Former Denver Nuggets dancer and founder of her own activewear company, Kady Zinke, contacted Mines metallurgical and materials engineering research professor Terry Lowe for engineering expertise to develop clothing that could help protect dancers from injury – specifically bruised knees. Knee injuries are among the most prevalent in dancers, and the protection that is offered currently tends to be “bulky, unattractive and constricting.”
Zinke noticed the high-end suits that motorcyclists and car racers wore at events and couldn’t understand why there wasn’t anything comparable in the dancer world.
“No one treats us (dancers) like athletes. I want to create something that’s sophisticated and high tech for dancers,” Zinke said. “This knee problem has existed for years and no one has really solved it.”
Lowe wasn’t convinced he could offer a solution or receive the financial support to pursue the project.
“The constraints imposed by Kady were just too difficult: trying to put aesthetic, non-restricting, nearly invisible padding into dancer-style tights and still provide adequate protection,” Lowe said.
After nearly giving up on Zinke’s concept, Lowe discovered a solution that could meet her requirements: crafting a new energy absorbing hybrid material system that combines shear-stiffening compounds (similar to cornstarch) and specially designed impact-lattices (that look like miniature bridge trusses).
“If you have an impact in one spot, the rest of the pad can contribute to absorbing energy. A pressure wave from the impact goes out into the shear-thickening fluid and transforms it to absorb energy,” Lowe said. “By adding in impact-lattices, you can design structures that absorb four or five times more energy than a typical foam.”
Incorporating specially designed impact-lattices also help the pads recover instantly from compressed while keeping the same protection in place, which in turn reduces the trauma dancers experience from multiple falls.
In June, the duo received a $30,000 grant from the Advanced Industries Accelerator Program to fund the assessment of the best currently available padding materials, and then design, fabricate, and test their new high performance product – nicknamed “dancy pants.”
Metallurgical and material sciences student Michaela Rillings helps Lowe oversee the “Dancy Pants” project team of six students (four from Mines, one from University of Colorado Boulder and one from Princeton University) to test different competitor products to gain information on how to optimize the energy absorption properties of their new prototype hybrid materials system.
“Getting other perspectives and folks from other institutions makes the team richer,” Lowe said. “Success depends on the team, and not a single individual.”
As a competitive Irish step dancer, Rillings knows several people who have suffered impact injuries that have caused them to stop performing.
“I have had personal experience with dance related impact injuries and having the opportunity to combine my two passions, dance and materials and metallurgical engineering, is quite literally a dream come true,” Rillings said. “Quoting some of Macklemore’s lyrics, "And we danced (in other words, we fell) and we cried (but then anti-injury active wear was developed) and we laughed and had a really, really, really good time.”
The team hopes their technology will eventually be incorporated into many different aspects of life, including other sports, protecting police and military personnel, and compact impact tolerant packaging.