sun 21/07/2024

We Made It: Ballet shoe creator Genevieve Smith-Nunes | reviews, news & interviews

We Made It: Ballet shoe creator Genevieve Smith-Nunes

We Made It: Ballet shoe creator Genevieve Smith-Nunes

Computer science goes classical in the self-taught coder making light-up ballet shoes

Genevieve Smith-Nunes models her wearable-tech ballet shoes


What do you get when you cross classical ballet with computer coding? Wearable-tech en pointe shoes that light up as the ballerinas dance. One of the highlights of September’s Brighton Digital Festival, [data]Storm is the brainchild of ballet dancer turned IT teacher Genevieve Smith-Nunes. She set up readysaltedcode, the recipient of a Google RISE Award, to bring the worlds of arts and computer science closer together – and rubbish a few gender stereotypes into the bargain. Making the shoes for the performance, she tells theartsdesk, involved sewing, coding and a whole lot of perseverance.

BELLA TODD: What do the wearable-tech ballet shoes do and how did you make them?

GENEVIEVE SMITH-NUNES: The patterns and colours of the lights change in response to weather data and sensors used in the performance. Its a way of involving the dancers in the coding process. On the pointe shoes we use an arduino (a micro-controller), eight addressable LEDs that you can control individually, and a small Lipo battery. The girls love them. Who wouldn't want light-up shoes?

What was the trickiest part of the process?

You need to be patient as sewing with conductive thread, which is made up of metal fibres, isn’t as easy as normal cotton. That was the first challenge. Working with pointe shoes was the next. The hard bit, known as the "box", is like trying to stitch through concrete. The original prototype took me six hours. I broke so many needles.

Are you concerned with appearance, or is it all about performance?

I’m definitely concerned with how the shoes look, but not over performance. On the prototype the signal wasn’t getting through because I’d tried to do a really pretty chain stitch that just meant more and more conductive thread. If they look pretty but don’t work they are useless.

How did you learn to code?

I’m self-taught. When I was little we had a Dragon 32 in the house and a BBC Micro in the school. Back then you had to do basic coding to play a computer game. I went to Australia for a year and worked at the University of South Wales College of Fine Arts, one of the first to have a commercial design studio attached. I ended up teaching IT and maths at a secondary school in Brighton, and taught myself to programme so we could do more fun things in the lessons.

Why apply wearable technology to ballet rather than another form of dance?

I went to dancing school and did ballet until I was 16, when I had a spinal fusion. For [data]Storm’s choreography we’re working with Dr Paul Golz, a lecturer at Worcester University who, unusually, teaches computer science and dance, and ballet teacher and dance lecturer Camilla Neale. The structure, form and functions involved in ballet are akin to computer science. They each have their own programming language. I also wanted a way to excite girls about computer science. It isn't magic, but it can make things magical. These are like Cinderella shoes, except instead of being made of glass they've got super-electronics on them.

What is the potential for this technology in the arts?

Limitless. The dancers generate huge amounts of data from movement and biometrics that can be used to trigger sound, light and video – anything you can imagine. Future artists will definitely be coders. It’s already here: take Vivid Sydney festival as one amazing example. With readysaltedcode we’ve run workshops where we’ve created piano gloves (a musical glove that uses colour to play sounds) and used motion caption and green screen with circus performers at the Roundhouse. I’ve also made light-up roller skates (I had a roller disco for my 40th birthday). Once you have the basic project you can do anything with it.

Is it true you'll be learning to dance in these shoes yourself next month?

Yes, the next ballet project I’m working on is looking at chronic pain and biomedical engineering. As a chronic pain sufferer, with a silent disability, its hard to communicate to people the pain I feel every day even with my spinal implant. Don't worry, the audience won't experience any physical pain, but they’ll hopefully have a better understanding after the performance. We will definitely be using lots of lights.

Read other articles in We Made It, our series on craft in partnership with Bruichladdich

These are like Cinderella shoes, except instead of being made of glass they've got super-electronics on them

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