WILKES-BARRE — Lucille Vandenberg, um, flew headlong into the role of the male bowerbird gone a-courting.
“This is going to be fun! My face is going to be red and yellow. I get to screech!”
She was one of 13 girls, all entering seventh or eighth grade this fall in area middle schools, participating in a “bird catching” lesson, one of many science labs dozens of young girls have been enjoying this week as part of Wilkes University’s annual Women Empowered By Science (WEBS) camp.
(Some 24 hours later, Vandenberg would be bringing her moves to the “physics of dance” lab, but more on that shortly.)
The catch to this “bird catch”: Tuesday’s diluvian downpour nixed the original plan to head out to Kirby Park and actually catch birds. Wilkes biology professor Jeff Stratford opted for a dry activity in the Cohen Science Center, showing the students videos of four bird species in the throes of exotic dance rituals. Broken into groups of four, the girls made rudimentary costumes and brief back stories for a performance of the dance.
Vandenberg’s group got the bowerbird. The showy male begins a mating dance by dilating and contracting its pupils several times, an almost hypnotic slo-mo pulsation of the black orb surrounded by yellow eyes embedded in a bright red head. She took the step of having her eyelids painted black, offering the chance to go from small real pupil to fake eyelid pupil, the skin around her eyes painted yellow and the rest of her face red.
Kaitlyn Leicht found a spare T-shirt and covered one side with yellow paper cut to represent feathers for a wing, used in the second part of the bowerbird dance: Vandenberg crouched down, lifting and lowering the wing as if playing a lethargic game of peek-a-boo.
Just minutes before showtime, Vandenberg took one more look at the YouTube video. “I need a blueberry!” she gasped, quickly finding a piece of blue paper she crumpled into a ball. Turns out the successful male bowerbird needs more than a screech and dance.
Stratford said the outside activity would have involved netting birds and giving lessons on how to hold them harmlessly, but the students in Tuesday’s morning alternate class seemed to be just giddy without it.
As one group watched the red-capped manakin glide backward without lifting a talon off the branch, a girl blurted out “He’s moonwalking!” At the sight of pink flamingos strutting en masse with black beaks held high and heads darting side to side — a sort of avian upright voguing — one girl observed “It looks like they’re choreographed.”
‘Just like science’
Vandenberg promised to wear her makeup all day, and maybe she did, but it was gone Wednesday afternoon when she and others in that bird brood took lessons in the “physics of dance” from instructor Kris Cross at the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center.
Cross went over core mechanics of dance, focusing on jumping, turning, traveling and gesturing, then let the 14 girls — individually and as part of three groups — dance any version of each to a techno tune with teutonic interjections.
“This is a laboratory,” she said, “it’s just like science.” Any movement to the music will ultimately have “a story, a relationship. Sometimes it’s just images, sometimes it’s a story. You never know.”
So every time the music started, there were those who wiped their palms against each other in wide motions while others waved their arms (gestures), those who spun on one foot and others who spun sitting on the floor (turning), and those who leapt, hopped or otherwise did the “jumping” part.
When it came to traveling, Vandenberg tucked her elbows, bent her wrists and jutted her head forward, prancing. It looked suspiciously like one of those bird dances.
It’s all good, Cross said. “You don’t establish the relationship, the dance does.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish