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Dancing with Data

Modern Technology has been an element of artistic expression and the advancement of creativity since the first pigment on cave walls. The invention of tools, instruments, and languages with which to express the creative impulse and advance art forms has been a constant factor in the lives of artists throughout history.

Alongside singing as perhaps the oldest of artforms, dancing has been a means of physical expression throughout humankind’s history and has developed through many different branches and philosophical approaches, each with their own beliefs and rulesets.

At the same time, technologists have gravitated towards working with dancers – from the Ballet Russes to Bauhaus, Merce to MotionBank and Modina, dance and new technologies find shared inspiration in exploring grace, physical articulation, and embodiment of the ineffable.

In this post, we’ll explore some common elements and thought-processes that can help when working with dancers and movement artists.

“For dance to become data beyond a digital snapshot, data must become dance in a perpetual feedback-loop that integrates observers, be that human or machine, consuming the data, injecting layers of subjectivity and context.”

Scott deLahunta & Anton Koch. “Dance Becoming Data Part Two: Conversation Between Anton Koch and Scott delaHunta.” Computational Culture 6 (28th November 2017).

Form Follows Function

Depending on the project theme, physical location, and creative intention, different forms of dance may be better suited to the project. Ballet, Modern, Hip Hop, Folk dancing, and Contact Improvisation each have their own techniques, methodologies, and intentions that can be very right – or very wrong – for any particular creative situation.

Photo by Julia Kolchigina

Some Things to Consider:


Are the dancers characters we are to connect with and care about, or more abstracted generators of data? Do they have something to say or are they celebrating their technical abilities?

What is the purpose of bringing movement into the project?

Let’s take a moment to briefly discuss the varying range of types and styles that tend to be defined under the umbrella of ‘dance.’

Of the many ways and reasons people are inspired to movement, we can identify two fundamental elements; Form and Content.

The first is concerned with technical proficiency, and choreographic structure, in purest example as we see performed in competitive arenas for prizes. Much of what we see on TV & music videos can also be recognized as primarily concerned with form and technique.

The second important element is content – the use of dance as an artistic medium to communicate something beyond words that speaks to universal truths of the human condition.

Each of these elements have merits, and require dedication and years of practice to attain. Every form of dancing contains a mixture to varying degrees. Great dancers and choreographers are able to combine phenomenal technique with genuine artistic expression into something that is beyond the sum of the parts.

So, the planning process involves questions. Is it a conceptual gallery installation, or a music video? The Super Bowl or an ASMR Escape Room? Each of these projects will require very different kinds of movement, dancers, and choreography.

Photo by Estúdio23


Is the movement choreographed or improvised?

There is a range of preference for how to work with movement. Some forms of dance have strictly precise use of rhythms and musicality, while others are more free-form and less predictable. Finding the right balance between the needs and intention of the project, and the genre of dance & dancers is a crucial consideration.

One range of consideration is the scale between precision vs spontaneity, which then falls generally in two categories:


Does the movement need to hit marks? (I.E. to be in a precise place in a consistently repeatable way.) Movers on the more improvisational side of the equation may be less precise with their physical spacing, but likely excel in being grounded and ‘human’, where Ballet dancers can be hyper technical and precise, at the cost of being somewhat abstracted as people by the intensity of their technique.


Likewise, does the movement need to follow rhythmic or music patterns that are repeatable? Are there musical cues that are crucial to performing the piece?

Some dancers are not used to working musically, or with counting, which can bring misery if the situation demands this skill.

Likewise, some dance forms are meticulously rhythmic and attached to music. Asking a tap dancer to improvise a-rhythmically is like asking a Formula 1 car to mow the lawn; sure, no one’s ever done it before, but there could be a good reason as to why!

How is the Overall Vision Communicated?

Photo by John Lauener

Choreography is a kind of coding; codifying movement into patterns & phrases that become recognizable as a physical, moving language.

Who is the Choreographer?

Dancer and Choreographer are distinct and different jobs. Not all dancers are creators, and most are used to working under the direction of a creative lead. The choreographer works in a different mindset than the dancers.

Dancers work is primarily a physical task. They are relying on their minds and bodies to remember all of the information, corrections and cues, and someone else – the choreographer – is focused on the larger picture which includes all the dancers, their placement and timings.

