Will Virtual Reality Partner Dancing be a Thing?

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Just got paid. Friday night. Time to dance.

You sit at home in your pajamas, surrounded by a laptop, stale potato chips and your omni-directional treadmill. You pop on your haptic suit, visors and earpiece then power ‘On’.

You’re instantly transported to the outside entrance of Mundo Latino. This is the best Latin dance club the Multiverse has to offer. You’ll be dancing with the world’s best dancers tonight and you’re ready. Why wouldn’t you be ready? You do this every day.

The bouncer scans you in and deducts 5 credits from your account. You feel the boom of the base in your chest. The temperature in your suit rises 10 degrees and you hit a wall of sweat. Sure, you could activate cooling override but you know Latin dancing is all about the heat ;)

Out of the corner of your eye, you spot Magna. The two of you had a great dance last night so you go and say hi. She tells you about a new woman, Sherry, who is incredible. You’re sent off to Sherry’s corner where you ask her to dance.

You take Sherry’s hand. You feel her soft palm and gently guide her onto the dance floor. Sherry has great connection as you give her a cross body lead. You lead her through turn patterns and not once does it cross your mind that none of this is real.

By 2am, you call it a night. Saying goodbye to your friends, you walk past the bouncer and out the door, taking off your visors. You snap back to reality, standing in your living room, drenched in sweat.

You hop in the shower, grab a snack, and head off to bed, satisfied with a fantastic night of dancing.

What is Reality

We take it for granted that [insert your dance style here] is a physical activity done in the real world. We don’t look at our phone while we dance. We don’t check Facebook. Besides the music playing over the loud speakers, technology has zero to do with the act of dancing. But will this always be true?

The above scene seems futuristic. How the heck could you simulate a dance partner and make it feel like a real dance?

Let’s discuss the building blocks that already exist in some form today and how they will operate in the future.

Step 1: Visual Perception

To create a sense of immersion, your 5 senses must perceive the digital world as real. This begins with your sense of sight. Strap on an Oculus Rift and your eyes absorb a 3d environment. This environment looks real. You turn around and there is stuff behind you!

Avatars have realistic skin texture and facial expressions. These facial expressions come from you, the user. This has already been done with a hacked Oculus Rift.

Haptic suits also track your body movements in the virtual world down to the centimeter. Haptic suits are like body motion suits but with ping pong balls covering your whole body. The virtual world knows exactly where you are and what each part of your body is doing.



Step 2: Tactile Perception

Let’s talk more about haptic suits. Haptic is defined as:

          “Relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the senses of touch and proprioception.”


A haptic suit provides haptic feedback to your body. As dancers, we are always getting physical leads or feedback from our partner. Haptic technology is the key to making partner dancing plausible in the virtual world. When I lead you, you feel the push on your back. When I prepare to spin you, I can feel the tension increase in your arm.

In VR, this requires a granular level of haptic feedback. This is especially true with the hands. It’s the hands after all where most physical contact happens. Haptic technology is in development that “physically pulls back your fingers to fit the shape of the virtual objects and it dynamically changes the force applied to simulate their stiffness.”

Haptic feedback is more complicated when you introduce a real person on the other end. It is much easier to simulate the touch of a rock than another human being moving at full speed. But technologists are working on human to human physical communication in the virtual world now and the tech will only improve with time.

Step 3: Auditory Perception

This one is obvious. We gotta dance to something. Surround sound acoustics incorporate all the sounds of a Latin club, not just the music. The goal is immersion and you don’t get immersion through a flawless soundtrack.

The music is the easy part. To achieve immersion, the world incorporates conversations and ambient sounds into your audio. The world knows where you are standing and how loud each noise should be. It knows if you are by the virtual speakers or near the bar in the back.

Step 4: And the Rest

There are 2 more senses: smell and taste. Are these critical for dancing? No. Are they critical for immersion? Perhaps.

Many studies have cited our sense of smell as being most closely linked to emotion and memory recall. If we don’t smell a night of dancing, will we remember a night of dancing? Maybe dancing with that partner at congress who refused to wear deodorant of any kind was a blessing!

