Higher Ed

These College Professors Are Using Social-Distancing Restrictions to Fuel Creativity

Courtesy Benny Simon

It's safe to say that the 2020 fall semester was a learning experience for college dance departments and students alike.

While Zoom and socially distanced dancing had their obvious frustrations, professors met many of them with creative solutions that not only served as satisfactory replacements for "normal" learning, but also gave students valuable new perspectives that will last beyond the pandemic.

Dance Teacher rounded up four of our favorite examples:

Moving Inside the Box at Virginia Commonwealth University

At the beginning of the semester, the VCU dance department decided to follow the guidance of Dance/USA and tape out 10-by-10 boxes in their studios to keep students socially distant.

But dancing "inside the box" didn't have to be limiting—at least not in associate professor Scott Putman's contemporary/modern classes, where he encouraged students to use the opportunity to think deeply about what was happening inside the body. "In confining ourselves to these spaces, we were able to turn the focus from external to internal," he says. "What does it mean to look at the mechanics of the body through internal space?"

Limited space also proved an effective tool for lessons on weight-shifting and directional changes. "How do you absorb the body's weight, the body's energy, to then shift weight very quickly and make directional changes in very specific ways?" Putman asks. "Dancers tend to set energy in motion and let it carry them, but this is a different way of expressing and gathering directional energy."

The result of these experiments: a challenge to students' values systems. "Students are used to finding value in how much they're moving," says Putman. Now, "they're finding new values in more subtlety, and recognizing that they don't always have to be so loud and so big."

When students have had the opportunity to move in a bigger space after dancing in the boxes, Putman has noticed more specificity and awareness. "I think that refinement empowered them to recognize their own voice within the technique," he says. "Often, you're going on autopilot in those big phrases, and your voice gets lost. But I'm watching them make beautiful decisions for themselves, and that is so satisfying to see."

Dancing With Nature at University of Michigan

Three dancers dance in the shallow banks of a river, surrounded by trees

Courtesy Megan Bascom

Partnering teachers, like Megan Bascom at the University of Michigan, faced a particularly daunting challenge last semester.

But Bascom took the fact that her students couldn't touch as an opportunity to expand their perspectives on partnering—and to take advantage of the short-lived pleasant weather in Michigan in early fall.

"I wanted to relay that a dancer's environment could play a huge role in performative engagement," she says. So she took her students to the University of Michigan Nichols Arboretum for a class focused on partnering with texture and pattern.

Bascom began class by having her students walk backward and with closed eyes through a grassy field. "We used this part of the class to drop into our sensing bodies and recognize the textures surrounding us," she says. Students then developed a short, repeatable phrase that they'd perform in different settings—like in a pocket of ponderosa pines, where students experimented with softening into the pine needles on the ground, or leaning into the trees.

They then practiced the phrases on a gravel path, where they had to navigate an unsteady, dirty surface, and in the cold and quite slippery Huron River.

By the end, "they had all become aware of sound, sight and skin and how those elements changed the way they decided to move their bodies," Bascom says—an awareness that they maintained even weeks later in the studio.

Virtual Duets at New York University

Two students wearing masks mirror each other on either side of a taped dividing line running down the middle of the studio. They both sit on the ground, arching back so the tops of their heads touch the floor, with their legs bent and toes pointed

Sadi Weir, courtesy NYU

Usually, Seán Curran, chair of the Tisch School of the Arts dance department at New York University, starts his first-year composition class off with a tried-and-true exercise: One dancer makes a phrase based on their name, then teaches it to another student, who creates another phrase that works in juxtaposition. Then, the two students perform their phrases right next to each other as a counterpoint duet.

Doing this exercise with the students spaced six feet apart changed things, says Curran. "Instead of being a tight duet, it became two different solos," he says. "It blew holes in my process."

Soon, for a choreographic prompt in response to a Mark Strand poem, that distance grew much further. Students who had gone home over Thanksgiving break were not allowed to return to campus due to COVID-19 guidelines, so some groups of dancers were making duets or trios with one student Zooming in from home.

"Composition class is time and space and movement," says Curran. "But now space is completely different because there's someone in virtual space."

Even when the students are together in the studio, Curran says having to stay six feet apart has been a lesson in how proximity changes the mood of a piece. "Now there's a lot of dynamic tension," he says, "feeling the space between the two dancers who are trying to stay six feet apart."

Partnering With TheraBands at Ohio University

Two students dance far apart but connected by two TheraBands, one connected to their ankles and the other to their wrists

Courtesy Benny Simon

Ohio University assistant professor Benny Simon wanted to find a way to replicate sensations that aren't readily accessible with socially distanced partnering, like tension, resistance and support. He landed on an ingenious solution for his modern technique class for juniors and seniors: cutting long lengths of TheraBand that dancers would use to "partner" each other from their separate, distanced boxes.

"The dancers took one band in each hand and wrapped them around their arms to find the pull and the elasticity, and then started to dance and to feel each other's movements travel back and forth across the band," says Simon. He gave students a score of oppositional sensations to explore, with prompts like "give and take," "heaviness and lightness," "stability and instability" and "intimacy and detachment."

"It was a good way to focus your attention on those sometimes-unconscious sensations that come up when you're partnering and you've done it so many times that you don't think about it," says Simon. "The dancers ended up testing the limits of the bands; they were wrapping them around and tying them around their torsos and their feet, and working themselves into these really complicated tangles and then trying to figure out how to untangle themselves."

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