On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: “Please mute yourself,” then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.
This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.
The learning curve has been very steep, and some of what we’ve accomplished will impact our teaching practice even after studios reopen. Here, several dance professors who are on the front lines of change share their experience.
“This experience is sharpening our understanding of creativity and connection.” —Lea Marshall, Virginia Commonwealth University
In this time of social distancing, dance professors must use their creative intellect to re-envision their technique and academic courses. Years of artistic experience have prepared us for this challenge, and a college dance education isn’t just about building good technique, it’s about delving into your craft to understand it from all angles. For example, dance professors now extract the deepest essence of “partnering” and include duets with inanimate objects for their online contact improv assignments. Dance educators are resilient, creative problem-solvers, adaptive and responsive—all qualities we should remember to value when life resumes its normal rhythms.
“All the best dance thinkers in the nation are all trying to solve the same problem at the same time, and they’re being entirely transparent about it.” —Karen Stokes, University of Houston
Within moments of the first college closures, dance professors sprang into action. Various social-media groups formed; Google spreadsheets with hundreds of remote class offerings sprang up; and webinars about online curriculum were offered. A new Facebook group was formed—Dance Professors Online Transition Group—and immediately grew to more than 2,000 members as a place where faculty from across the nation problem-solve, give advice, share resources and generally offer support. With students returning home to various time zones around the world, intercollegiate discussions continue to emerge about synchronous versus asynchronous course work; new to Zoom, we work out technical glitches together; and collaboratively, we find ways to modify traditional studio classes to fit safely in small spaces. When we return to campus, sustaining this level of collaboration on top of our face-to-face course load may not be realistic, but ideally some component of this effort will continue.
“Students are now being asked to check in with their body-mind and well-being to find out what their practice needs each day.” —Catey Ott Thompson, Marquette University
Without appropriate flooring, adequate space or sufficient supervision, we cannot ask students to participate in dance technique classes as usual, but this is an ideal time for students to work on independent components of their dancing. Whether it’s core strength, foot articulation, port de bras or other simple technique issues, students can use their time in isolation to develop good cross-training routines and thoughtful learning habits. Furthermore, dancers must take accountability for their safety, being careful to avoid injury while in-person physical therapy appointments are not an option. During an ordinary semester, students don’t always have time to work on these skills, but autonomous body maintenance is an important part of surviving in the professional dance world. Perhaps in the future, we can all remember to allow for unstructured time in our busy departmental schedules to encourage self-practice.
“We should stop treating this as a surprise every time.” —Miri Park, California State University Channel Islands
In a critically timed webinar, Heather Castillo, also of Cal State Channel Islands, reminded us that needing to move all or part of a course online is not unusual, whether for medical issues, low enrollment or a natural disaster. Castillo herself has encountered each scenario. After Covid-19 passes, many more departments might consider disaster preparedness obligatory.
Technology could develop a more diverse field, but also reveals disparities.
Teaching a visually impaired college dancer with cerebral palsy taught Park and Castillo to be more aware of how they presented materials. Park says that learning how to encode written material was one experience that put her “just ahead of the starting line” for technological adaptation. She suggests that our recent, forced embrace of technology might make dance faculty more accommodating of diverse learning needs. We’ll have accomplished something invaluable if our current efforts to adjust our syllabi introduce tools that make our courses more accessible to a broader spectrum of the population.
However, students always have varying access to technology, space and time, and these disparities are magnified when students are expected to complete coursework online from home. Stokes, for instance, is certain that many of her students do not have access to computers or WiFi, and she worries about their ability to fulfill their academic obligations with only their smartphones. Some teachers report that students are starting to withdraw from classes, perhaps because they lack resources to complete assignments. In the face of these imbalances, how will we evaluate students, and will we be more conscientious of these often invisible factors when we’re back on campus?