It's a Wednesday in May, and 14 Stanford University advanced modern dance students are logged on to Zoom, each practicing a socially distanced duet with an imaginary person. "Think about the quality of their personality and the type of duet you might have," says their instructor Katie Faulkner, "but also their surface area and how you'd relate to them in space." Amid dorm rooms, living rooms, dining rooms and backyards, the dancers make do with cramped quarters and dodge furniture as they twist, curve, stretch and intertwine with their imaginary partners.
What had been a joyous exercise in full-bodied expression in the spacious studios on campus abruptly came to a halt in March with California's shelter-in-place mandate due to COVID-19. Like dance teachers everywhere, Faulkner got a crash course in online dance classes when Stanford shifted to remote coursework. Through trial and error and the utmost dedication to maintaining a sense of continuity for her students, she adapted her eclectic modern class—a Laban-informed amalgamation of various techniques—for an online platform. Incorporating improvisation, more upright movement and less floorwork, and keeping a heightened focus on choreographic details, Faulkner found a way to keep her students active, engaged and inspired from home, despite the trying circumstances.
Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner
Following a yoga-infused warm-up in which students "dance their downward dog," Faulkner asks the class to create a sense of aliveness and mobility in their torsos during the pliés. (New pliés, new day!" she says.) Using vivid action verbs and descriptive language to draw out dynamics and three-dimensionality, she faces her computer screen and mirrors her students throughout the sequence. "Bulging the torso forward and then hollow," she says. "The inner space of the torso has an incredible amount of malleability and shapeability. It's incredibly expressive."
"How we doing, y'all?" she asks, checking in after a particularly agile foot exercise containing rapid weight shifts. "Thumbs?" Students gesture their assent, so Faulkner moves on to some brisk dégagés.
At the core of her approach is a firm belief in student-centered learning. Faulkner grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, taking class in a modern dance studio, and didn't realize quite how rare it was to have improvisation and composition but next to no ballet in the curriculum. "My training was very eclectic. My approach honors that eclecticism and helps students to feel the value in eclectic points of view," she says. In every class, she includes opportunities for exploration and reflection to facilitate ownership of the material. "I give them space to work seriously but not take themselves too seriously," she says. "It's about them deciding what's important and learning the range of options."
Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner
In addition to the way she's adjusted her teaching for the online classroom ("It takes longer to demonstrate things, so I don't get through as much material," she says), she's encountered challenges in using the technology. "The lag in Zoom makes it hard for me to engage musicality," she says. This shows up later during the final combination—a luscious sequence full of carving limbs and an ever shape-shifting torso—when a student asks what the counts are. "No counts! Dancer's choice," Faulkner says.
Despite the challenges, being able to continue working with her students is what has kept her going during this pandemic. "Many of them are very serious about dance and aren't sure how it is supposed to fit into their lives," she says. "My number-one goal is to make sure they have an opportunity to really dance. The how and the why are so much more important than the what."