Dancing in Space: Worldbuilding More Zero-G Sports

In science-fiction settings involving near future spacefaring cultures, athletic arts and disciplines are severely underrated as a driver of space economies and as a vocation for space colonists, especially compared to the likes of asteroid mining. Some of the most spectacular opportunities space presents for sports and the arts were outlined in my previous post on the topic, but that is by no means the end of the line when it comes to sports and hobbies in space.

For instance, quidditch, a sport in the fictional Harry Potter universe, is very popular with fans and even has a real world adaptation, but gameplay is limited by the fact that to play it like in the books flying brooms are required. Such brooms are not feasible with present-day technology on Earth, but in a zero-g setting the three-dimensional play seen in the novels becomes the default. Even off-the-shelf brooms can glide in zero or low gravity conditions. By adding a thruster inside the broomstick similar to those used in present-day spacesuits, powered flight can be achieved by broomsticks in zero or low gravity conditions. As a ball and goal game, the same techniques used to spice up soccer or American football in zero-g may also be used for quidditch, though it’s quite possible any Harry Potter fans that become space tourists may want to keep the game as close to the source material as possible.

The same sort of thrusters used in quidditch broomsticks may also be used elsewhere by the players, including a standalone strap-on thruster (perhaps on the arm or leg), a backpack (similar to spacesuits), or in the footwear. Literal rocket boots might sound a bit too science-fictional to the more jaded among us, but consider that without Earth levels of gravity even the most milquetoast rocket can push you along significantly, as evidenced by the Manned Maneuvering Unit used in NASA spacesuits today.

Methods for players to get around mentioned in the previous post include pushing off the walls, pushing off other players, pushing off a net or string draped in the middle of the chamber, or pushing off momentum balls, heavy spherical objects designed to be pushed off of mid-air. Thruster backpacks or boots would represent an alternative or replacement for all of these methods. The fuel levels players start off with could be set up to encourage judicious use of rocket boosts by players, encouraging different strategies which may prove quite interesting. This aspect doesn’t appear in any major sport on Earth but would be a natural fit for outer space.

Obstacle courses, whether for training or pure sport, could easily be made much more interesting with zero or low gravity, and thus might be more popular in an outer space context. Particularly intriguing would be the shooting sports, such as marksmanship and archery, in low (as opposed to zero) gravity conditions in centrifuges. The Coriolis effect works just as well on bullets and arrows as it does on beach balls; the rotation of a centrifuge will deflect any projectile shot out, making for quite a challenge for those not intimately familiar with such settings. If the projectile is shot out just right in the correct environment (in terms of the centrifuge’s rotation rate, etc.) it could easily loop right back to where it started. Obviously in the case of something like a gun this could be lethal to the shooter, so care will be taken to make sure this scenario doesn’t happen to any of the players of the shooting games. For guns and arrows the walls of the space module would need to be constructed so that projectiles don’t ricochet off the walls and don’t puncture the module; for any culture capable of lofting such large space modules in the first place, this would be trivial to engineer.

Dancing in Space

Dancing in zero-g or low-g would rely on the same principles mentioned in my previous post for swimming and skating, but would be a purer expression of human movement, having no balls, skates, pucks, or floating spheres of water to supplement the human performers. Dancing in a cylindrical ballroom where there is Earth-like gravity would be quite an experience, as you navigate a curved dance floor and look up to see the other side of the floor, and other dancers from above their heads.

A transparent dance floor, assuming a suitable material could be found or engineered, would provide breathtaking views of the local scenery (in the earliest centrifuges this is likely to be Earth and the black sky of space) right under the dancers’ feet and all around. By aligning the centrifuge so that the view of the sun is blocked, a transparent ballroom centrifuge could illuminate the dancers and spectators purely by earthshine, which may have a coolness factor. The coolest views, however, would likely come on the night side as city lights come into view, enabling orbital dancers to see the same downtowns as their terrestrial counterparts only from a greater distance and different angle. The aurora borealis and aurora australis may be even more attractive targets, if the popularity of videos of them taken from the International Space Station is any indication.

