A turbulent time for dance education as Covid looms

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

As the Coronavirus rages on, colleges and universities have been pressured to re-open their campuses, most designing a hybrid model of operation – a combination of in-person and virtual classes while abiding by state local, and health guidelines updated by the Centers for Disease Control.

The reality for each school is dramatically different, depending on locale, resources, student population, facilities, curriculum, faculties, support staff, and of course, the completely unknowable element of human behavior. Dorm move-in party anyone? Within weeks, many of the schools that had opened their campuses had to suddenly close because of new virus outbreaks.

For dance educators, there are added concerns regarding Covid safety measures that must also be addressed.   

Recently the CDC updated new safety guidelines for athletes, causing many collegiate teams to cancel their fall programs. For dance students, their essential in-person training and performance regimens present many of the same risk factors of body contact, heavy breathing, and ensemble work.

In phone and ZOOM interviews over the past two weeks, three dance educators discuss the issues and what their curriculum and protocols will look like for their dance students and faculty, going into their 2020 fall terms. 

Pallabi Chakravorty, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore PA

Swarthmore’s sprawling suburban campus is located 15 miles outside of Philadelphia. The campus is open for in-person teaching that will permit some 900 students to return, (roughly half of the usual on-campus population) for a shortened fall term that will end with the Thanksgiving holiday. Daily updates are provided on Swarthmore’s website that detail testing and tracing protocols that are currently in place.

Pallabi Chakravorty is head of the Dance Department at Swarthmore and is also a choreographer, writer, and anthropologist. Professor Chakravorty is the founding director of Courtyard Dancers, a Neoclassical and contemporary Indian Dance-Theater.

Professor Chakravorty said that the dance faculty has worked for months to ensure that the safest environment possible will be maintained in the fall term for students on the dance track. Chakravorty said that after the pandemic hit, the overall enrollment had begun to drop. “Now it’s looking very different.”

But even with everything in place, she acknowledges that the undertaking is “very much a work in progress, a lot of things have to be rethought,” including “our course offerings.”

Swarthmore has a dance program with a full syllabus of international choreographic styles, that require engagement in classes and immersion in technique. Professor Chakravorty notes that “this affects every aspect of the program, especially for the freshmen and sophomore students.”

On the other hand, “The academic training, critical thinking, research, and writing assignments are naturally easier to deal with online.”

Right now the main adjustments and restrictions for safety are applied to the studio classes. “We suspended most of the repertory classes,” she explained, “since that course work ends up being for concerts or shows.” The fall regular performance events, a critical component of dance training, are suspended for now as well.

For classes in Indian classicism, “we have drumming classes and tabla; we did a small concert last semester in virtual space.” She is quick to add, “since we are unable to be together. That is perhaps the most difficult part of it. No audience, no costumes…the entire sensory experience, being in the studio with everyone, live music. It’s a whole beautiful experience.” Components that are essential such as “collaborative lab classes, design work, the full range of choreography is something that is essential and that students need to experience first hand.”

Chakravorty notes that even with the impact on the dance department, students attending this term “Are very focused.” Meanwhile, the faculty is committed to making the necessary adjustments to keep everyone safe and on track for their careers, academically, creatively, and socially.

 Gregory King, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Gregory King is currently a Professor of Dance at Kent State University, a dancer, choreographer, and journalist developing specific concentrations on what he calls a culturally responsive educator. Philadelphia’s dance community knows King from his many articles on Dance Journal and other publications, as well as his work as a performer and arts activist.

“We will be hybrid teaching at Kent,” King said in the days before the campus opened at the end of August. “The students have a remote option.  All faculty will be coming back and all classes will be set up with a camera, screen, sound, and will be recorded. The faculty concert will be on video. All of the choreographer’s works will be developed virtually. Each choreographer will be doing virtual rehearsing.”

 “We have a school safety mantra –  wearing masks, sanitize your space, maintaining distancing, monitoring your health.” King added, “more specifically for dancers, the studio is squared off just for dance students, limited class size, no partnering, and no street clothes. There are no changing clothes in the restrooms, everyone will have their appointed spots for personal bags…and everyone must look out for each other.”

“The dance rooms had yet to have air filtration systems (Hepa)”, which King said was “on the table for conversation”.

“We’re getting support from the university. We are only down (in enrollment) three percent going into this fall. With 80 dance majors and 200 minors, it’s an exciting and developing program.”

King also is tracking the effect of dancers training in isolation. Will these alternative teaching methods compensate enough to train students properly and effectively?

