1994 VR Conference Proceedings

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Creating Dance With Life Forms: Virtuality, Dance, And Choreography For Students With And Without Disabilities

By: Alice Rose, Project Director
High Tech Center Training Unit
of the California Community Colleges
21050 McClellan Road
Cupertino, CA 95014
E-Mail: ecila@well.sf.ca.us

Problem Statement

Although educational opportunities for children and youth with disabilities have expanded dramatically since the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L .94-142) in 1975, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, notably absent from activities available and accessible to students with disabilities in most schools and colleges, have been programs that address the performing arts. Music, theater, and dance, all deeply satisfying creative activities that are often taken for granted by non-disabled students, have frequently been considered practical impossibilities for students who have significant difficulties with coordination, balance, and movement.

Over the last several years, the use of computer technology in classrooms and labs has become quite common. Assistive computer technologies now exist which provide alternative access to most computer platforms and applications, enabling individuals with disabilities to participate in and complete almost any academic activity independently, alongside their non-disabled peers, or in cooperative work groups with students of varied abilities. However, while computers have created for many students with disabilities a more "level playing field" for exploring traditional academic subject matter and completing assignments, it has not to date, had an impact upon their ability to participate meaningfully in the performing arts curricula.

Project Description

To address this problem, the dance department of De Anza College (Cupertino, CA), in partnership with the High Tech Center Training Unit of the California Community Colleges (Cupertino, CA), the Adaptive Physical Education program of Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School (Palo Alto, CA), The Center for Movement Therapy (San Francisco, CA), United Cerebral Palsy Association of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA), and AXIS Dance Troupe (Oakland, CA), is in the process of creating a unique computer-based instructional and recreational setting in which students can learn about and perform dance. Together, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, faculty, staff and students from these institutions and programs are developing curricula, curricular materials, software adaptations, and a video that will make it possible for students with disabilities to explore, experience, and choreograph dance within a computer-generated "virtual" environment. In this "virtual" dance environment, students with and without disabilities can participate as equals.

The technological advance now available which can allow students with significant coordination, balance and movement limitations to execute moves with the power, grace, and elegance equal to that of an accomplished dancer, is Life Forms. This software animation package, created at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., and distributed by Macromedia, Inc., gives any user the tools to compose dance visually in space and time. Wire-frame graphic figure images are used to represent each dancer, and a stage can be raked, turned and manipulated in many other ways. Using libraries of positions, these figures on the stage (and in the space around it) can be articulated through the full range of dance movements available to a dancer in the concrete world. Individual postures and stances can be created, edited, stored, retrieved and combined to create movement. The program provides automatic interpolation and extension of movement so that the positions flow automatically from one to another, and can be played back in real time. Each movement phrase can be sequenced into an animation, and these animations can be combined to create larger, full-scale pieces of work.

The basics of Life Forms can be learned fairly quickly, and the software is easy to use with just a little practice. Teachers and students with little or no computer animation experience can easily create and perform simple dance pieces. With time, experience, and practice, simple dances can be expanded to more complex works that incorporate as many dancers on the computer screen as the user desires. Life Forms software is inexpensive and will operate on almost all Macintosh computers. For the two-year grant period, Macromedia has generously donated site license n extra user manuals to the project.