In a 1g centrifuge, unless it is very large, the Coriolis effect might throw dancers off balance, particularly for more complex moves, at least until they became accustomed to the artificial gravity. In lower gravity dancers would have more of a spring in their step but would find it harder to keep their feet on the floor. At lunar levels of gravity (1/6g or so) it becomes easier to hop and skip than it is to walk, which would seriously impact any form of partner dancing. Hopping off the floor and executing dance figures while floating would be the easiest course in such an environment, grading toward the acrobatics performed by skydivers. Executing a spin or turn would be much easier in such an environment, and the low gravity would pull the dancers down to earth, enabling harder pushes and pulls by leads without their follows flying off in some other direction than the floor.

In a zero-gravity environment, by contrast, the concept of a dance floor erodes and becomes like the floor in other zero-g sports, just a wall to bounce off of to gain or lose momentum. In terrestrial partner dancing, the use of gravity to hold the dancers to the floor is vital; if the lead exerted the sort of force on the follow in zero-g as is done on Earth as often as not the follow would take off in some random direction and be separated from the lead. Maintaining connection would be far more critical to a successful partner dance in zero-g than it is on Earth.

This may be easier said than done, as any push exerted by the lead (a vital component in partner dancing) would without gravity and friction keeping them together tend to split up the partnership. This problem has been studied and more or less solved already, perhaps most prominently in the form of the 2suit, a garment with velcro straps and harnesses designed to keep two people together in the face of forceful physical movements. The 2suit is designed to facilitate sex and intimacy between lovers, but either it or something similar could just as easily be used to keep a partnership together for other purposes, such as dancing. The 2suit may keep dancers a bit too close to do spins or the like, so for more showy dancers some sort of pure tether system might be better.

Especially for performances, any of the zero-g or low-g dancing can easily be combined with other sports and disciplines, perhaps most obviously in the case of ice dancing but also extending into the realm of space aquamusical performances. For instance, some performers could swim inside a water sphere and other performers could dance outside it. It seems likely that the acrobatics employed by skydivers would be a strong influence on any form of zero-g or low-g partner dancing. Solo dancing would certainly be easier in zero gravity, as no connection needs to be maintained, but since the set of moves available is much the same as on Earth would perhaps be less interesting for space tourists than an attempt at partner dancing. Bouncing off momentum balls or employing thrusters, though, might spice it up enough to make it interesting. Partner dancers, of course, may also employ the same techniques.

The sheer range of performances that could be done in zero or low gravity, or some mixture of the two over the course of the show, staggers the mind, as does the possibilities for exploiting the view of, say, city lights, northern lights, or sunsets, for artistic purposes. Tap dancing, partner dancing, solo dancing, ballroom dancing, ballet, and more may well be greatly invigorated as artistic and athletic traditions by the rise of space tourism and subsequent mass space colonization. Imagine the kind of ballets that may be done in free-fall, even with a floating orchestra, much like the image below from SpaceX showing off the possibilities of their Starship, only on a larger scale.

Today a solo violinist, tomorrow a full orchestra

Gymnastics

Gymnastics is another discipline that, like dancing, is based more or less purely on human movement. In zero gravity we might expect a lot more spins, flexing, and tumbling, as these would be much easier than in free-fall. Vaulting would if anything be much easier, though after impact the direction of travel would change, making a landing on the same surface the gymnast took off from virtually impossible. Gliding from side to side in the (zero-g) sports chamber or (low-g) centrifuge, tumbling and flexing while gliding, and performing various moves as one bounces off the walls, would be a particularly common practice in space gymnastics.

Balance beam routines should be considerably easier and more visually impressive in low gravity, enabling more flexing and moves to be done while in mid-air. Zero gravity would make balance beam routines much harder, unless momentum balls, thruster packs, or tethers were used to keep the gymnast close to the beam. There is always the possibility of not using any devices of this nature and having the difficulty of keeping close to the beam in very low or zero gravity on the gymnast’s own be most of the challenge of the sport in space, as many conventional gymnastic exercises become easy in zero or very low gravity.

