Picture a ballet dancer switching costumes mid-movement. Imagine trainees in yoga-teacher training seeing which muscles engage and stretch in various poses, through images of working muscles superimposed on a trainee’s body as they practice those poses. Imagine a personal trainer being able to similarly show a client the most efficient and effective pathways of muscular engagement through superimposed visuals of working muscles.
Is this science fiction? With augmented reality (AR) and body tracking, it could be reality.
The question is less about the technology (though it certainly has room to grow) than its ability to scale in movement-based sectors: dance, yoga, and fitness. Realities such as tight budgets and reluctance to shift from the status quo in certain spaces could raise adoption barriers.
On the other hand, exploration and a creative drive characterize all of these fields. If AR professionals can tap into that – and work with these fields, coming to understand their needs and challenges – it could be a game-changer. It could impact how we work out, appreciate the art of the moving human body, and even how we feel and function day-to-day.
Why should you listen to me?
Stepping back to establish some context and credibility, I’ve been a dancer for twenty years, and a yoga practitioner for fifteen. I have a BA in Dance and an MA in Dance/Movement Therapy. I’m an RYT 200 (certified to teach yoga) and an R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). I’m also a dance educator, teaching dance forms from ballet to jazz to contemporary, to youth and adult students. I’ve also taught fitness forms ranging from Pilates to Barre to Cardio Dance.
I’ve additionally written about dance, yoga, movement, and wellness for various publications. This brings with it a wide network of artists, dance companies, and yoga instructors/enthusiasts across various locales. Through all of that, I’ve seen how dance and movement intersect with other disciplines, including other artistic media.
For example, I once choreographed a piece that represented extraterrestrial bodies through dance. Everything from comets to planets to stars to black holes were enacted through visual projections, the score, and the movement itself. This was a lightbulb realization that dance can best be unlocked through other disciplines, including technology.
What’s body tracking, and should body-based professionals care?
That brings us back to AR. One of the ways that AR and movement arts converge is through body tracking. Broadly speaking, this technology tracks full-body movement so that visuals – be they clothing, gear, or other effects – can be overlayed in ways that sync to those movements. Think: Snapchat Lenses for your whole body (which Snap itself continues to integrate).
Why is this valuable? Beyond entertainment and social fodder, which again Snap has covered, body tracking could fundamentally change key aspects of dance, yoga and fitness. This includes education, creative/artistic output, and accessibility. For example, allowing dance students to view their recorded movement relative to the overlayed movement patterns of more advanced professionals could give them benchmarks that are cognitively meaningful in their development.
With that backdrop, here are three ways that AR can transform movement arts.
1. Education and training
Education that involves the body, in deep and complex ways, takes place from university classrooms to dance and yoga studios to gyms where personal trainers and fitness instructors learn their craft.
Movement is often (though not always) learned as a gradual process to key into awareness of movement pathways, muscular engagement, and alignment of body parts. In my experience, this can even involve life-sized medical skeletons to provide a visual aide or model for movement targets.
AR-based visuals superimposed on our moving bodies could create an even greater feedback loop for rapid development. For example, body tracking through AR can reveal muscles that are activating to enable a given dance move or sequence. That awareness, supported by a concrete and immersive visual, could mean game-changing improvements to dance technique and artistry.
That same dynamic could play out in body-based training and education more broadly: including for yoga teachers, fitness instructors, and personal trainers.
2. Dance/Movement Therapy
Another area of movement arts that applies here is Dance/Movement Therapy. This is a body-based modality within Expressive Arts Therapies that helps patients and clients ease various mental and physical conditions, or to simply live fuller lives with mental balance.
In this discipline, the first step is building therapeutic relationships – which allows the patient/client to trust the therapist. AR could aid in this relationship-building though applying something fun and creative, all while beginning to lead the client/patient to greater connection with and awareness of their bodies. Then the therapeutic work can truly begin.
For example, with clients/patients experiencing things like body image issues, body dysmorphia or eating disorders, how they see AR on their own bodies could be meaningful. That could help therapists better do their job and guide patients and clients towards their own therapeutic breakthroughs.
It could also infuse some fun to take the edge off the ‘theraputic’ vibe of such sessions. That could all be particularly impactful with child, pre-teen, and teen clients/patients, not to mention those with communication challenges and other disabilities.
3. Concert dance, live and on film
Dance artists, like all artists, are always exploring how to translate meaning in fresh, innovative ways. Sometimes that involves technology. For instance, larger-scale companies like Boston Ballet and Martha Graham Dance Company have worked with VR in creative experimentation. Smaller boutique companies such as Arch Contemporary Ballet have used AR-like effects to build atmosphere, as well as expand accessibility to hearing-impaired audience members.
To that end, layering other art forms on top of moving bodies – such as words, musical notes, or sound waves – could help concert performances get closer to what’s called universal design. This is where all audience members, no matter any mental or physical disability, can experience a performance like fully-able people can. For all audience members, the ability to change the aesthetic of a dancing body or bodies before our very eyes is an exciting creative development.
In other practical matters, AR could help ease some big headaches for choreographers as they realize their vision. For example, being able to see how a costume looks on a dancer (and even in conjunction with design aspects such as lighting) before costumes are made for an entire ensemble could save considerable time and money.
AR could also make the always tedious grant allocation process much smoother. If innovators can figure out how AR could be an easier way for dance artists to demonstrate their vision to grant-allocating foundations and institutions, it could be a meaningful development. This could play out through film that simulates or prototypes finished works through AR.
Despite all the above advantages, there are practical barriers in logistics, finances and the technology itself. For example, do all audience members need an app already downloaded to experience a choreographer’s vision (not to mention device/system compatability)? And are AR and body tracking even ready for prime time?
Beyond the tech, do the economics work out for investment and return in movement-based fields? With dance in particular, available funds is a constant challenge, given costs to produce creative, educational, or wellness-directed content versus revenue outcomes. Concert dance, for one, can be expensive to produce but make little in ticket sales (grants often make up the difference).
With yoga and fitness, wealthy enthusiasts/clients and profitable apparel/gear brands have cash to spare. Yet many entities in these sectors are small businesses with razor-thin profit margins. They might believe that they can’t take the fiscal gamble on something like AR.
So the technology has to develop and become ubiquitous and cost-competitive enough to make it scalable in movement arts. In other words, it might have to get big outside of these fields before it can get big inside of them. Apart from that, the investment of scarce resources has to seem undoubtedly worth it to body-based professionals.
Money aside, there’s also the question of openness to the technology. There are many forward-thinking people in these fields. In some ways, that goes with the territory. But often in larger institutions such as universities and institutes, traditional mindsets remain among decision makers like department chairs.
It can happen through collaboration
How can AR overcome those obstacles? For one, the right messaging is key. Part of that, I’d argue, would be a “show rather than tell” approach: demonstrate AR’s immersive qualities that can offer a rich sensory experience. That’s a language that creative professionals speak…and fortunately the inherent qualities that AR can offer. Lean into that.
AR professionals also have to be careful to not assume they know what professionals in body-based fields need or want. Open, engaged conversation and collaboration are indispensable here. Thankfully, those are generally key values and capacities within these fields. AR folks have to meet them there. As they say, it takes two to tango.
Kathryn Boland is a writer, teacher and practitioner in dance, yoga, and various other movement-based modalities. See more about her work and portfolio here.