Dance Chair Sidles Up To Patent Office

USF-created Rolling Dance Chair gives those with disabilities freedom of movement and expression.


By Vickie Chachere News Manager


TAMPA, Fla. (July 22, 2010) – USF’s internationally known Rolling Dance Chair, created in an effort to give those with disabilities new freedom of movement and expression, has been granted a patent from the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office.

The patent is a major milestone for the four-year-old project, which has united researchers from USF’s School of Theatre and Dance, the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Rehabilitation Engineering Program and the School of Physical Therapy in the vision of expanding creativity and mobility for all.

Unlike commercially-available wheelchairs, the Rolling Dance Chair’s unique mechanism enables users to move in the desired direction with minimal effort, leaving their arms and hands free to be part of the artistic expression.

(To view video of the dance chair in action, click here).


Merry Lynn Morris, the USF Dance Instructor who initiated the project, called the long-awaited patent a “validation of the unique nature of the chair’s design concept, and a testament to the value of interdisciplinary exploration and persistent effort.” Morris initially began the collaboration with USF College of Engineering Professor Rajiv Dubey and Instructor Stephen Sundarrao and further work has continued with Kathryn DeLaurentis, research coordinator at USF’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology.


 “The project has certainly brought national attention to USF and the dance program and it usually piques the interest, curiosity and imagination of many individuals from medical professionals to artists and to those with and without disabilities,” Morris said. “It encompasses a larger question in terms of the awareness of arts and disability, inclusion, and diversity.

“It is important that we urge new ways of thinking about ‘disability’ and look towards our universal needs as a society to support a healthy, creative, mobile population,” said Morris.

The Rolling Dance Chair project officially began in 2006 with the goal of exploring new ways to rethink how wheelchairs and other assistive technologies could be incorporated into dance. Morris is a choreographer for Revolutions Dance, a professional mixed ability dance company in the Tampa area.

Sundarrao presented the challenge to his senior capstone design class, where engineering students are presented a problem and attempt to create new technologies to solve it. Morris worked with the capstone student groups involved, explaining the design conception and needs in detail and directing appropriate choices and decisions. Several student groups have been involved in the process, each working on slightly different approaches and attempting particular design features. The intent of the project was to create multiple prototypes, an effort which yielded a prototype rolling dance “chair” and a rolling dance “platform”.

Six students listed as co-patent holders on the design are: Tolga Akkoc, Scott Bayus, Jeff Hornick, Konstantin Popov, Peter Schrock and Erin Smalley. 

“It is an important project for us because it integrates engineering with arts. It’s a very good mix,” Dubey said. “It will be used not just for entertainment, but for therapy.”

What makes the Rolling Dance Chair unique is its mechanics and the hands-free control of the device. The invention is equipped with position sensors that allow users to direct the chair with small shifts in upper-body movement. Dancers can shift their weight from left to right as well as forward and backward to direct the chair.

Unlike wheelchairs which use only a joystick to move them, the movement of the seat creates electrical signals which are transmitted to the wheelchair controller. The chair also possesses a switch which allows a user to switch from seat control to a hand control as needed.  The idea is to enable as much flexibility in control and movement as possible for a variety of performance oriented needs – as applicable to dance as it is applicable to daily living accessibility,” Morris said.

The beauty of the dance chair, de Laurentis said, is in its simplicity – both in design and engineering. And while the innovation in applying it to artistic expression that makes it special, that may just be the beginning for this project.

With traditional wheelchairs, which required the user to operate either through a joystick or by turning the wheels manually, freedom of movement is restricted simply because the user’s hands are occupied, she said. The Rolling Dance Chair changes that.

“They can dance, they can hold somebody’s hand,” she said. “You can move next to somebody – it makes a big difference. They feel free. They have a device that helps them move, but doesn’t hinder them in any way.”

For now, the dance chair is designed for people who have good core muscle strength and do not have injuries high on their spinal cord. The next generation of dance chairs could be used by a broader population as the technology is adapted.

And now with a patent granted, the project also moves toward refining the prototype chair, considering potential production capabilities and marketing the Rolling Dance Chair. Research is also still underway with Professors Larry Mengelkoch and Jason Highsmith at USF’s School of Physical Therapy regarding the dance chair’s potential as a rehabilitative and therapeutic tool, Morris said.

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.