Project Goals

  1. Project staff will produce, market and disseminate software adaptations, curricula and curricular materials for a computer model dance program that uses the Life Forms software package as the basic environment and set of tools. Separate curricula and materials will be available for community-based programs, middle/high schools, and community colleges. Since it is planned that the program can be replicated by dance instructors, adapted physical education teachers, occupational therapists, or any other professionals with a background in computers and the movement arts, special issues related to each of these disciplines will be addressed.
  2. Software adaptations will be created that reflect dancers who are not ambulatory, but who use motorized and manual wheelchairs. Life Forms comes with sample position palettes and animations of dancers (in the modern, ballet and jazz traditions) that the students can view and paste into their own original choreography. Palettes and animations are created and stored by users so that they need not re-make the same position or movement phrase repeatedly. In cooperation with AXIS Dance Troupe, a dance company comprised of disabled and non-disabled dancers, a large set of position palettes and movement phrases are being developed that show the Life Forms dancers striking the same poses and executing the same movements as the AXIS dancers. Animations that combine both ambulatory dancers with dancers who use wheelchairs, showing innovative ways that they can move and dance together, are also being created. This task will be completed by the staff and a student assistant who will review and recreate with the software, positions and movements recorded on a two hour AXIS videotape made specially for this project.
  3. Working in partnership with the High Tech Center Training Unit, project staff will evaluate a wide range of assistive and alternative input devices, including keyboard control software, optical pointing systems, screen magnification programs, and speech recognition systems. The Training Unit is regarded nationally as a leader in the research, testing, and evaluation of state-of-the-art assistive computer technology. This project will have full access to these new technologies and the expertise of High Tech Center Training Unit staff as the methodologies for providing access to virtual dance environments are developed.
  4. Students' work will be performed by AXIS Dance Troupe as part of a multimedia dance extravaganza, produced by the Creative Arts Department of De Anza College, in December, 1994. AXIS Dance Troupe is a professional touring company that is recognized internationally for their beautiful, ground-breaking choreography and performances. Over a thousand people are expected for the show at The Flint Center in Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
  5. A documentary-style videotape is being produced for viewing by administrators, teachers, students, parents, and funding sources. The purpose of the tape is to demonstrate the software, show the classes in progress, and answer some frequently asked questions about the implementation and support necessary to make the program successful in a variety of environments. The videotape will feature students working on the computer and other related classroom activities, their computer-based choreography, and interviews with professionals, parents, and students involved with the project. The videotape will also show highlights of the students' work as performed by the AXIS Dance Troupe.
  6. A three-day training program on how to use the Life Forms software and how to implement the curricula, will be offered for teachers around the country by the High Tech Center Training Unit of the California Community Colleges. The High Tech Center Training Unit provides a full schedule of training events each academic quarter on the use of assistive computer technology and teaching with technology with students with disabilities. This special Creating Dance with Life Forms training program will be offered twice a year. Project staff will also showcase the curricula and curricular materials at conferences, in professional publications, and in the popular media.
  7. The project will seek answers to a number of questions during the course of this project, including:
  1. Can students demonstrate that they have learned beginning dance concepts through their animations?
  2. Will student participation in the project have an impact upon any of their other academic areas?
  3. Will students' participation have an impact upon any other of their artistic endeavors?
  4. Will students' actual physical movement be changed in any way by their participation in the program?
  5. Will students' their perception of themselves as movers and dancers be altered in any measurable way?
  6. Will students identify with or consider the Life Forms figures as surrogates for self?
  7. Can students with and without disabilities participate together and enjoy the same degree of success?
  8. Will students' experiences manipulating and arranging objects in space and time alter in a measurable way their sense of power, control and self confidence?
  9. Are there predictors of which students are most likely to be successful in learning the basics of dance and choreography in a virtual environment?
  10. Will the program be adopted and supported by parents and key school personnel as an alternative or substitute for adapted physical education or a traditional dance course?
  11. How well can beginning dance concepts be taught and demonstrated using software tools and a computer environment?
  12. Do instructors enjoy the experience of teaching dance in a virtual environment?

Preliminary Project Review

Project staff has created and tested the first set of curricula drafts, curricular materials, software palettes and animations, and have conducted pilot and experimental classes with students from all target groups. The classes include a five-session summer afternoon pilot program for teens; a twelve-session winter after school experimental class for teens; a half-semester spring in-school experimental class for middle-school students; a six-session summer pilot program for college students; and a two quarter units course, winter quarter, for community college students.

Even after only the pilot program, the majority of the students demonstrated that they understood the basic dance concepts covered by the curriculum. They demonstrated this knowledge by their verbal descriptions and by their demonstration animation pieces. The students appeared to particularly enjoy doing demos and computer-based recitals for each other at the conclusion of each class.

Notably, a computer specialist teaching a graphics program stated that one of the students participating in the Creating Dance With Life Forms project had "without a doubt" changed his perceptions about objects in space, and how movement is made up of a continuation of positions. Both the movement therapist and the Creating Dance With Life Forms instructor of another student commented on the student's apparent positive change in the level of comfort with her body, and how her control over her own movement had changed over the course of her participation in the project.

All of the students showed delight in being able to manipulate the Life Forms figures and animate them in any way they pleased. Even though the current version of Life Forms does not allow the user to import a graphic of a wheelchair (future versions will have this feature), the students were able to understand them and position and animate dancers who use (invisible) chairs without any apparent difficulties.

One of the issues of particular interest to the project was whether or not the students would identify with the on-screen figures and have some sense of movement that they had experienced previously. Two students spontaneously offered information that leads faculty to believe that for some students this creative identification and "surrogacy" occurs. At the end of the pilot program, during a wrap-up question and answer period, one girl answered the "What did you like best about the program?" question with, "I liked watching myself dance." Another girl in a different class, upon completing an animation exercise, called over to one of the instructors, "I can dance; come watch me dance."

The students in the college classes demonstrated that it was possible to have a successful academic/studio environment in which students with disabilities and students without disabilities learned and performed side by side. Although the former worked at a slower pace, due the limitations of access technology (primarily), all students felt it to be a positive experience. Indeed, all of the students without disabilities choreographed final projects that included dancers who used wheelchairs.

The difficulties faced in this project, that are not unique to this endeavor, included students whose computer skills and technology access needs were not adequately assessed prior to start of the program. This prevented the students from beginning work on the curriculum right away, as staff scrambled to teach basic computer skills and find the most appropriate access tools.

Evaluation Plan

Both formative and summative methods of evaluation will be used for the project's evaluation plan. Advisory committee participants will meet to provide feedback on how the project is meeting its goals and objectives. These evaluations will address the content, proceedings and outcomes of each stage of the project, and the project's effects on the target populations.


Merce Cunningham once said, "Dancing is movement in time and space; its possibilities are bound only by our imagination and our two legs." This project is beginning to show that for many students with physical disabilities, dance no longer needs to have much to do with ones' own two legs. With the use of Life Forms and innovative curricula and curricular materials to create dance, we are confident that many students that have not been able to do so previously, will be able to explore and express their life experience through the creation of dance. A less restrictive dance studio and corps of dancers may exist nowhere else.

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