With engineers' help, BYU dancers electrify contest
The audience at England's Blackpool Dance Festival is a hardened bunch of ballroom experts.
"They've seen it all and done it all," said Lee Wakefield, director of the Brigham Young University Ballroom Dance Company, which competed at the 93-year-old dance competition this week.
Then, during Wednesday night's final in the British Formation Championship, BYU's dancers lit up the room. Literally.
Sixteen dancers, eight men and eight women, wowed the audience and judges with a Disney medley, with music orchestrated by Utah composer Kurt Bestor and with the women's dresses featuring rows of LED lights that were designed, constructed and choreographed by BYU engineering students.
"There was an audible gasp," said Ali Wood, 22, one of the three engineering students who accompanied the BYU dancers to Blackpool. The audience, she said, was "just overwhelmed. The cheering just got louder and louder. Before it was over, they were on their feet. It was pretty surreal."
It's not the first time dancers have worn lights at Blackpool, Wakefield said Friday over the phone from England, but the BYU costumes were the most elaborate set-up the contest has ever seen. With the combination of the dance moves, music, rhinestones and light effects, "it really was a phenomenal experience for the audience," he said.
Wednesday's performance, with the light-up dresses, earned BYU first place in the British Formation category, beating a team from Germany. On Friday night, BYU's dancers without benefit of lighted dresses took first place in the British Latin Formation category, outscoring teams from China, Germany and England.
But it was the light show that, according to Wakefield, "was the talk of Blackpool."
The light project began in an electrical engineering class at BYU last fall, said Stephen Wood, 24, Ali's husband, and another student who accompanied the dancers to England. (Franklin Morley was the third engineering student on the trip.) The team, which had 10 or so students involved at one point or another, purchased LED light strips and then designed and programmed the microprocessors that control the light patterns.
The students met with Wakefield, watched the dance team's choreography and worked on creating a light show to go with the dance moves.
Ali Wood said she "took some personal liberties" with the lighting, "adjusting the colors, playing with the patterns to twinkle and do all kinds of effects."
The student engineers also had to overcome some challenges.
"We didn't anticipate the stresses that these dresses would undergo," Stephen Wood said. "We had to make them solid and really indestructible."
Three weeks before Blackpool, the engineers discovered static electricity was building up in the dresses and when it discharged, it would temporarily short out the battery packs attached to the dresses. The power would return quickly, but then the programmed light patterns would be out of sync with each other.
The students quickly came up with a solution, in which the dresses could send signals to each other, keeping each other in sync.
That communication between the dresses seemed to be malfunctioning two minutes before the BYU dancers were set to perform Wednesday night.
"I couldn't make them wait," Ali Wood said. "I just hit 'go' and hoped for the best."
About 40 seconds into the routine, on cue, the lights worked and the Blackpool audience started going wild.