The fields of dancing and engineering seem worlds apart, one inspired by the arts and theater, the other using math and technology in the classroom or laboratory. But a research group of computer engineering students in the Smart Management of Infrastructure Laboratory (SMILab) at The University of New Mexico, led by Fernando Moreu, has collaborated with a local dancer to improve her performance while learning more about the possibilities of their own work.

Their work could possibly attract more students to engineering who might not typically be intrigued and expand the frontiers of engineering.

Moreu is an assistant professor of civil engineering at UNM and has a courtesy appointment in electrical and computer engineering. He is the director of SMILab, a research group aiming to develop the use of next-generation smart sensing technologies, including structural vibrations in general, wireless smart sensors, and human-machine interfaces. His team is a diverse mix of civil, mechanical, electrical and computer scientists doing research on structures such as bridges, streets, rockets, and even the Sandia Tramway.

“This research is about connecting engineering with art. Our goal was to see if we could use engineering to determine the quality of a dance in a language that dancers would benefit from. Through this we hoped to give dancers a way to improve by using the sensors we used,” said Elijah Wyckoff, SMILab research assistant who is currently a student at Arizona State University. Wyckoff was an undergraduate summer research assistant working for Moreu in summer semesters of 2018 and 2019, and has been attracted by the SMILab research to come to UNM for graduate school in mechanical engineering.

Moreu explained, “In this research, dancers and engineers work in the same team to solve a common challenge that they define together: Can we use sensors to quantify quality? It is a very creative question so you need the right dancers and engineers to tackle it right.”

The group recently published the results of their research. Among their conclusions was, “…dance induced vibrations can be quantified with sensors. This data can provide a unique opportunity for dancers to understand the quality of their dance with objective metrics.” The authors were Moreu, Wyckoff, former research assistant Dilendra Maharjan who is now a structural designer at an Albuquerque engineering firm, and Can Zhu, a master’s candidate at Yangzhou University in China.

The project began in 2017 when Selene Diaz  ̶  then a local high school student at Menaul Academy and now a student at UNM  ̶  came to Moreu’s group looking for help with her senior project that would relate technology to her dancing. They set out to develop low-cost, non-intrusive sensors to acquire, analyze, and interpret data to characterize dance steps, use statistical theory to assess quantitative features of various dance steps such as a jeté and assemblé, and enable a dancing-centered monitoring solution that dancers can use in collaboration with engineers.

Duck pond dance bridge
Duck pond dance bridge with sensors

The team hypothesized that a surface would vibrate differently with various moves and levels of expertise. The group helped Diaz build a sensor that would analyze vibrations and generate data as she danced.

“Another impressive outcome was that the students dedicated as much effort and attention to the sensor as to the dance. This reinforced the idea of working across disciplines without predetermined labels,” Moreu noted.

“I’ve always enjoyed the creative side of engineering and the endless possibilities it holds. This project excited me with the combination of dancing and engineering it presented,” Wyckoff said, adding “There are other researchers looking to combine engineering and dancing, but our project was unique in its approach to using vibration sensing.”

Moreu explained that the dance project connects two different disciplines traditionally not seen together while exploring new approaches towards education and research. Dancers had used sensors in the past but found it somewhat ineffective in honing their skills.

“Innovation occurs when you try what you did not take the risk to try before,” Moreu said.

“Engineers can learn signal processing, structural dynamics, and learn some dancing with the data. Engineers learning how to dance, unfortunately, is also infrequent, so we use the wireless sensors as the bait,” Moreu kidded. But he noted the cross-discipline approach has attracted and interested students who normally would not be drawn to engineering, particularly women.

“In this approach there is no need to decide what is art and what is engineering, or which group you belong to. It is an excellent motivator for the youth to grow their curiosity in a cross-disciplinary environment," said Moreu. "In the past young female students in engineering had been discouraged by a lack of female role models or stereotypes of what engineering is.

"I was told by a State Representative who met the high schoolers that she would have stayed in engineering if she would have been able to continue her interest in dancing along with sensors, instead of having to choose traditional majors in this or that engineering area early in college. Maybe we can increase the scope of engineering, dancing, and learning, attracting new generations to engineering."

To test their ideas about using sensors to analyze dance skills the group headed to the UNM duck pond bridge where they filmed and monitored data as Diaz danced.

The bridge dancing has become a constant every year, with Moreu teaming up with Engineering Student Success Center’s summer programs to introduce and attract high school students to engineering. Last summer, Moreu brought in UNM engineering grad and senior engineer Desirae Lujan from Los Alamos County to talk to the high schoolers about her experience and afterwards some danced while others monitored the sensors. He’s confident the experience was a memorable one for all. (Sadly, Lujan passed away last year, Moreu said.)

The dancing project is somewhat similar to Moreu and SMILab’s other research on bridges and other infrastructure during which they monitor changes in vibrations to examine the status of the structure.

“We want to use challenge traditional frontiers between structures, such as the bridges, structural health monitoring (SHM), as in the health of the bridge, and data, by adding human activity, decisions, and in this case, dancing. We collect vibrations of the bridge generated by not an earthquake, a tornado, or a vehicle, but dancers, and quantify the quality of their moves," Moreu said. "The theory is the same as SHM, the rigor of signal processing is still there, but the human input load brings new opportunities to get outside or our engineering box and answer other types of questions.

"If we are able to quantify dance quality, maybe we can quantify other types of activities such as health of people, social habits, safety, which are all important. We are collaborating with colleagues across colleges and out of state and will be generating new algorithms with various applications on this new frontier in engineering." 

“Dancers are the main mechanics of the project. They are the one who are performing and producing vibrations,” Maharjan said. “Different dance steps need different energy to perform, which produces different level of vibrations on the platform. Different dance steps send different signals.”

“I have always enjoyed the creative side of engineering and the endless possibilities it holds. This project excited me with the combination of dancing and engineering it presented,” Wyckoff enthused.

“In my experience, everything is connected,” Moreu said, explaining that while he was building railroad bridges before he came to UNM, a colleague working with wireless sensors urged him to try a ballroom dance class. At first he was hesitant to take the class because he was a railroad bridge engineer at that time, but his colleague explained Moreu it would be valuable to try new things. Moreu ended up becoming friends with some Fine Arts students in dance and acting who took him to their shows. In one of those shows a student double majoring in math and dancing performed her capstone project: a long division dance.

“She divided, multiplied, subtracted, and brought down the next number with her dancing on the stage. I probably was the only person who noticed it. I was speechless. That connection stuck with me and I realized how friends in railroad engineering, wireless sensors, the ballroom dancing, and working with others outside of your discipline can generate new ideas and lead to new research areas. Engineers are in general averse to work with human factors, but in recent years this is being challenged, and I believe the future will require new human components to engineering formulas or engineering problems,” Moreu concluded.

Moreu foresees this research will have an impact in the classroom, and is currently working with professor of Art and associate professor of Engineering Andrea Polli and her team at the Social Media Workgroup on the project.

“We are interested in exploring a rather non-conventional route that involves human-in-the-loop control of structural vibrations, using structures as sensors with collaborators from other universities, and also we want to offer a class on dance engineering at UNM in 2021 or 2022,” Moreu said. “I know engineers are interested in the dynamics of dancing and will enjoy pushing traditional envelopes in signal processing and wireless sensors.

"My MFA friends once taught a dance class to engineers and they explained to me dancers enjoy teaching engineers how to dance a great deal. So I believe it will be a very successful one. In a more futuristic note, we would like to test our research in dancing competitions, to further improve our algorithms, sensors, and strategies, with help from dancing experts.”