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Dance Hack Day 2017: a Whirlwind Adventure

Dance Hack Day is a global celebration of technology and the choreographic arts.  Participating in this year’s Amsterdam sister site event with an evolution of my light-up motion-responsive Arduino costume was a joy and a privilege.

My biggest learning from the weekend is that with the right kind of supportive and open environment, even someone in the early stages of their technical journey can contribute to a collaborative project.  A context where everyone’s strengths are allowed to flourish is the key to creating something truly unique; something that could not have been created without each person’s contribution.

After creating the original Arduino sleeve earlier this year, I was very lucky to convince my skilled dancer and costume designer friend Casey Scott-Songin to collaborate with me on expanding the project and integrating it into a full belly dance costume.  To our delight, we found when we arrived at Dance Hack Day that another participant, Jur de Vries, was also interested in working with responsive lights.  Jur had previously created a lighting rig which responds to the music of his cello to change the colour and intensity of lights (pictured below in a clip of our rehearsal with Casey dancing behind the screen and Jur cello-ing).  Two similar ideas but on a very different scale: lights that change on the body and lights that change around a performer, both responding to the performer’s unique art.

Our collaboration was also singular in the blending of our different artistic genres: Casey and I brought our knowledge of Middle Eastern rhythms, costuming, and choreographic tradition while Jur contributed his unique improvisational cello skills.  Casey and I were blown away by Jur’s abilities when he played by ear a version of a classic belly dance tune, “Hadouni, Hadouni,” for Casey to improvise to after hearing it once for the first time.  Both performers’ adaptability and willingness to play in the improvisational space opened up a wealth of possibilities for exploration and for supported risk-taking.  This enabled us to think creatively about the theme of this year’s Dance Hack Day: ‘weather’.

After some time experimenting with our lights and sound, the three of us became interested in exploring the idea of cultural flows and the mixing of cultures that occurs in an increasingly globalised world–the kind of cultural bricolage that allows collaborations like ours to happen.  In exploring the thought of ‘weather’ as a metaphor for these global flows, what came to my mind was the sandstorms that sometimes form over the the Sahara, sending desert sand all around the globe.  One happened earlier this year which gave the sky over the UK a reddish hue for a couple of days.  This became the foundation of our piece “Khamseen,” named for the desert wind that blows sandstorms over Cairo in the spring.  Using the combined power of light, sound, and choreography, our khamseen forms from the earth, whirls forth in a rush of breath on the wind, assumes the dazzling unpredictability of fire, then blows itself out into mild sea breezes.

I couldn’t be more pleased with what Casey, Jur and I created together.  I had no idea what would happen when we showed up at the start of the weekend and I’ll be the first to admit that I had a lot of fears about what could go wrong.  Specifically I worried that I wasn’t really technical enough to be ‘allowed’ in the Dance Hack Day: what if something went wrong?  Or what if, heaven forfend, someone assumed that I would be able to help them with a new Arduino project?  I’m still just a beginner.  The Arduino dance costume is what my engineering friends call a “coding by numbers” project–I didn’t make anything new; I followed an existing set of instructions to make the pieces.  However, my engineering friends also like to point out that everyone, no matter how long they’ve been doing this for, has to look up how to do things and “code by numbers” at one time or another.  As it turned out, my beginner “code by numbers” contribution was just as essential to this particular project as everything else we brought to it.  And that really is the spirit of this project to me: that when we bring our best selves and participate with a spirit of open curiosity, we can make something more wonderful than we ever dreamed we could.

Stay tuned for further posts on key technical learnings from working with the Arduino Gemma (sneak preview: insulate your conductive thread), notes from the great speaker lineup from the day, and more.