Dancin’ De Veaux knows stats too

Unlike most professional dancers, Richard De Veaux, professor of statistics, never studied dance as a child. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a dance class. I was a normal American boy,” De Veaux said.

Not until his second year of graduate school at Stanford University did he venture into the studio. “I was studying for my Ph.D. orals in abstract math. Really intense. . ..and I needed something to get my mind off it,” he said. He had tried swimming, yoga and meditation, but none of them provided a respite for De Veaux’s swirling mind. “Meditation was a total disaster. I was going over probability theorems in my head while trying to say ‘Om’,” he recalled.

De Veaux was encouraged by a friend to take a modern dance class through the university. He signed up for both the beginning and intermediate class “just to save time,” he explained. “People who know me know I’m kind of a maniac.” The back-to-back classes, a full two and a half hours of dance, helped De Veaux take his mind off his math work. “After two and a half hours, I was exhausted physically and mentally. I thought, ‘this is great!’”

He was not satisfied with his technical skills in dance and decided to take ballet in addition to his modern courses. That year, he took three ballet classes and four modern classes a day. “Needless to say, my Ph.D. work wasn’t really progressing,” he said. At the end of his second year in the mathematics Ph.D. program, he dropped out to pursue a masters in dance education.

De Veaux was accepted into the Tandy Beale Dance Company after only his second year of dancing. Still, he admits he was not a technically strong dancer. “I was a terrible ballet dancer,” he said, “but I was musical, flexible and a quick learner.” Following his acceptance into the company, he quit his job as the statistician for the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

De Veaux toured all over the western United States with a company of six dancers and two mimes, playing to crowds of “five hundred or two dozen.” In 1978, after a year with the company, he and his wife, Sylvia Logan, also a dancer, moved to Russia to look for work. They danced in various companies for three months before receiving an offer to start a company in Utah. They worked in Utah for two years, and then moved with the company to Philadelphia.

By 1983, however, De Veaux’s back was giving out from overuse. He decided to revisit the world of statistics, and was soon hired by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania as a full-time statistician. De Veaux did not dance again until 1994 when he taught a winter study course during his first year at Williams.

The 1994 Winter Study class performed an original piece called “Chance Events in Choreography,” based on De Veaux’s interest in statistics and dance. The dance involved audience participation and a varied order of dance steps. He also collaborated with Mary Ellen Cohain, who taught story writing. In that piece, certain motions were assigned to particular words. As the story was read, the dancers would do the movements according to the words.

In 1999, De Veaux taught another modern dance Winter Study course. 34 people enrolled, including nine members of the men’s ice hockey team. “Professor De Veaux did a very good job of creating an environment in which everyone felt comfortable exploring new ways of moving,” Alison Peet ’03 said.

The class was more challenging than students expected. “Everybody thought they were in good athletic shape. . .but they were amazed at how much I made them work,” De Veaux recalled. Peet said, “I certainly came out of the class with a greater appreciation for how difficult it really is to do, and how much work goes into choreographing and rehearsing a performance.”

Unfortunately, having broken his heel, De Veaux cannot teach a modern dance Winter Study course this year. His wife will step in for him.

De Veaux attributes his skill in dance to his aptitude for music. He is a member of a doo-wop group composed of Williams faculty called the “Diminished Faculty.” Beyond displaying his musical talents, De Veaux’s dancing has a certain theatrical flair. “My strong suit is taking on roles rather than doing pirouette after pirouette,” he said.

De Veaux makes no attempt to reconcile his interest in dance with his work in statistics. He sees very little crossover between the two. “Life is long and complex and I have many interests,” he said. In fact, the reason he became involved in dance was because it was utterly unlike statistics.

He hopes that his dance classes will teach students “what the love of dance is all about.” De Veaux hopes to teach his Winter Study course again in the future, and though he is injured and unable to dance now, “dance stays a part of you.”