A computer will store the code for playback. Dancers memorize it all.

Ideally, the choreographer has a toe in both the worlds of dance and technology, to be able to mediate between the dancers and coders, but this may not always be practical or true. In many instances, it can be helpful to have a dedicated multi-disciplinary person, with an understanding of the needs of both sides of the equation, acting as intermediary between the dancers and technologists. This allows everyone to focus on their specific tasks instead of spending time trying to figure out what the other requires or is asking for.

Photo by Catalin Moraru

The Human Component

Dancers are people, not machines. Their superpower is that they are living, breathing representations of the work – the code-as-choreography being played out in time and space for the benefit of the viewers, be they human or digital. Knowing this, understand that they are unlikely to be able or willing to run things at ‘full out’ intensity 100% of the time.

More likely, ideas will be sketched, blocked out for spacing & timing cues, and then run once or twice, with notes and corrections following. Particularly as movement sequences become longer, it will be necessary to plan rehearsal time accordingly.

This can be very different from a construct of coding where some piece is working, and you can leave it running on infinite loop while you ponder what to do next.

It can be helpful to have a plan for recording rehearsal run-throughs, particularly for the technologists who may want to be able to scrub through the material or loop sections of data while they build out coding ideas.

A likely kind of process with dancers is an ongoing series of mini-sprints, where everyone discusses what they’d like to try. Movement ideas are sketched and then run in small sections, building over time.

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A Sample Scenario

As a sweeping general guideline, it’s said that every minute of choreography requires one hour of creation time. Additionally, as these minutes of content become a part of the larger work, they will require additional time for maintenance & polishing, as further new material is generated.

This “1 min/hr” is a general ballpark figure for the basic creation of material. Some people work much faster, but in the long run the overall needs are the same, as the review, rehearse, polish time gets factored in.

A general rule of thumb is to double that amount when budgeting for a creation process, to account for the work required between creation and being performance ready.

Let’s say we are scheduling 4 hour dancer rehearsals. On Day 1, (presuming all pre-rehearsal information and discussions have occurred), we will estimate generating 4 minutes of material. Again, many subjective factors may affect this. Some choreographers plan everything out in advance while others take inspiration from the dancers ‘in the moment’. But optimistically, a 4h rehearsal day can result in 4 minutes of material on average.

Now, you’ll need to allocate time on Day 2 to review, rehearse and polish that.

Perhaps it’s only a few minutes at first but it factors in, and will be cumulative as the process evolves. Maybe it’s 1/4 to half an hour today, but as more and more material is generated the review, rehearse & polish component will require more and more of the day’s time. So, maybe Day 2 ends with 3.5 minutes of new material.

Day 3 now has 7.5 minutes of material to review & polish, which needs a full hour because some of the group spacing and timings are somewhat complex.

By Day 4, we have 10 minutes of material, which can easily require an hour or more of polishing and notes.

By the end of a work week we may have 12-15 minutes of material out of 20h total rehearsal and it’s still semi-fresh, with the dancers working to settle it into their bodies.

It’s important to be aware of these patterns as they can be different from coding practice, which often progresses at a different rate. Perhaps similar in the review & polish cycles but once the code is set it doesn’t require ongoing maintenance rehearsals, as dance does.

Of course, all creators are different, but the end point is generally the same. If our aim is to have 12-15 minutes of material by performance day, we should allocate a minimum of 30 hours of rehearsal to allow everyone time to work the piece into their bodies. If it’s complex group choreography, that involves a lot of spacing and timing accuracy, so add 5-10 more hours of rehearsal. The dancers will thank you for it!

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash


Every form of dance contains its own balance of the concepts introduced here.

All creators are different, so it’s helpful to be aware of the characteristics specific to the different types of dance, as they will play an important part in shaping the overall experience you’re creating.

Dance & coding practice are very different states of mind & embodiment, and the creative process can progress at a different rate. Perhaps similar in the review & polish cycles, but different in many other ways.

All of this said, it is certain that dance in all its forms and iterations is an ideal creative pairing for immersive digital experiences. The fundamental connection between [xyz] space and [rgb] colour, for instance, and the ability to visualize the internal experience of a dancer’s movement, opens many windows for exciting collaborations.