What Will College Dance Departments Look Like in a COVID-19 World?

August 23, 2020

When COVID-19 first shut down college campuses in March, most students and faculty assumed things would be back to normal by the fall. But as the summer winds down and the coronavirus still rages in much of the country, colleges are faced with the challenge of deciding how to train their dance students safely and effectively.

We spoke with several university dance departments to hear how they’ll be handling dance instruction in the time of COVID-19. Here are eight things we learned:

Class formats will vary widely 

Universities across the country differ dramatically in their decisions to hold classes in person, online or a hybrid. This might be due to the varying pressure placed on each college to keep enrollment rates high, different guidance from each state’s government, and a result of how severely the pandemic has impacted the local area.

Some colleges, like Pace University in New York City, are leaving the choice up to each student. “It’s imperative to me as the director that the parents and the students understand that particularly Pace, but most importantly myself, that I have their health and well-being held close to my heart,” says Rhonda Miller, director of the commercial dance program. “I want to make sure that they make the most personal choice that is right for them.”

Others, like the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey, have decided to transition their classes to completely remote instruction. “Being in the studio just doesn’t work right now,” says Julia M. Ritter, chair of the dance department. After university administration decided to move classes online, the department consulted with campus-based and public health experts about the risk of COVID-19 to best advise dancers how to train safely during remote instruction.

Still, some dance students will find themselves returning to the studio later this month. At the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, dancers will have a hybrid model of instruction for movement courses like ballet and contemporary technique. Students will be divided into two or three smaller cohorts: Part of the class will be in one studio with the instructor, while the other will be in a different studio taking the class via Zoom, says Jared Redick, interim dean of dance at UNCSA. This synchronous format lets students reap the benefits of face-to-face instruction with safety precautions in place.

 Masks will be mandatory (and crucial)

Every university we spoke with requires dancers and faculty to wear masks when on campus, including during movement classes. It’s a good thing, too, because mask wearing is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 exposure during a dance class, says infection prevention specialist Karen Hoffmann, immediate past president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. “As long as the mask is worn correctly, what we’ve been able to demonstrate is that the virus particles in the aerosols are contained within the mask,” Hoffmann says.

Some schools will provide a set of face masks for students at the beginning of the semester, but dancers might find purchasing a special athletic mask to be a worthy investment. And before attending an in-person dance class, do a test run. Hoffmann says an effective mask will fit snugly and stay in place while you’re dancing.

Many faculty members recommend dancers bring multiple masks if they’ll be taking several movement classes in a day, so they can swap them out when they get too sweaty. Don’t worry—wearing a mask while dancing doesn’t pose a threat to your health, Hoffmann says.

 In-person instruction won’t be business as usual

Most colleges that are offering on-campus dance courses have modified their space and class sizes to adhere to CDC guidelines. Dancers will be expected to arrive at the studio already dressed for class and wearing their masks. Students will likely see tape markers on the floors—at UNCSA there are 10-by-10–foot squares for each dancer during center work and markings on the barre that are 8 feet apart. Faculty won’t be offering any hands-on corrections. And don’t expect to see much floorwork or any partnering classes this semester. In the University of South Florida’s modern and contemporary classes, dancers will be advised to wear socks rather than going barefoot, to reduce the amount of skin-to-floor contact. Some schools have even opted to eliminate across-the-floor combinations, to prevent students from traveling through another peer’s aerosol stream. When class is over, dancers will be asked to leave the studio immediately rather than mingling and socializing with classmates.

Classes might move outside

Since virus particles disperse more quickly in open air, some universities are considering holding classes outdoors. At the USF, some dance faculty are trying to do this to allow students to practice traveling combinations, says Merry Lynn Morris, assistant director of the dance program.

There likely won’t be traditional performances

Most colleges have chosen to cancel or modify performances for the fall semester to eliminate events with big audiences, but that doesn’t mean dancers will completely miss out on the opportunity to perform. At Rutgers, the dance department will have several faculty and guest choreographers throughout the year to create dance films that can be broadcast to the public, and even socially distant performances captured by a drone, says Ritter. The dance program at USF is considering a parking lot performance, where the audience members can watch the dancers from the safety of their cars.

Dancers will still get feedback during virtual classes

Most colleges with virtual instruction plans are offering a mixture of synchronous classes (live on Zoom) and asynchronous classes (prerecorded).

At Pace, students who have to take a prerecorded class will film themselves taking it remotely and submit it to their teacher for review, says Miller. While this is tedious, it gives faculty a chance to provide individual feedback even when face-to-face instruction isn’t possible, Miller says. “One of the things I’ve found that I wasn’t expecting from Zoom is the amount of individual attention I can give each student, particularly when I allot for that time,” she says.

For synchronous classes, Miller will have groups of three or four students perform the combination at a time and ask the rest to turn off their cameras. This gives her the opportunity to home in on each student and offer meaningful corrections.

Dancers (and faculty) need to think about more than just themselves before attending in-person college courses

Although most dancers are itching to get back into the studio, it’s impossible to completely eliminate your risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, so you’ll need to consider whether you’re in close contact with anyone who is immunocompromised or has underlying conditions. If so, consider asking for an exemption from in-person instruction, Hoffmann says.

On campus, several colleges are reducing the number of students per dorm room. For instance, at UNCSA, some quads are becoming doubles and some smaller doubles are becoming singles. Most schools have also set aside dorm rooms for quarantining students who test positive for COVID-19.

The pandemic is an opportunity for innovation

As always, the dance community is tackling the COVID-19 challenge with creativity. Ritter is spearheading a collaboration involving at least seven different Big Ten universities to offer a series of free master classes for their students. Modeled after freeskewl, created by Sofia Engelman, Anna Maynard and Em Papineau, Ritter gathered a group of universities willing to host virtual classes, led by their faculty and alumni throughout the fall semester, that could be offered to dance students at participating schools. So far Rutgers, the Ohio State University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Maryland College Park, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Minnesota have all agreed to participate.

“This is a way to enliven the offerings, to let our students know that we are trying to work within the restrictions of COVID to make them have a really rich and full learning experience,” Ritter says.