In all seriousness, I would feel something were missing if I didn’t smell everything at a social. There will be advances in olfactory VR, but all I found in my research was this fart-smelling device :/

Questions for the Community

Let’s say VR dancing were available…right now! Should we be excited as dancers or anxious? Here are some questions to consider:

  1. How does this affect our global community if we no longer share the same physical space for social dancing and classes?
  2. Does virtual dancing compromise any of our values as social dancers?
  3. Do local dance scenes disappear? Will everyone start dancing the same if we all dance at a handful of Multiverse clubs?
  4. Latin dancing involves zero technology. Is it wrong to make the experience completely incorporated with technology?

We as a community won’t have to answer these questions for a decade or more. My money is on 15 years from now that virtual partner dancing is an option for the masses. But its fun and exciting to consider the possibilities.

Wouldn’t it be Cool if…

I’m most excited for the opportunity to dance with people from around the world. My scene has 1-2 good nights of dancing a week. What if every night was an amazing night? What if I could dance with Magna, Jorjet, Tanja and Karel all on the same Wednesday night?

Even cooler is the potential for dancing with computer programs. It can be tough to find a partner to practice with. But in the virtual world, you can dance with a computer generated partner on-demand. This partner will have full knowledge of the dance and can provide feedback on your lead and follow.

When virtual dancing becomes a thing, we will see an explosion in skill level. For everyone with an interest, the friction and cost to pick up Latin dancing will decrease. For me as a salsero, it’ll be like I’m living in New York City no matter where I am.

I began this post by asking if virtual reality partner dancing will be a thing. Yes, it will. When is anyone’s guess.

One question remains: how will Latin dancers manage this physical to virtual shift. How will we embrace technology while maintaining our core community values. Hopefully I’ll still be alive when we have an answer to that one :)


  • SalsaVirtual says:

    Hi Rob. Well researched article! Adding to it, our own preliminary research here at SalsaVirtual shows an overwhelming preference for our upcoming VR dance apps to *not* replace social interactions, at least at the classroom level. However, most dancers do want to enhance their dance learning with VR.

    Our apps are taking the first step towards this future you describe! We’re focusing on building them to easily learn steps at home with VR sets, or as a reference for dance moves inside the club with your smartphone. No smell or taste simulation, though :)

  • David Sander says:

    Many of my most interesting dance problems involve timing issues with my partner and issues where the mechanics of dance. I fear that much of this and the factors involved will be lost to the virtual reality. Engineers refer to a term, polar moment of inertia, which is greater in larger and taller women. How will the virtual reality duplicate this? Follows adjust their arm stiffness depending on the cues of leads. So it seems that some servo clothing would be needed between dancers to sense position and control movement. One could therefore have a bad internet dance connection!
    Last thing is that I don’t do well in learning anything from various dance videos. So how am I supposed to use a virtual dance floor?

    • Rob Castellucci says:

      I think the haptic suit will have to sense position and have an understanding of what each major and minor muscle is doing. A very tight suit perhaps? It’s a great issue you bring up and I’m not sure how a suit can capture the nuance of partner dancing which relies on more than just body position.

      Most of my students have issues with timing as well. I think the timing piece is a much easier problem to solve in VR. The world would know the beats and can translate that to you in a HUD.

      If the virtual dance floor is indistinguishable from a real dance floor, then they both represent the ultimate test of your learning, dancing with someone. If you learn through the real world (in person classes, breaking moves down slowly with someone) then these would translate 100% to a virtual world dance environment. However if you learn verbally through explanations, then VR will be no more helpful. Most students learn in the real world, whether it’s a combo of visual, audio and kinesthetic. I see VR as a 4th learning option that lays on top of the 3 we get in our real world. Plugins can essentially turn you into a cyborg. You use virtual tools to process beat patterns, identify songs and predict upcoming hits, overlay the ideal dance pattern to the one you perform, etc.

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