Teaching Tips

Here's What Worked—and Didn't—When College Dance Classes Went Online

Gesel Mason with David Roussève. Photo by Michael Taylor, courtesy of Mason

With the fall semester rapidly approaching and university plans coming into focus, higher ed faculty members are likely drafting (and re-drafting) their syllabi—and wondering what a full semester's worth of online or hybrid online/in-person dance courses will even look like.

Take comfort in the fact that dance professors across the country are in the same boat, and that the higher ed dance community is an unfailingly generous one. We spoke to five educators about what worked well for the second half of the spring semester—and what they're planning to do differently this fall.

Gesel Mason, University of Texas at Austin, associate professor

Gesel Mason leads a large master class, demonstrating a arm movement as student behind her imitate her

Photo by Jonathan Hsu, courtesy of Mason

On Zoom exhaustion: "As teachers, we normally feed so much off energy—you can feel the mood change, and change your lesson plan accordingly. But it's hard to feel that on Zoom. How can we keep that energy moving in the Zoom space? It took three weeks for me to figure out how to avoid becoming Zoom-austed (Zoom + exhausted). One thing was breakout rooms. Or we would turn off our own video to watch people performing—it was like watching groups in the studio. I'd ask someone if I could spotlight their video: 'Do you mind if we watch you do it?' I also learned that time shifts—you're not going to get as much information out in a class on Zoom, but you can focus on detail instead."

On composition: "With my comp class, one of the things they would've done is set work on other people. And then...the pandemic happened. I told my students, 'I still want you to set this on somebody else. It could be somebody in your household; it could be a friend.' And all of them did these quite amazing things. We'd been working on pedestrian gesture, and one student taught his cousin or maybe his girlfriend. He said, 'Wow, she does those pedestrian gestures really well!' I was interested in the communication it took: Did they focus on getting the choreography perfect, or did they work more on an idea or a concept? How did they talk to the person they were setting the work on?"

On warming up: "I had my students decide what their movement protocol would be. What's the stuff they knew they should be doing? Did they need to run? Meditate? Lie in constructive rest? Do their physical therapy exercises that they never do? We'd turn off our cameras, and I'd check back in after 20 minutes. I told them, 'I'm not going to spy on you. What do you need to do to be ready, to be present, to be here in your body?' It felt like a good way to go in. And I did the same thing—I got 20 minutes to do some conditioning!"

Betsy Brandt, Webster University, adjunct professor

Betsy Brandt, wearing all black and with her hair in double buns, smiles in a light-filled dance studio

Photo by Gerry Love, courtesy of Brandt

On synchronous versus asynchronous classes: "When we first started, I was very on board with asynchronous classes, because of conversations about equity and access to technology. And then I realized that having a group Zoom was undeniably emotionally supportive and helpful for a number of students—so I felt like I needed to do more live classes. I realized that part of training dancers is training them how to show up, whether they're having a good day or a bad day or they broke up with their partner. From that perspective, students weren't being served by asynchronous classes—they weren't able to practice this very valuable career skill."

On pushing through challenging moments: "When I was teaching composition, I had to remember not to trust my own anxiety when I was giving students new or challenging information. In the past, I've had experiences in my comp class where I've thought, 'Wow, they hated that assignment—they're not on board,' but I had to let that sit. And over the next few weeks, I'd see that it was useful to them, that some big upheaval or growth was happening. All of that was amplified on Zoom. I spent a lot of my comp class focused on dance for the camera, because I wasn't interested in having students pretend that they were making live dance when they really weren't. There was a class where the students expressed that they were a little sick of making dance films. I stood my ground, and after we hit that wall together, they started to take some really profound steps forward."