Covid has revealed that some dancers simply do not have space in their home environment to fully take advantage of an online dance class. In addition, with learning from a home environment, is it easier to become distracted and lose motivation. Dancers and students, facing all of these new restrictions are missing out on the social components of ensemble work, the energy in the studio, and of course the hands-on and immediate corrections for improving technique.

King recognizes that “It’s problematic on a very different level. The seniors had a rough time after four years. Missing out on that experience, the camaraderie, and creative energy that develops working together.” He encouraged his students over the summer to be physically and mentally active in their everyday lives and to manage stress.

“I work in a predominantly white student population Kent State. The school’s black, brown, and other minority students make up 10 percent of Kent State’s population, and the ratio is even smaller in the dance programs.

King is asking difficult questions about the curriculum and racial inequities in dance education. “Are you teaching in a Eurocentric way? We talk about the art form that we are expecting them to master. Is it only ballet and modern? What does that do to your sensibilities, as we broaden our understanding of dance?”

He is currently developing a database for a research library of dance writers, choreographers, and artists of color. “I want to expand equity and inclusion in the classroom and broader Kent community.”

Donna Faye Burchfield, University of the Arts, Philadelphia

Speaking from her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of the Arts, Dean of Dance, Donna Faye Burchfield said that coming to the decision not to reopen the campus for the fall term was difficult and very emotional. Even after it was decided by the school, there were immediate doubts as to whether they were doing the right thing.

“In the summer, we went remote with the MFA program,” Burchfield said. She was looking forward to returning to the UArts campus and Philadelphia for the Fall. Burchfield and faculty began to plan for a hybrid opening “and everyone was as gung-ho about this model like I was.”

The dance faculty was determining how many feet apart people had to be for classes, air-filtration systems, never changing masks, and limiting time together. “We were even looking into teaching in parking lots.”

“Then the closer we got to the opening dates, we questioned that decision. And started asking ourselves, “were we sure? Should we do this? The anxieties began to mount. I thought and I hoped we were not hurting ourselves in the long run. Now, I realize that we did the right thing.”

There was also confusion over dorm occupancy. The Philadelphia Health Department was changing the number of people allowed, and they would have to continually change with each set of guidelines issued.

“After we decided we were going to fully remote learning… I went into a sort of mourning. One day I drove out to the University of North Carolina and saw the parents and students, were all checking in to their dorms. I came back and was lamenting that we weren’t going to do that in Philly.”

By late-August, there were already reports of colleges (UNC & Duke) that had opened, only to have to shut down again after there were spikes in cases in the first weeks of students being back on campus and in school dorms.

For now, Burchfield reports, “I’ve been virtually teaching.  The majority of students have moved back in Philly whether they are going to be in the studios or not. In spring we had 288, and right now 259, and two students hanging on for financial aid. Burchfield credits her faculty. We called every student to see what they need.”

“It is very different planning for virtual learning and especially for dance. It is difficult. There are so many things to work out,” Burchfield said. The technical aspects, alone present a number of challenges, starting with, “camera angles, earphones, timing, the remote space, how can you move, and the feedback between students and faculty.”

“The juniors and seniors both do major project work as they begin to plan their lives beyond their academic training at UArts.”  

“For the Fall, we will be doing more collaborative research and development of choreography, and then in the spring we will try things out in real-time.”

“I’m teaching the juniors (about 70) and it’s emotional for me and for them. Our students are really struggling through this. We have UArts CARES, with the participation of a very supportive UArts alumni from all over the world. If any student was really in a bind to continue, we tried to do what we could to find out what they needed.”

Meanwhile, Burchfield said “These students didn’t waver expressing their desire to stay here. I could feel the commitment…that we had to continue.” 

TEMPLE UNIVERSITY, Philadelphia PA

A scheduled interview with a faculty member was canceled as the school had to reverse its decision to reopen the main campus in North Philadelphia.

August 25 was moving-in day at Temple University’s main campus in North Philadelphia, which sparked several protests around campus by students and faculty members who did not feel that it was safe to open up the campus.  Temple’s large urban campus has many students that live off-campus in less controlled environments.  University officials asserted that they are abiding by state and city guidelines, and specific measures to prevent the spread of the virus including testing for resident students. However, they were not requiring universal testing and tracing for off-campus students. The school initially announced a two-week delay in re-opening. Then on September 3rd, reversed their decision and announced that the campus would close down for in-person classes for the fall term.

Addendum – On September 8, CNN reported that among college and university campuses that had opened across all 50 states, 37,000+ positive cases of Coronavirus have been reported among students and staff.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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