Three University Dance Department Heads Consider How They’ll Return to Classes This Fall

University of Houston dance students outdoors in 2019. Photo courtesy of UH

Since March, hundreds of dance majors have been using platforms like Zoom to continue their educations, dancing from the safety of their homes as coronavirus has swept the nation. What many educators initially hoped would be a temporary setback—a few weeks of online learning before a triumphant return to in-person classes—has turned out to be a new way of life, with distance learning essential well into the summer.

As department heads look toward the fall term, the decision of how and when to return to dancing together is at the forefront of their minds. Here, three dance department heads share how they're approaching the decision.

Health and Safety First

"Foremost in our minds is the health and safety of the students," says Betsy Cooper, Cal State University Long Beach dance department chair. "We are fully online for the fall. I feel this is the right decision for a campus of our size and a major of our size." With 23 campuses, Cal State is the largest public university system in the nation, serving roughly half a million students. In mid-May Cal State became the first to announce that the fall 2020 semester would remain online. "We have been decisive," says Cooper. "It's been clear to me that we need to be safe. I feel that responsibility strongly, and I work with a faculty and staff who have coalesced around that."

Other schools have yet to decide about the fall term, but emphasize that whatever the decision, the faculty and students' well-being is their top priority. "Nothing has been decided yet," says Seán Curran, chairperson of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Dance Department. "NYU is using the language 'We plan on being back in class in the fall.' However, New York City is the epicenter. Nothing is set in stone yet."

Following State Guidelines

State universities have to walk a fine line as they approach this decision, since they are guided by state, county and city guidelines. As Karen Stokes, head of the dance program at University of Houston, looks toward the future, she is mindful of the greater plan for reopening in Texas. "It will be decided by the chancellor of our institution. And that will be guided by the state," she says. "Because we're a state institution, we can't make a decision that contradicts Governor Greg Abbott."

Finding where dance fits within reopening guidelines is easier said than done, though: Many state guidelines don't include language specific to dance. For example, California's four-stage plan for reopening includes gyms among stage-three higher-risk workplaces, yet doesn't list dance studios.

Multiple Plans of Action

Department heads have responded by coming up with a range of options for reopening that would accommodate multiple risk levels in their areas. "Internally we're preparing for two scenarios," says Stokes. "We're talking about the hybrid model with reduced class size, and a fully online model as well. We're analyzing what curriculum would be relatively straightforward to move online and what would not work online."

Curran and the NYU faculty have been exploring similar scenarios. "I'm wrestling with the idea of some teachers teaching 10 people in a large studio and some remotely," he says. "We normally have eight technique classes a week for ballet or modern. If we're back, I may have to reduce that. Instead of technique being Monday through Friday, it may have to be less."

With the decision to stay remote for the fall already made, Cooper is looking into how to make remote learning more accessible. "The issue of accessibility and equity has been brought to the forefront during this pandemic," she says. "Some students are not in an environment where they have the space or connectivity to participate. Some don't have personal computers or internet."

Remaining Flexible, Creative and Optimistic

With so many unknowns, staying flexible, creative and optimistic has been key to planning for the future. "I keep saying to the dancers: 'This is not a pause. This is life, and life must go on,'" says Curran. "'We have a new way of making and doing in the world.'"

Cooper, Stokes and Curran are all looking at ways that they can rearrange and revamp their course requirements to suit the current situation and keep students engaged. "The crash-course in how to put all of our curriculum online was invaluable in thinking about how we move toward the fall," says Stokes. "Right now, I'm trying to develop a technique class that trains dancers to move on different surfaces outside." At NYU, courses that would not have normally been offered in the summer, like Dance for Camera and Business of Dance, are being offered right now.

One thing is for certain, COVID-19 has brought out the amazing resiliency and creativity of the dance community everywhere. "The outpouring of resources has been wonderful—ideas, lesson plans, video links and websites. All this amazing creative digital content has been created," says Cooper. "The dance community is definitely making lemonade out of lemons."

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