Iowa 4-H Youth Get Behind-the-Scenes Look at iLuminate

November 14, 2023, 3:13 pm | Sydney Peterson, Sara Nelson

AMES, Iowa – One hundred Iowa 4-H youth participated in behind-the-scenes workshops before attending iLuminate Oct. 21 at Stephens Auditorium in Ames. The workshops and the performance showcased the connections between STEM and the arts.

Kaylee Teal Barton of Henry County pets Rosie the tarantula.Learning about insects … and design

Youth engaged in workshops with partners from the Iowa State University College of Design and the Iowa State University Insect Zoo. Participants learned why some insects glow and had the opportunity to design some of their own.

The youth also were able to get up close and personal with several insects and other arthropods from the Insect Zoo. They spent some time exploring the bumpy exoskeleton of beetles, seeing scorpions' ability to glow as a protection mechanism, hearing the Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and touching soft and fuzzy Rosie the tarantula.

Youth learned through student representatives that insects and other arthropods are vital for the environment. They also learned that insects are important pollinators, pollinating one of every three bites of food you take.

"My favorite part was holding Rosie the tarantula and other roly-polies, centipedes and beetles," said Kaylee Teal Barton from Henry County. "We were able to see that bugs are just a part of life and are beneficial to our world."

Anna Segner, assistant professor in art and visual culture in the ISU College of Design, led a drawing workshop in which youth used their creativity to design their own glow-in-the-dark insects. They used regular markers to create the outlines for their creatures and added hidden elements with glow markers that could be seen only under black light.

"Sketches don't have to be perfect, so draw as much as possible," Segner encouraged the youth. "Glow pens just add a layer of fun!"

Henry County youth showcase their glow insect designs."When looking at my drawing, you would think it's just a normal bug, but when you shine the LED glow pen onto it, it revealed other designs, making it unique, special and specifically mine," said Mikayela Riley Linny Seitz, from Henry County.

Learning about iLuminate: Light, dance, technology

After workshops with Iowa State University partners, youth saw a special performance from the iLuminate performers. They also learned about the science behind their illuminated costumes by watching founder and creator Miral Kotb explain how she combined her passion for dance and technology to create iLuminate, the world's first light dance technology company.

The youth learned that Kotb wanted to find a way to make dance more accessible to the public and thought adding a technological or “cool” element to the performance would connect with audiences. The lights turn on and off with the music, and there's choreography to match their actions. The group can bring a lot of illusions to life that couldn't be done otherwise.

Using a black light to see designs.The performance is made possible by computer science and coding behind the scenes. "The whole show is programmed on computers, and every little costume piece can be controlled separately to light up in different colors or patterns. We put all of that into a program that uses time code, so there are marks in the music that will trigger those little things to happen, so things change in time with the music every night. It is all computer-operated, and we probably spent two weeks doing all that programming when the dancers were in choreography rehearsals," explained an iLuminate member.

In a special question and answer panel with the performers, youth learned that the dancers were working with weighted suits with computers strapped to their bodies while dancing and doing flexible moves. One of the dancers explained that depending on the character in the show, they have an additional 15-20 extra pounds of costume while performing.

"We have a whole team of wardrobe people. We travel with two of them, who are currently backstage, ensuring all our costumes are ready for tonight's show," explained one of iLuminate's cast members. "The costumes are all custom-made and fit to our performers, and then our technicians come in and put in all the wiring, batteries and computers attached to the dancers for the show to happen every night."

They also discussed how, since its creation in 2009, the show has changed to adapt to new generations of technology. As the technology advances, the show and the capabilities of its light suits also advance, Kotb said. For example, when they started, they were using fiber optic wires and have since upgraded to electroluminescent wires.

The light-up suits are the signature element of iLuminate's performances, which occur in the dark. These suits can create captivating illusions, allowing dancers to disappear or illuminate only some body parts.

The hour-long show follows a cast of characters on a journey through different worlds, dance styles and eras of music, connecting the show with adults and youth. An additional 100 tickets to the show were made available exclusively to Iowa 4-H members.

"Our partnership with Stephens Auditorium and VenuWorks has been phenomenal. Through our work together, we work with youth to showcase the connections between STEM and the arts," said Sara Nelson, Iowa 4-H STEM specialist. "These learning events allow youth to see and participate in the innovation process. They also highlight the many STEM and arts careers available."

Funding for this event was provided by Iowa 4-H STEM and Communication and the Arts, MidAmerican Energy, and by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Iowa Arts Council, which exists within the Iowa Economic Development Authority, through the Iowa 4-H Foundation.

For more information about STEM opportunities, please contact your ISU Extension and Outreach county office or visit the Iowa 4-H website at

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