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Breakdancing? An Unlikely Sense of Sight for the Visually Impaired

Hip-hop theatre company Rationale discover which dance moves can be seen by those with vision problems.
Rationale in action. Photo: Catherine Chapman

Headspins, rocking and other stylistic moves practiced in breakdancing are being used to create inclusive dance performances for the visually impaired, helping extend scientific research into how the brain functions. The beginnings of this investigation into the potential links between limited eyesight and breakdance were presented at Sheffield during the city’s Festival of the Mind, a 10-day event that brings together artists and academics for collaborative projects that seek to publically illustrate science and its findings.


Among them was Theatres of the Mind: Dissecting Brain Function, a mixed-media and performance installation serving as an explanatory platform for all things neuroscience.


Hip hop theatre company Rationale presents a theatrical look into neuroscience and brain function. Photo: Catherine Chapman

“I’m a big believer in public engagement,” says Dr. Aneurin Kennerley, a physicist who works with magnetic resonance imaging—MRI machines—at the University of Sheffield. “I think it’s important for us as scientists to get our research out there so people know what we’re doing. It also gives us a unique chance to get feedback from the people that we’re suppose to be helping with our research. They can bring fresh new ideas.”

That’s exactly how Kennerley met Nathan Geering, artistic director of the hip hop theatre company Rationale, who approached him with a research proposal two years in the making. “We’d been studying the unlikely link between hip-hop and visual impairment,” Geering tells The Creators Project. “What we found was that breaking seemed to be the most physical dance form available to improve visual impairment.”


35-year-old Nathan Geering likes telling emotional stories that people can relate to. Photo: Catherine Chapman

Geering explains that audience members with limited vision see Rationale’s breakdancing performances and have their depth perception improved, meaning what may have looked like a television screen to a Visually Impaired viewer suddenly becomes live theatre.

“A lot of this is due to the sheer dynamics of the artform,” says Geering, who discovered the phenomenon after Rationale collaborated with Visually Impaired Directors Kaite O’Reily and Andrew Loretto. “Basically our bodies being in very unusual positions, like being upside down or just different poses. There’s also the power moves that are exclusive to breaking, for example, the axis to which we spin on our heads. People with visual impairment seem to detect those movements a lot better. They also see better when they look down towards the floor. Where does most breaking happen? It happens on the floor.”


Welcome to Theatres of the Mind: Dissecting Brain Function, an installation and performance part of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind, which ran from 15 September through to 25 September 2016. Photo: Catherine Chapman

Having organized dance workshops with the Visually Impaired, including kids breakdance lessons aimed at developing spatial awareness, Geering is now working with Kennerley’s MRI scanners to see what happens in the brain of a Visually Impaired person when they see a variety of dance moves.

“Just say you’ve got a visual impairment,” explains Kennerley. “You’ve not got the same information coming into your brain. The world could be quite blurry, or parts of the world could be missing. It’s my theory that these broad movements, the large outstretched hands, spinning on one’s head and all these unusual positions to see somebody in, will get through and be processed by the brain.”

Comparing breakdancing to the styles of both ballet and contemporary, the team hopes to discover which motions of dance are the most physical, allowing choreographers from around the world to utilize movements to create more accessible shows.


Rationale in action. Photo: Catherine Chapman

“Visual perception is kind of a strange area under a lot of intense research,” says Kennerley. “Only through researching it with technologies like MRI will we be able to uncover its true inner workings.”

Rationale continues its work into the physiological and psychological aspects of breakdance and visual impairment, telling socially aware stories for all types of audiences. See more of their work here.


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