM’s College of Engineering, and co-director of Arts on Earth. Past programs included explorations of the connection between arts and the mind, and arts and the environment.

“Creativity is essential not only for getting us out of this current economic slump, but for long-term American economic survival,” said Munson. “The arts aren’t the only way to enhance creativity, but they are surely the way that also rewards us with wonder, and joy, and a sense of connection with humanity.”

For more information, please visit

All events are free and open to the public.