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From Songbird Science to Salsa Dancing

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Erich Jarvis spends his days at the Rockefeller University, New York, studying songbirds and searching for clues about the origins of language. But at least two nights a week, you won’t find this highly accomplished neurobiologist mulling over the latest neuroscience results or shooting an email to colleagues about their ongoing efforts to sequence bird genomes. He’ll be in the dance studio, practicing his latest salsa dancing moves.

In fact, before even considering a career as a scientist, Jarvis was a dancer. He danced ballet in grade school, later enrolling in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts as a dance major. Between academic classes, he spent three hours each day practicing ballet at school and, as a teen, another three hours each night practicing solos and pas de deux at the renowned Joffrey Ballet School and, later, the Alvin Ailey American Dance School. Jarvis even received an invitation as a high school senior to audition for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Jarvis’ mother, though supportive of his aspirations as a dancer, always impressed upon her son the importance of making a positive impact on the world. Jarvis certainly valued his budding career in dance and was convinced that this was a contribution that could bring joy to performers and audiences alike. But he had a hunger to do something more to help humanity. That’s when Jarvis first considered a career in science, a field whose steps to stardom he didn’t know.

Enrolling at Hunter College, New York, Jarvis took a series of classes to get up to speed on biology and math. He quickly found a new life’s passion in research, often spending nights and weekends learning new techniques in the lab. After graduating from Hunter with six scientific publications under his belt, Jarvis was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the Rockefeller University, where he decided to pursue studies of the brains of songbirds. All the while, he continued dancing on the side, performing for a short time in college with the Westchester Ballet Company and later dabbling in different styles, including Haitian and African dance.

It was his former wife, Miriam Rivas, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, who encouraged him to take up salsa dancing. That’s where’s he’s mostly been ever since, taking classes to try and master all the moves, from adelente (step forward) to patada (kick).

Before Jarvis accepted his first faculty position at Duke University, Durham, NC, he made sure there was a salsa club in the area. Even after receiving a 2005 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, he made time to take more salsa classes. Then, after earning tenure at Duke, Jarvis thought it was time to perform again. He auditioned and got a spot as a salsa dancer with the Cobo Brothers Dance Company (now James Cobo Dance), Raleigh, NC, for five years. Now, he regularly performs salsa with the ISA Dance Project in New York.

Jarvis credits his background in dance with helping his career in science. Both require plenty of discipline, hard work, creativity, and acceptance of failure. Dancers must practice a choreographed routine over and over until they get it right, just as scientists must do with their experiments.

Jarvis has now come full circle with his work on songbirds. His group has shown that the neural pathways controlling learned movements, such as dance, surround areas of the brain required for vocal learning. He’s also intrigued by evidence from other researchers that only vocal learning species can synchronize their bodies to the rhythm of music and dance. He wants to test the hypothesis that the genes and brain circuits underlying vocal learning—the ones he’s been studying in the lab all these years—might also explain how people and other vocal learning species learn to dance. While Jarvis explores these exciting leads, he’ll also be out there a couple of nights a week leading salsa moves on the dance floor.


Jarvis Lab (Rockefeller University, New York)

Video: Erich Jarvis on Theories About the Origin of Vocal Learning (Quanta Magazine)

Surviving as an Underrepresented Minority Scientist (Duke Today)

ISA Dance Project (New York)

Video: ISA Dance Project, Las Chicas Locas, New York, 2018

James Cobo Dance (Raleigh, NC)

Video: Cobo Brothers Dance Company, Conguero, Dec 2016

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (New York)



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