This is meant to be a spiritual sequel to my last blog post about what game designers can learn from the art and process of music production. Similar to music production, I got into dance at around the same time in high school after watching a busking performance in downtown Toronto. I initially forayed into breakdancing but found my lanky frame unable to perform even the most basic of moves (it took me 8 months to realize I couldn’t do a handstand). After this rather disheartening entry into dance, a video online caught my eye. It was a Japanese popping crew that specialized in a sub-style known as animation. They blew what I understood to be possible with the human body out of the water with their incredible illusions performed only with contortion and impeccable timing, and I was obsessed. I’ve since gone on to start street dance clubs, teach, participate in battles in Toronto and Montreal (which, by the way, has an incredible street dance scene) and perform on stage in front of thousands of people. I’m by no means an expert at what I do (rather, I’m embarrassingly mediocre when considering the length of time I’ve been practicing for), and in part I’m writing this to learn more about myself and how I can infuse my later works with my past experience. In this entry, I examine this other lifelong love of mine, street dance, with an eye towards transferable concepts that I can draw on from my own experience with popping and hip hop as well as more broadly from other styles like bboying and locking.
Let’s start by first establishing the core components of street dance. There are a variety of styles (popping, locking, krumping, bboying, turfing, jooking, hip hop, etc.) and all of them have their own unique movement systems, but the common element is freestyling. All of these are essentially exercises in design under constraints, occasionally breaking those constraints for more options. This can be seen in a style like Tutting, which emphasizes utilizing the body to convey complex patterns and moves within a right angle and grid-like structure. The criteria that judges often use at battles are musicality, flow, originality and technique. In freestyle, there are no limits on what you can and cannot do - the only real barrier is thinking fast enough to look like you’re not thinking at all, eventually reaching an optimal state of flow where there is almost zero lag in how you interpret input (music) and output (dance moves). I’m of the opinion that dance is the first interactive art medium where the audience must move their bodies in tandem with the musical signals they process. This is why musicality is listed first. The body is an incredibly articulate structure of connected joints and limbs and the way in which we utilize the constraints of the body to convey illusions and meaning are central to the song that we are interpreting.
The best dancers have almost no blood-brain barrier between the music and their body - while cliche it’s true that their instinct is to simply let their body take over and become the conduit. This centers the body as the ‘controller’ that you must command with your mind to move within the rules of the music. In some sense, the game of music production in a funk context is to create music that both motivates people to dance, and also give people the opportunity within the song to go off a little. The game for dancers is to interpret that music and translate its ephemeral qualities like pacing, emotion, timbre, tone, and tension to moves they perform with their body. Repetition and motifs are often used in both dance and game design to reinforce audience expectations (and to surprise by breaking them) and to get a sense of the pacing. If the music is central to dance, then the same core concepts I wrote about in the last blog post stand true here: these qualities help the practitioner understand on an intuitive level what it takes to keep an audience’s attention understanding that the audience’s job is to understand the creative ways the dancer is connecting to the music. This is analogous to a game designer designing for oneself. At the end of the day, while designing or dancing alone is therapeutic to the soul, publishing or performance repositions the importance of playtesting to better understand how to improve that communication. Essentially this broaches the topic of user feedback and optimization - the tendency for younger dancers is to start off dancing in their room where they feel most comfortable (or alone in front of a mirror), and that actually stunts your growth as a dancer because it’s hard to view what you’ve created impartially. A better practice is to grow accustomed to the pressure of performing in front of others so that you can more easily slip into flow.
This segues into the next topic that battles are typically judged on. Flow is the perception that everything in a dancer’s freestyle is purposeful and cohesively flows into one another. This is typically accomplished only when the dancer can reach an optimal state of flow where they don’t overthink anything or hesitate at all (something the practice of technique and foundation can help achieve) and simply interpret. This takes rest, and this takes comfort in front of an audience, and any performer will understand the feeling of forgetting what just occurred on stage. The common structure for a freestyle set is some sort of introduction, the meat of the dance itself (where musicality and technique are heavily considered), and ideally, a striking conclusion to the set. It’s the same for any interest curve, and the peaks are the moves performed spontaneously on important beats that seasoned dancers inexplicably know are coming. This ties into the narrative aspect of game design, as well as user experience. The introduction serves to level-set the audience on what to expect, what the visual style of the dancer (or game) is, and what the emotion and attitude they are trying to convey are. As the set progresses, the dancer will play with expectations and hopefully leave off on an impactful climax that is built up through a variety of moves prior to. The connection between these parts is just as important as the parts themselves, as a good dancer with bad flow will look unpolished and sloppy. I am reminded of one game design experience wherein our team of 5 had to create a storytelling VR game that ambitiously tried to tackle the subtle feeling of sentimentality. What we found was that, in response to lukewarm reception, we developed a much more exciting climax that ultimately destroyed the cohesion that would have made it effective because the two parts were jarringly disparate in tone.
This cohesion can be achieved through practicing the art of body communication. The challenge is to communicate a cohesive ‘story’ (defined in the loosest sense) that conveys who you are as a dancer and what you are interested in investigating (your specialty styles). In popping, the main elements are illusions - essentially magic tricks with the body like gliding, waving, or robotting. There are obvious analogies to the animation industry right in the techniques themselves, such as the way dancers direct viewers’ eyes towards a focal point in tracing waves on a body, or rigging and splining as understood from the perspective of robotting and articulation points. To create original moves you must first internalize the limits of the body and work around those to trick the eyes of anyone viewing, and then synthesize multiple approaches and techniques from past into one cohesive move. This requires a deep knowledge of fundamentals in street dance, as fundamentals teach you limits and also structures by which to default on. As mentioned, repetition of motifs set expectations that you can then break, and with illusions (as any magician will attest) and street dance in general, it’s all about breaking expectations of possibility. That said, too much repetition will lead to a boring set as well, so a core part of technique is understanding the dimensions of dance as it relates to space (the X, Y, and Z coordinates of your movement, as well as intensity and size of the move). This is integral to VR game design as well, given that the player is situated physically inside the space you provide. Originality comes from internalizing foundations and structures, and then breaking them through synthesis of other styles, moves, or concepts. The same can be said for any creative process, and especially of original gameplay design.
Ultimately, dance is about communicating the emotional qualities of music through the body and I believe many insights can be derived from how dancers go about achieving that. In all my years in dance and music, I truly believe that ultimately it’s not about the ability for you to execute technique flawlessly, but more so about the ability to present a unique style understanding and playing with the current tropes that the majority of the community recognize as technique. There is no ‘best’ dancer, but the ‘best’ dancers are simply the ones with the most recognizable and unique style. Those are the same ones that add to the broader discourse of dance, redefining and investigating the definitions, in an attempt to create something truly original. This is the essence of art in general - filtering your experiences through your lens (of interest and passion) to create something almost inimitable. In game design, I challenge all of us to find our unique ‘style’, as I believe there are enough games with the same mechanics and stories out there that leaves room for innovation through a multidisciplinary thinking approach. And also I challenge game designers to learn a little about how to dance! The physicality of it really connects to those of us working on emerging technologies and sensor-based games with alternative controls, as it puts you in tune with what the fun ‘movements’ are and what the limits of the human body mean when using it as a interface.