Prosthetic Design Allows New Movement Possibilities & Creative Opportunities

May 9, 2021

The word “prosthesis” refers to an artificial, supplemental device that attempts to return a disabled body to a state of “normalcy.” A prosthetic hand resembles and functions as a “normal” hand; a prosthetic foot resembles and functions as a “normal” foot. Such technologies are laden with political expectations, namely, the insistence that there is such a thing as a “normal” body to begin with.

Disabled movement artists have greatly expanded what “normal” means in the dance field. And many use prosthetics to create choreography that is anything but in the service of the status quo, expanding movement possibilities far beyond recognized norms.

Consider Belgian hip-hop artist Angelina Bruno. A star of the European dance circuit whose right arm was amputated at the forearm as a teenager, Bruno dances to The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” with a 3-D–printed arm in the video game Just Dance 2021. The arm (designed in collaboration with Anouk Wipprecht) is a gorgeously faceted spire that glows iridescently within a cyber-futuristic, TRON-like virtual environment.

Or look at Candoco Dance Company’s Cuckoo, a short dance film of the inimitable Welly O’Brien, which features a bespoke, carved wooden leg (echoing Alexander McQueen and Victorian false limbs) that contains a gravity-defying pendulum and fully functioning cuckoo clock.

Meanwhile, TikTok star Henrik Cox, who has a prosthetic hand, recently created a video series about the best and worst songs to listen to with a “voice-controlled” hand. Though it’s actually controlled by electrical signals from his muscles, Cox puppets the prosthesis to make it seem as though it was interpreting the lyrics of any given music literally, and hijinks ensue to such songs as the “Cha Cha Slide” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The resulting videos hilariously foreground disability in relation to TikTok’s dance meme ecology.

For any number of genre-expanding artists, prosthetic design is a key part of the creative process and underpins performances at a level of importance equal to costuming, music and lighting. Emerging technologies to assemble prostheses include 3-D printing, where limbs are built out of extruded synthetic materials. Three-dimensional scans create high-definition digital images of artists’ limbs. Myoelectrics control sophisticated gestures and limb actions, like pinching, undulating and gripping. Such pioneering processes have greatly expanded the range of movement available to dancers.

Prostheses—like dances—exist in relation to history, and can gesture towards more equitable, more inclusive futures. And performances with more possibilities. Echoing artist and designer Sara Hendren, if you want to know what the future of dance looks like, look to the disabled dancers and choreographers and their collaborators at work inventing it right now.