Rhythmic gymnastics, on the other hand, seems to be a natural fit for zero-g sports or a lower-gravity environment, as the ropes, hoops, balls, and ribbons used in rhythmic gymnastic routines would work just as well as they do on Earth, only with a third dimension added, making the routine more visually spectacular and introducing more movement options. Once again, the only real obstacle is the lack of a floor to bounce off of without going all the way to the other side of the module, but that can be remedied by nets or strings in the center of the module, which would be the most gymnastic-seeming option, or perhaps by momentum balls as in the other sports mentioned. Rocket boots and the like wouldn’t seem very gymnastic, so it would likely be one of the other options.

Yet More Zero-G Sports

The racket sports, the most famous example being tennis, are another category of sports that may be done in zero or low gravity. Lower, as opposed to zero, gravity would enable higher jumps for players as well as the possibility, in a centrifuge setting, of hitting the ball all the way to the other side of the module. Balls on ballistic trajectories would be drawn back down to the floor more slowly. This would still permit tennis as we know it to be played, but zero gravity adds a third dimension more fully, meaning that it would be trivially easy to knock the ball in a direction so distant from the other player as to not permit any realistic interception of it with the racket, at least in a large centrifuge.

A net in a rectangular box shape could keep the game more Earth-like, but a much more exciting possibility is to have a large chamber, module, or centrifuge enabling all three dimensions but with rocket boots or thrusters attached to the players to permit more rapid intercepts of the balls. The net in tennis could either be dispensed with altogether or replaced by a rule keeping each player at opposite ends of the module (in zero gravity) or a certain distance apart in very low gravity.

Alternatively, teams of players could be more evenly dispersed throughout the chamber to permit easier intercept, or there could be an entirely new racket game where a player would get credit for catching the ball depending on the number of ricochets off the chamber walls. This would be more similar to golf, where the score depends on how few hits to the ball are made by each player.

Golf itself, along with the club and ball sports in general, would probably adapt very well to a zero-g or low-g environment. The third dimension means that a lot more targets and angles would open up, and a zero-g environment means that ricochets would proceed all the way to the walls or to other objects (such as other balls or obstacles in the course), making reacquiring the ball after the first strike with the club something of a challenge. The scoring system wouldn’t need to be changed, though; no matter how many ricochets the same method of counting the number of hits would work just as well. Once again, the use of momentum balls or rocket thrusters would enable faster intercept of the balls after the first strike.

The fighting sports, including but by no means limited to boxing and fencing, as well as the martial arts would change considerably in zero gravity, considering there is no floor that opponents will fall down upon if they are knocked on their feet. Any fight that starts on one of the walls would, through forceful thrusts by each fighter, quickly lift off beyond the range at which the opponents could use the walls for pushing off of. Unless there are momentum balls or rocket packs, they will have nothing to get momentum from except each other, which would make for some very interesting contests.

Conclusion

This, together with my previous post on the subject, only touches on but one facet of the vast domain of sports, athletic disciplines, pastimes, and fine arts which will reveal themselves as possibilities as the conquest of space begins in earnest: that which could be done on a space station with a large zero-gravity module or centrifuge that could realistically be built in the near future close to Earth. Nevertheless, even within these tight confines we have seen here that there are yet more possibilities for sports and art forms in zero-gravity, and even more interestingly, low-gravity.

This is an area that is seldom explored in near-future science fiction settings, hard or otherwise, yet would be very fruitful for any author, artist, or worldbuilder to focus on, as it would yield a rather unique setting. The plots and stories that could be told that involve athletes or performers in these domains are vast and multifaceted, as characters in these stories would have a front-row seat and perhaps, if space tourism for athletics and entertainment provides the jump-start for mass spaceflight, a crucial role in stimulating man’s great leap into a larger universe beyond the mother world.

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