Danzel Thompson-Stout, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduate student

Danzel Thompson-Stout, wearing jeans, sneakers and a green jacket, dances in front of a brick wall

Photo by Shanel Edwards, courtesy of Thompson-Stout

On teaching hip hop virtually: "I chose to focus on popping, which is way more stationary. Every week, the students had to submit a freestyle video to me, based on certain elements or variations from class. One part of our warm-up, for example, had to do with isolations of the head, shoulders, chest and knees. So for one video, they had to freestyle while isolating body parts. For another video, they had to focus on hip-hop aesthetics—rolls, shakes, shifting, bounces, twisting. They had to do each one separately but also smoothly transition from one to another. The videos allowed them to not just focus on the technique and foundation of the movement but take it into a place of agency and embody it for themselves—to use the aesthetics to explore their own movement vocabularies and find more ways of operating in their own bodies."

On safe options for the fall: "I teach to exhaustion, and I know I can't do that in the fall. Because if people get to a place of exhaustion, that means they're breathing heavy, and their mask is soaking wet, which means it doesn't work. My goal when I teach is to have dancers drop into themselves and their weight, to really connect to a visceral place in their body—to dance from their trunk, not their limbs. How do I have dancers access that in person without sacrificing their safety? There's teaching outside, but the weather might not hold out. So I'm thinking about focusing more on finding connectivity in the body. I'm trying to come up with exercises that choreograph how dancers can each move in a box—in their own square—and always stay the same distance away from each other."

Stephanie Miracle, University of Iowa, visiting professor

Stephanie Miracle sits in a chair at the front of a busy classroom, seeming to be mid-speech

Photo by Zhenya Plyasunova, courtesy of Miracle

On the value of communication: "The modern class I taught in the spring was all freshmen, so it was a pretty traumatic way to end their first year—online. Communication is such an important part of that first year in college. I assigned them each accountability partners who would rotate every week, so people were contacting each other and working on assignments together. It brought a different kind of humanity to the experience."

On audible-only lessons: "Teaching on Zoom often felt like being in a cave—the students had a hard time creating spatial memories. I find that when I'm listening to a podcast or having a phone conversation with a friend while walking, I can hold on to that experience in a different way. So I experimented with audio recording lessons—they were like body meditations you could listen to from your phone and go outside with. I might try some variations with this in the fall, maybe in an outdoor setting as a group. It could be a prerecorded audio class where the students can listen to it from their earbuds and have an intimate, nonscreen experience that can also allow for closed eyes."

On learning from video: "I tried working with simple phrases that had no verbal instructions. The students just had to learn the phrase I made from video, which was something the freshmen hadn't had much experience with. It really challenged them—for a lot of them, it leveled them up to a different maturity of how they learn, and it was a nice exercise in detail and timing and energetic states with small, gestural movement."

Abby Zbikowski, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, associate professor

Abby Zbikowski leans over with her hands on her knees, looking off-camera intently. Her flower tattoo is visible on her bare shoulder.

Photo courtesy of Festival Un Pas Vers L'Avant

On learning from failure: "My first Zoom classes felt disastrous to me, because I was completely ignoring that we were online. But that traumatizing experience—I felt like I would never be able to teach well again—made me really explore what was happening and acknowledge everything that was different. I needed to name the things that were giving me anxiety. For example, we weren't allowed as a group to feel each other and move in a way that was familiar. But after naming that, we could remember as a class what that felt like and then work toward that kinesthetic memory. I needed to do some self-analysis, too: I was moving too fast; they couldn't hear me; they probably couldn't see my body in the way they wanted to. The failure of those first classes helped shape how I approached the rest of the semester."

On getting rid of peer pressure: "In my choreographic lab class, I gave the students assignments where they had to manipulate material we'd worked on together in person and then make a video of it. Normally, when I ask people to work on material on their own, too much of a similar flavor comes out of that. When we're all in the same spot, people get assumptions about a finished product, or they're influenced by my presence. On Zoom, though, the students weren't physically around each other, and I wasn't present in the room with them, and that really allowed people to sit inside the concepts and make something of their own out of it. They had to be resourceful, dig in where they were and make it work. Through this separation, I was able to really see everyone's singular experiences more fully."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.