How COVID Has Changed College Dance Departments

September 29, 2021

University dance programs have undergone some remarkable changes since March 2020. From shutting down completely and sending students home to mandating masks and social distancing, there are plenty of pandemic-era adjustments that students and faculty will be happy to leave behind. However, there are also some transformations that many dance departments plan to carry forward into the future.

Reimagined Class Structure

Colleges have found there are actually some perks to virtual training. “I predict that Zoom is here to stay,” says Peter Carpenter, director of the University of Florida’s School of Theatre + Dance. In particular, Carpenter says video conferencing will be used to extend artist residencies beyond their in-person time and allow more guest artists to teach students without the hassle of travel. “We’re going to have a lot more creative solutions for overcoming limits of distance and time,” he says.

Some schools have decided that classes that transferred well to an online medium will remain that way this year. The University of Utah has recommitted to an in-person experience, but classes such as dance history and anatomy for dance will continue to have at least some online aspects. Sean Carter, an administrative assistant at U of U, says having some online courses in a dance curriculum could give students more flexibility in their schedules to fit in academic classes for second majors or minors.

For Victoria Watts, the dance department chair at Cornish College of the Arts, reimagining the course schedule to abide by safety guidelines gave her an opening to implement changes she has long been hoping for. “The old-school idea of Eurocentric forms at the apex and then other forms feeding up is totally inappropriate,” she says. Tightened schedules caused by reducing classes to 50 minutes with only five students per class meant ballet could no longer be mandatory for every student, allowing more space for a broader range of contemporary techniques. Using this as a jumping-off point, Cornish plans to shift credit requirements to include slightly fewer mandatory ballet credits and more focus on conditioning, somatics and well-being.

More Performance Options

Losing time in the theater was emotionally taxing for dancers everywhere, but just like professional companies, many college programs found creative alternatives to the stage. The University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance director, Michael Bearden, says the school will continue to pursue at least one dance for film or outdoor performance each year. Similarly, at Cornish, Watts is looking to continue to offer their expanded slate of classes focused on digital dancemaking. This shift to a broader range of mediums, including Zoom, is better preparing students to dance in a variety of settings postgraduation.

Amplified Demands for Equity and Diversity

Carpenter says students came to the University of Florida faculty last year with urgent calls for change, largely based on the “We See You, White American Theater” testimonial letter originally signed by more than 300 BIPOC theater-makers. The school’s faculty participated in a workshop about the root causes of racism and how it exists within institutions. Carpenter says they held four town halls last academic year to allow students to voice their concerns, and will do the same this year. “Our perspective on accountability to students and transparent communication with students has shifted for the better,” he says.

Watts says several faculty members retired from Cornish during the pandemic. As a result, she was able to use the need for new hires to increase the presence of people of color on the faculty. “Those things were on the agenda anyway, but this moment of disruption made it more possible,” she says.

Carter also says he has seen growth in how his students articulate the direction they hope the dance world will go in. “The students have taken a big seat at the table at these discussions, and I know they are excited to be a catalyst for change in the industry that they love,” he says.

Confidence in Perseverance

The uncertainty caused by a global pandemic was also a chance for faculty, staff and students to discover their resilience. Watts says she was initially concerned students would suffer from injuries due to undertraining. Instead, she says, “the students took real agency in using their conditioning classes, doing cross-training and maximizing their time in technique class,” she says. Carter also describes a strengthened confidence in the program’s ability to overcome challenges. “We now know how adaptive and creative we can be,” he says.