ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - As the midshipmen stepped and hopped in front of her, Naval Academy math professor Sommer Gentry couldn’t help but dance.
On a recent Tuesday in Smoke Hall, the Naval Academy’s Swing Dance Club was practicing for a performance with four pairs dancing in unison to the music. Gentry was watching from the sidelines, bouncing and snapping along.
At the end of the routine, there was a step where one dancer dropped into a seated position and bounced back up. Gentry told the young men and women she could teach them a variation of that, where instead of hopping back up, they could spin back up.
She showed them the move quickly, and then they tried it on their own.
In dancing and in math, Gentry is a proponent of learning by doing. People wouldn’t want to go to a dance class where they watch the teacher the entire time, and they shouldn’t go to a math class and have a teacher show them a formula and tell them an answer, she said.
“I spend most of my time in dancing and in math trying to convince people, ‘No, you’re ready, let’s just go do it,’ ” she said. “And then we can grow from it and do it better the next time.”
Gentry is the staff contact for the student-run club and helps them with things like movement orders so they can leave the Yard to dance elsewhere, including visits to her true dance home - the Mobtown Ballroom in Baltimore.
She loves the physicality of dancing - the running around, and the jumping up and down to the music. She’s been doing it for 20 years.
“It is a very ecstatic, joyous thing for me. I get so emotional. I’m so happy whenever I’m moving,” Gentry said.
Gentry started teaching at the Naval Academy about 13 years ago. Around the same time, she and her husband, Dorry Segev, founded a group in Baltimore called Charm City Swing.
That group took off and led to the creation of the Mobtown Ballroom - renowned as one of the best on the East Coast - set up in a former church in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood.
Gentry visits the ballroom on Mondays and Fridays for dances. In fact, she dances every day. She and her husband are mentioned on the ballroom’s website - “you’ll be sure to see Sommer doing ridiculous solo moves across the dance floor.”
After graduating from Stanford University, where she first started dancing, she became enthralled with one style in particular - Lindy Hop, a style that started in Harlem, New York, in the late 1920s. It’s a silly dance, she said. It’s fast, energetic, and includes aerial moves and flips.
Some people find dancing intimidating, she said - and it’s the same way with mathematics.
“They’ll block themselves out of being able to participate in something wonderful,” she said. “That makes me really sad.”
Mistakes aren’t a bad thing.
“You don’t want to prevent people from making mistakes. You want to let people own their useful mistakes and grow from them,” Gentry said.
She would rather see her students try to figure out a puzzle on their own than walk in the door and immediately tell them the formula.
“Because then they didn’t get to own it themselves, and they didn’t get to do it themselves. I think that’s a good way to turn people off, to take it away from them,” she said.
It’s the same with dancing.
“Dancing, you get to make it your own. And people dance differently because they have different bodies,” she said.
She loves math and wanted to become a professor because she wanted to share her excitement with others, and wants her students to find that joy for themselves.
“Mathematical thinking should be accessible for everyone, in the same way that dancing should be about all of us as a community coming together and experiencing joy with each other,” she said.
And by the way - dancing isn’t the only thing Gentry is known for. She collaborates with her husband - a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital - to build research operations models that will improve access to organ transplants.
And how did she meet her husband?
Dancing, of course.
This article has been updated to correct the name of the hall in which the USNA Swing Dance Club practiced.
Information from: The Capital, http://www.capitalgazette.com/
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