Caitlin McDonald: Five Lessons from Dance Hack Day 2017

Caitlin’s a writer, coach and award-winning researcher whose mission is to help people rediscover wonder. I was amazed by her experiences with this intriguing fusion of dance and technology – it’s an avenue I had never thought of. Check out her blog!


Dance Hack Day is a global celebration of the intersection of dance and technology which happened over December 3 and 4 this year.  Watching the presentations for the day at the Amsterdam site I was fascinated by the range of work people displayed, from recording technology which enables multiple dancers to choreograph together on their smartphones to creative coding libraries pairing music, lights, and pathways for an interactive composing experience.

As a person in the early part of my programming journey I’m a while away yet from creating integrated light and sound systems used for concerts and big media shows of 12,000 people at a time as some of the presenters are doing, but it was great that even as a beginner I could still fully participate in the event and to feel that my participation was valued.  With two collaborators, I created a multimedia performance called Khamseen, representing a sandstorm rising from the desert and whirling around the globe.  My five key lessons from this experience were these.

1. Insulate, insulate, insulate.  My main contribution to the performance was an Arduino-powered dance costume that changes colour when the dancer moves, based on this Adafruit textile potemtiometer hoodie project.

The costume has two reactive pieces, a sleeve and a sash over the dancer’s abdomen.  The conductive thread on the sleeve is insulated with silver nail polish and always worked from the moment its final stitches were in place.  The sash, on the other hand, I’d left uninsulated while my collaborator, dancer Casey Scott-Songin, sewed on decorations.  The sash had always been a bit persnickety because I sewed the LEDs in an awkward pattern which caused some short-circuiting, which meant that the lights didn’t behave as expected.  After a little bit of ripping out and restitching it seemed okay.  In the afternoon before the performance, though, we noticed that the LEDs were getting ‘stuck’ in the green position while Casey was dancing.  At first we thought this was because the slider from the potentiometer was catching on the knots at the back of the LEDs causing a short in the data signals so we tried sewing patches over them for a smooth slide.

My heart fell into my shoes when after doing this some of the LEDs completely failed to light up–there was an electrical short somewhere in our sash.  I quickly unstitched my work and mercifully everything lit up just fine, but we still found that the lights on the sash seemed less reactive than their counterparts on the sleeve.  About 10 minutes before the performance I realised the reason the LEDs weren’t responding was a short circuit where the potentiometer slider was coming into contact with one of the uninsulated threads along the side of the sash, preventing the signal from the slider from going where it needed to go.  We’d never put any nail polish or other insulation over these while we were busily sewing on the decorations.  We tried to repair the short quickly with electrical tape but with time running out we weren’t able to do as firm a job as I would have liked.  The lights did change colour during the performance but not as dynamically in the sash as in the sleeve.

Conductive thread is just like uninsulated wire so ensure that yours is well-insulated after sewing or you could be in for an unwanted adventure!

2. You can’t put a weaver’s knot in conductive thread.  On a related note, I was nearly finished sewing two of my LED data connectors together when I noticed I’d accidentally sewn one long loop directly through my sliding potentiometer–no good!  In an ordinary, non-conductive sewing project a blunder like this is no big deal to repair by cutting the troublesome long stitch and knotting the threads into place on either side, but I needed one long continuous connection between the two points of my LEDs.  Not wanting to waste perfectly good conductive thread I decided to cut where the problem was and use a weaver’s knot to connect a new piece of thread.

I soon discovered this was a bad idea as it caused a short circuit within the knot itself!  Some current was clearly getting through as the remaining LEDs were lighting up, but with unexpected behaviour: different intensity of light and not colour-responsive the way I expected.  Fortunately none of the LEDs blew out in this experiment and after I restitched between the two connector points it was fine.

Always sew your conductive thread in a single continuous line between two connector points.  If you encounter problems, discard that thread and resew from the last connector, or you’ll find your project behaving in mysterious ways.

3. The test LED won’t change blink speed.  The Arduino Gemma has an LED right on the chip which can be used to test what’s going on while you’re setting the project up.  The project instructions say to test the sliding potentiometer once it’s sewn down by seeing if the onboard LED blink speed adjusts when the slider is used.  However, both times I tried this I found that what actually happens is the onboard LED makes a barely perceptible twinkling when the sliding potentiometer is moved around and it’s not really possible to see what’s going on until proceeding to the next step using the colour-changing code and hooking up one of the pixel LEDs to the Gemma using alligator clips or conductive thread.  If all is well, at this point when you slide the potentiometer up and down you should see the colours changing on the pixel.

Both times at this point in the project I saw what looked like an inert red LED on the Gemma and panicked, assuming I’d done something wrong.  Then I wasted time by trying to load the test programme onto the Gemma over and over.  It’s only when I tested by connecting to a light pixel that I realised it had actually worked just fine all along.

Trust yourself–you might be further along than you realize!  Also, alligator clips are your friends when you want to test without sewing down first.  I actually recommend hooking the whole thing up using clips before sewing anything down so you can see how all the pieces fit together first.

4. Even a beginner can contribute something to a project.  When I arrived at Dance Hack Day I really had to fight off some powerful impostor syndrome vibes.  How could I possibly contribute to this global celebration with my one tiny project?  After all it was only two little strips of lights and I hadn’t even written the code myself from scratch–I’d just followed the instructions like brownies from a box.  Would any of these experienced choreographers and coders even want to work with me and Casey?

But the reality I found was far different: each person participating in our collaboration had something unique and remarkable to bring to the table; something that made our performance more than the sum of its parts.  It turned out that was true for every participant in every team: everyone had some special expertise to share and when it all came together it was truly magical.

If you’re a beginner don’t be afraid to participate–put yourself forward.  There are plenty of events which seek out and welcome people of all levels of ability and diverse sets of skills where you can shine.

5. If you want to go far, go together.  The most important lesson that I learned in 2017 is that my most rewarding creative experiences are those where I collaborate with others.  As I get older and wiser, I feel less inclined to try to do everything myself or to expect that I have to be an expert in everything.

As a former academic, it can be pretty hard to move from a model where you’re increasingly rewarded for specialising deeply in an ever-narrower range of knowledge to one where the rewards come from knowing when to seek expertise from others.  That isn’t to say my learning journey is over–far from it!  One of the new skills I learned this year is to recognise the value of building on the specialisms and different perspectives of talented people to bring an idea to life.  If I’d tried to do it all on my own, Khamseen would just be a glimmer in my mind instead of a fully realized multimedia experience.  The same is true of other projects I worked on this year.  Plus I have the satisfaction of knowing that the projects I’ve worked on are rewarding for my collaborators also–if I hadn’t suggested their involvement they wouldn’t be able to look back with satisfaction on what we created together.

There are definitely areas of technical skill I’d like to continue to grow, and I feel lucky to be in a position where I can pursue those skills relatively easily.  But overall the biggest gift is recognising the exciting creative and productive possibilities that happen with a shared vision.

Find people you trust whose skills you admire.  Share one of your dream ideas with them.  You might find they get as excited about making it happen as you are!

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