Electrical engineering students light up ballroom dance moves

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BYU’s Ballroom Dance team doesn’t take requests often, but when engineering professor Aaron Hawkins approached them with his request they pounced at the opportunity to collaborate.

Last summer while watching “America’s Got Talent,” Hawkins saw a group and was inspired to create a set of light-up body suits to be worn by members of the dance team.

“I knew that BYU had a good dance team and some really world-famous dance groups and thought, ‘We could do that.’ ” After Hawkins presented the idea to his colleagues in the engineering department, he enlisted the help of Ballroom Dance Company.

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BYU engineering students teamed up with the ballroom dance team to create light suits to be worn during a dance performance.
As a part of their senior project, nine engineering students spent the semester working closely with the ballroom dancers to design and create four fully functioning light suits equipped with 16 light channels that flash in sync with music. The students also programed a master computer to play the music and wirelessly send signals to a box on the back of each of the four suits. The suits have been used a number of times in performances in Las Vegas and Washington state and were recently used April 6 and 7 in the annual Ballroom Dance Company Concert.

Hawkins said the biggest obstacle the engineers faced was creating a reliable suit for the dancers that also looked nice.

“The wire that we were working with tends to break if it pinches and it’s really flexible so it doesn’t always like to lay flat,” Hawkins said, adding that it was interesting for the engineers to consider the fabrics and the sewing methods they would use to secure the wire to the suit.

Hawkins said the ultimate goal behind this project was to help students see an idea come to life.

“One of the reasons we did this is so that our students could have a fun and fulfilling opportunity,” Hawkins said. “A project like this shows just how fun and rewarding engineering can be.”

This kind of collaboration is rare, but the engineers and dancers alike said the benefits were enumerable.

James Mackie, an electrical engineering major from Winchester, Calif., said for him the greatest benefit was the real world experience.

“This is a project that was unique in that there was a lot of responsibility placed upon us,” Mackie said. “We were working for a real customer, a real show and creating a real product.”

Mackie, a senior, will be graduating this spring and said he’s never put more work into a single class during his tenure at BYU.

“Up until now I’ve never pulled an all nighter, but working on this project I’ve pulled two,” Mackie said. “It’s been a lot of work, but seeing the performances really makes it worth it.”

Chase Thornock, a member of the Ballroom Dance Company, said he was impressed by the level of dedication the engineers put into this project.

“It hasn’t just been building the suits and moving on,” Thornock said. “They spend three and four hours checking connections and re-soldering wires after each two minute performance that we use the suits. They’re great engineers.”

The suits and many other engineering senior projects will be available for close viewing at ECE On Display from 1-3 p.m. Wednesday, Apr. 11 in the Wilkinson Center Garden Court.

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