3D-printed prosthetics help dancers with disabilities continue to move

From hip-hop to ballet, these intricately manufactured appendages redefine traditional aesthetics and increase accessibility.

By Luc Alper-Leroux 

Most dancers start moving when they’re young. Belgian hip-hop dancer Angelina Bruno was no exception. “Since I was little, I have loved to dance, but it was just for fun,” she says.

That all changed when Bruno was 17. An injury she sustained during a devastating car accident required her to have her dominant forearm amputated. “My whole life was turned upside down,” she explains. “I couldn’t realize that I will never be ‘like everyone’ again. I had so much physical difficulty, pain and fear. I did not accept that I had become, in the eyes of others, a ‘handicapped’ person.”

As soon as I started dancing, it immediately became a passion. I only thought about it all the time. I woke up dancing, I ate dancing, I slept dancing.

—Angelina Bruno, dancer

When her doctor suggested she play a sport as part of her recovery, Bruno decided to take dancing more seriously. Dance became a lifeline, and she began dancing competitively when she was 18 years old. “As soon as I started dancing, it immediately became a passion. I only thought about it all the time. I woke up dancing, I ate dancing, I slept dancing,” she says.

Her journey of self-discovery and healing led her to become a dance therapist, but it was her decision to audition for French rapper Black M that changed the trajectory of her professional dance career. She was invited to accompany him on an international tour, an experience that would make Bruno visible to many other disabled dancers. Her accomplishments led to an audition for a featured performance in the latest installment of a major video game franchise.

Printing the future

In a recent effort to promote diversity in their games, costume designer Sarrah El-Meddeb and her team at video game company Ubisoft cast Bruno as one of the featured dancers in the company’s blockbuster rhythm game series, “Just Dance.” In “Just Dance 2021,” dancers perform a choreographed routine with musical accompaniment in front of a green screen. Visual effects and a background are then added using the VFX software Maya.

Angelina Bruno with her prosthetic. Photo by Axelle Quinzen.

Once in the hands of consumers, players use the sensors on either Nintendo, Xbox or PlayStation game consoles to mimic the pre-recorded routine to the best of their ability. To enhance the aesthetic of Bruno’s performance, Ubisoft enlisted the help of designers and companies with experience in 3D printing and prosthetic creation.

Drawing on the resources of Icelandic prosthetics company Össur and 3D-printing companies Unic-3D and Shapeways, fashion tech designer Anouk Wipprecht created a custom, spike-like prosthetic for Bruno to use for her pre-recorded performance.

“The first step we take is to scan the dancer’s residual limb, which we did through Unic-3D in Brussels,” says Wipprecht. “Then we create a negative of Angelina’s residual limb to start modeling where the arm will go.” To complete this scan, Unic-3D used the EinScan Pro 2X, which has a handle and a cluster of projection devices at one end and cameras and sensors at the other. Once the residual arm scan was complete, EinScan software recorded the data, which was then sent to Wipprecht.

Then Wipprecht, with the help of Ossür’s mechatronic solutions expert Michael Tuttle, completed the spike design and a silicon socket that attaches to Bruno’s residual arm. The final design was sent to Shapeways, where they added Wipprecht’s design and printed a thermoplastic spike using SLS technology. Finally, the printed spike was sent to Bruno for fitting and testing before she recorded for “Just Dance 2021.”

Unfortunately, like so many people across the world, the added difficulties of a global pandemic impacted Wipprecht’s work. “Normally, this whole process can be done in a day. Somebody can be scanned, then the scan is put through the 3D printer and printed, then we fit it. And then we have that information, we can adjust it and make the final one,” Wipprecht says. Because of COVID-19, multiple delays ensued as designs, scans, and prosthetics were sent between Paris, Brussels and Miami multiple times. Despite the added challenges, the prosthetic was eventually completed in time for Angelina’s recording.

These custom prosthetics offer unique, technologically influenced aesthetic qualities that heighten the dancers’ performances. “A prosthesis changes all the perception of oneself,” Bruno says. “The feelings, the confidence, it improves all that. What I hope is that a prosthesis helps us improve our professional and personal life. Especially since it can change the way others look at us and make them realize that we have something more and not less.” Now with 3D printing, that “something more” is closer than ever.

Exploring a limitless world

The advantages of 3D printing serve the worlds of dancing and prosthetics particularly well: 3D-printed prosthetics can be made faster than traditional prosthetic designs, designers can make them for less money, and the design software accommodates more specific modifications.

While Anouk Wipprecht channeled her talents into the avant-garde world of video game dancing, other designers work to expand the possibilities of 3D-printed prosthetics into more traditional domains of dance.

3D printing is an incredible tool for building very precise and very unique instruments. For amputee dancers, special prosthetics can be designed for each individual.

—Jae-Hyun An, designer

Jae-Hyun An, a Korean designer, crafted a custom prosthetic for ballet dancers known as the Marie T, a carbon-fiber limb attached to a thermoplastic socket that absorbs the shock from the impact of the ballet dancer stepping forward. This custom design allows amputee ballet dancers to dance en pointe, a straining move that puts immense pressure on the dancer’s legs, and they can stay en pointe much longer than other dancers. This opens the door to novel choreography that was previously impossible without the prosthetic.

“3D printing is an incredible tool for building very precise and very unique instruments,” says An. “For amputee dancers, special prosthetics can be designed for each individual. Depending on the design, a prosthesis could exaggerate the dancer’s grand movements or subdue the collective action of the supporting cast. The potential is limitless.”

Lead photo of Angelina Bruno by Axelle Quinzen