Teaching Tips

What We Learned in the First Week of Teaching Online: University Dance Professors Respond

Getty Images

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?

Resources:

https://dancestudiesassociation.org/news/2020/resources-for-moving-dance-based-pedagogy-online?fbclid=IwAR2No16zCr6yqqo0tpNS1PLTkKACpE0kODWXhGRkWSzmvQ55rmmdAmUUyNc

https://www.dancingalonetogether.org/?fbclid=IwAR3MUVqg8smSn0kbC8FFG2Yb4aOi6nhhDDWCZIORtVFZLfddKf8_Gmskawo

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1klc81jAT0rWjI1RfOr_C1AegC7Do8tRSlIX5yiYA7yM/edit?usp=sharing

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1Z4kt83zydEz8Ra64hOqaXD6WCAMVG9L_gPbCdMA9ptY/mobilepresent?slide=id.g8158befdf5_1_0

News
Getty Images

Despite worldwide theater closures, the Universal Ballet Competition is keeping The Nutcracker tradition alive in 2020 with an online international competition. The event culminates in a streamed, full-length video of The Virtual Nutcracker consisting of winning entries on December 19. The competition is calling on studios, as well as dancers of all ages and levels, to submit videos by November 29 to be considered.

"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

Keep reading... Show less
Robbie Sweeny, courtesy Funsch

Christy Funsch's teaching career has taken her from New York City to the Bay Area to Portugal, with a stint in a punk band in between. But this fall—fresh off a Fulbright in Portugal at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, School of Dance (ESD), teaching and researching empathetic embodiment through somatic dance training—Funsch's teaching has taken her to an entirely new location: Zoom. A visiting professor at Slippery Rock University for the 2020–21 academic year, Funsch is adapting her eclectic, boundary-pushing approach to her virtual classes.

Originally from central New York State, Funsch spent 20 years performing in the Bay Area, where she also started her own company, Funsch Dance Experience. "My choreographic work from that time is in the dance-theater experiential, fantasy realm of performance," she says. "I also started blending genres and a lot of urban styles found their way into my choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Courtesy Meg Brooker

As the presidential election approaches, it's a particularly meaningful time to remember that we are celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, when women earned the right to vote after a decades-long battle.

Movement was more than a metaphor for the fight for women's suffrage—dancers played a real role, most notably Florence Fleming Noyes, who performed her riveting solo Dance of Freedom in 1914 to embody the struggle for women's rights.

This fall, Middle Tennessee State University director of dance Meg Brooker is reconstructing Dance of Freedom on 11 of her students. A Noyes Rhythm teacher and an Isadora Duncan scholar, Brooker is passionate about bringing historic dance practices into a contemporary context.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.