Higher Ed

How Are Dance Professors Grading During COVID-19?

John Evans, courtesy Ani Javian

Unlike in the spring, when pandemic shutdowns required college dance faculty to pivot to remote learning with almost no warning, many teachers had time to plan over the summer for how their fall semester might look this year.

A key point in the planning: rethinking grading strategies. As they assess students' performance in movement-based classes, instructors must also account for the challenges of remote and hybrid learning, as well as the ways dancers have been physically and mentally affected by this difficult year.

Dance Teacher spoke to five college educators to learn how they've adapted their rubrics during COVID-19.

Leslie Shafer Koval, Boston Conservatory at Berklee

Koval, in her home, demonstrates in front of her computer, which shows a Zoom room full of students

Courtesy Koval

"I have always found discussion and feedback to be better than grades for creating transformation," says Leslie Shafer Koval, who teaches modern dance technique and Laban Movement Analysis at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. One-on-one conferences form a big part of her assessment strategy—especially now. While she usually requires one conference, at midterm, this year she's requiring three: beginning, middle and end. In those meetings, Koval shares her goals for the student and asks about their own goals. She gives feedback based on what she's seen and asks them to reflect on their experience. "What do they know or feel now that they didn't before?" she asks. "I want to see understanding, growth and change." To come to a final grade, Koval assesses improvement, engagement, attendance (including conferences), completion of self-reflective homework assignments, and performance of a final juried solo.

With everyone remote, Koval has shifted her learning goals. For instance, dancing on the beat of the music is low priority due to Zoom lag, while somatic awareness—how movement feels rather than how it looks—is key. "My standards are still high," she says. "Yes, there are challenges and distractions for students in their remote dance spaces, but even with in-school learning, each student has challenges and distractions. I'm open to discussion about modifications, but that's not the same as lowering expectations. I'm asking for different, not less."

Elizabeth Ahearn, Goucher College

Ahearn does degages at barre alone in a studio, wearing a mask. A computer is in front of her on a cart

Rob Ferrell, courtesy Ahearn

In Elizabeth Ahearn's ballet class at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, technical achievement still accounts for 60 percent of students' overall grade. On top of looking at things like alignment, attention to detail and application of feedback, "I have themes that carry through each unit," she says. "Transitions from two feet to one, coupés and retirés, développés and enveloppés—I want to see them working on that element from barre all the way to adagio." (Due to remote-learning constraints, center work currently only includes two combinations: tendu and adagio.) In addition to watching her students closely during the live class, Ahearn records sessions to rewatch later, which helps her provide more detailed feedback.

While in normal years, there's an additional graded physical assessment, such as a final movement practicum or project, the remainder of students' grades this semester will come from academic work. For instance, Ahearn gives her dancers PBT (progressing ballet technique) exercises, which can be performed in small spaces, prior to their barre work. Students will write a reflection paper about how they engaged with the PBT work, for 10 percent of their final grade.

Finally, 15 percent will come from engagement with the class's online discussions and 15 percent from a collaborative project—normally an essay, but this semester, a five- to eight-minute podcast with a partner, on a topic of their choice. "We've been listening to podcasts and responding on our discussion board," Ahearn says, citing Phil Chan's "Final Bow for Yellowface," about Asian representation in ballet, as one example. "Having them collaborate on research and respond to their peers is a way to build community when we're apart."

Leigh Foaad, UCLA

One side of the image is a screenshot of a Zoom class, the other is a screenshot of a video of Foaad, dressed all in black, leaning to the side

At left, Foaad's Zoom class; at right, one of his tutorials. Courtesy Foaad

By the second week of the fall term, Leigh Foaad could already tell his students were Zoomed-out. "I don't blame them," says Foaad, who teaches hip hop in UCLA's World Arts and Cultures/Dance department, "but I'd rather have them feeling fresh." His solution has been to rethink both how he presents information and what he asks from students in return. Instead of holding two live Zoom sessions a week, he teaches on Zoom on Tuesdays and posts a filmed tutorial on Thursdays. After viewing the videos on their own time, dancers film themselves doing the choreography and send their clips to Foaad before the next class. The midterm and final will work similarly, but with a longer sequence and a challenge to students' creativity: They'll be asked to create a variation on what they're given.

Attendance on Zoom and submission of weekly videos both go toward students' participation grade, though Foaad is willing to give a seven-day extension on the video to accommodate students who've had a rough week. Short written responses to hip-hop documentaries are also part of the participation mark. Because he's working with beginners this semester, "I'm not looking for quality of movement as much as awareness and effort," Foaad says. "The performance doesn't have to be perfect, but especially for the midterm and final, I want to see the sequence in the order I gave."

Foaad admits that he's added work for himself this semester. "Filming, editing and uploading my tutorials, and then viewing and critiquing 20 to 25 submissions—it's a lot," he says. "But I want to hold them accountable while being flexible and compassionate for their Zoom sanity. If it's working for the students, it's working for me."

Sarah Wroth, Indiana University

Masked ballet students spaced out in a barre do tendus

Hallie Geyh, courtesy IU Jacobs School of Music

"We're lucky to be back in our studios," says Sarah Wroth, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, "but with that privilege comes great responsibility." To keep students, faculty and staff safe, IU instituted a new policy: If you don't feel well, you must stay home. "Dancers are workers," Wroth says. "In a normal year, they would not think twice about coming in with a cold, for fear of losing a role or losing ground in their work. We sought to remove the pressure of that 'attend at all costs' atmosphere."

It's a big shift for a program that usually has attendance count for 50 percent of a student's final grade. This fall, "commitment to improve" and "application of corrections" will weigh in at 40 percent each. A new online discussion component will account for 15 percent, with adherence to dress code covering the remaining 5 percent.

In addition to reworking the grading rubric, the program has separated attendance from casting by having everyone learn the same roles within their cohort (their year in school, divided in half by last name). If absent students feel up to joining class or rehearsal via Zoom, they're welcome to do so. In-person or remote, they'll be held to the same standards: "Do you dance with energy and drive? Do you take initiative? Do you really try the corrections I'm giving, to see if they work on your body?" Wroth asks. "Showing up is important, but it's not everything."

Ani Javian, Rutgers University

Javian, alone in a studio, looks up at a tv screen showing her Zoom students

John Evans, courtesy Ani Javian

"I normally grade on participation, effort and integration of class activity, looking at artistry, expressivity and individuality," says Ani Javian, a movement artist on faculty at Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Those elements are still present with remote learning, but when it comes to concepts like use of weight, alignment and dynamics, "I'm more interested in how they are sensing that for themselves, rather than how legible it is to me over Zoom," she says.

Thus, self-assessment plays an important role in her grading rubric right now. Every two weeks, Javian asks dancers to identify one or two goals ("What am I working on?"), successes ("What am I doing well?") and challenges ("What can I work on in the future?") related to concepts they've been studying. "Of course, I also provide feedback," she says, "but I hope this process helps them find a sense of self-direction." At the end of the semester, dancers will give themselves a grade, and Javian will average that grade with her own.

She wants students' self-reflection during this time to extend beyond the studio (or home dance space) setting. That's why class participation this semester also includes activities such as drawing, reading poetry and taking walks. "With everything that's been going on this year, I've been thinking a lot about the ways that our movement practice relates to the world around us," Javian says. "Why are we training in dance? Looking inward will make a difference in how students then extend themselves outward into the world."

Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.

Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

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