Go with the flow: How the WU dance program has handled the pandemic

| Staff Writer

In a semester that has challenged every academic department, dance classes at Washington University have gotten creative to try and adapt to a new environment.

It’s hard enough to absorb class material when it is delivered through a Zoom meeting or an asynchronous module. Every department has confronted the issue of maintaining the same caliber of education for their students given the, to quote many a university email, unprecedented conditions. The Performing Arts Department’s dance program, however, faces the unique dilemma of trying to teach an intimate, physical discipline while keeping students’ safety the top priority.  

Curran Neenan | Student Life

The entrance to one of the dance studios in the Olin Women’s Building. The pandemic has limited capacity in the studios and forced the dance program to adopt new methods and technologies.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone online in the middle of the spring semester, along with the ubiquitous hardship of adapting the curriculum to unfamiliar technology, dance classes struggled to find ways to engage students in the performance of the body through the abyss of the digital void. Using bedrooms as stages, fighting with family for bandwidth and struggling to stay in sync with music that cuts out twice a minute, students and professors alike have sorely missed the stability of the studio.  

Coming into the fall semester, dance program coordinator and professor David Marchant has exhausted every avenue to get dancers back in person while continuing to provide opportunities for online students. This includes everything from 10 foot by 10 foot pods in studios to new technology that tracks foot movements for online dancers. Still, he acknowledges the obvious gap between the two formats. “It’s an idea to give [online students] the same experience—it’s not possible,” he said. “Instead of pretending I’m trying to give them an equal experience, I’m acknowledging the fact that they are working in a different experience.” 

Catering instruction to online students has been particularly difficult for dance given its inherent physicality and focus on group synchrony, he said, but the program is doing what dancers do best: pivot. Instead of trying to replicate an in-class experience, professors are using the pandemic’s constraints as a creative opportunity to explore new formats for performance—thinking outside the pod, so to speak. 

“After 25 years of teaching…you get into habits, assumptions about how the form works,” Marchant said. The virus has forced him and his colleagues to rethink their craft and how to use the limitations of a screen (or a pod) as a tool to express in new, unique ways. In Marchant’s case, this means incorporating the camera as an element of performance in his Dance Composition class. “I’m shocked I hadn’t thought of it sooner…we’re creating a new artform,” he said, demonstrating by picking up the camera and slowly moving it as he performs a short dance. 

With constantly shifting conditions and new opportunities slowly being implemented, improvisation has become the new normal for dance instruction, but these professors are used to staying on their toes at all times. “I and my colleagues feel very grateful at this moment that we’re artists,” Marchant said.   

For students, it’s been refreshing to dance in any capacity. Junior Serena Schein, a dance minor and classroom engagement moderator, says that rejoining the dance community, even in a limited fashion, has been important in regaining a sense of structure. 

“Over Zoom, you’re not seeing other people struggle or succeed with you, and you’re more aware of your own inability to do things…it feels like you’re struggling alone,” Schein said. Without the benefit of her classmates and professors, “as a dancer, you don’t know if you’re doing it right because you can’t watch yourself.” 

Still, the opportunity to return to the studio and have some degree of balance in her practice has been particularly rewarding in a year fraught with obstacles. Even with the limitations in place this semester, “it is still my highlight at Wash. U.,” Schein said. Nobody knows how long we’ll be separated by pods and learning from computers, but for Wash. U.’s dancers, moving with the times has been—and will be—the key to success. 

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