How College Dance Programs Are Adapting to the New Online-Learning Normal

March 29, 2020

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she’d teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Ahearn counts herself lucky. At her small liberal arts college north of Baltimore, all faculty members were encouraged to sign up for virtual help desk appointments. That’s how Ahearn found herself teaching barre to Goucher’s director of distance learning.

“The one-on-one was extremely helpful,” she says. Goucher professors also received institutional accounts on Zoom, which unlike the normal campus-learning platform Canvas, will allow 20 people to take class synchronously. She’ll be able to view all her students, but they decide whether to share their technique—and their living quarters—with the entire class. “Some students may want to keep their accommodations private,” Ahearn says, acknowledging that some may not have ideal housing. She’s also encouraging students to wear whatever shoes are most appropriate for the surface underfoot. “We want to make sure we are running an efficient and accommodating virtual classroom.”

One quandary she hasn’t solved is how to include musicians in online classes; that issue keeps coming up on a national Facebook group for higher ed dance faculty. In response, some musicians and composers have offered to distribute class-appropriate music for free. (Goucher continues to pay musicians, though that is not the case at all schools.)

Elizabeth Ahearn teaches a virtual ballet class in her kitchen, in passe using her chair as a barre.
Courtesy Ahearn

Susan Shields, director of the School of Dance at George Mason University, wept when she heard classes would be cancelled at Virginia’s state universities for the entire semester, requiring her to cancel a March 27 gala featuring works by Kyle Abraham, Rafael Bonachela, Christopher D’Amboise and Micaela Taylor.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Shields says. “We had so much momentum going into this. And my seniors. I can’t stand it. I am so sad for them.”

For the first time, Shields had arranged for the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra to play live at the annual gala. VIP visitors including Abraham and Alejandro Cerrudo were scheduled to attend.

Two male dancers leap into the air, holding handsu2014one above their heads and one above. They wear shiny silver pants, with their heads and feet touching and their hips leaning away.
A promo image from George Mason’s gala, which was canceled

Courtesy George Mason

A less glitzy iteration of the gala may be rescheduled for September, if the choreographers agree to a rights extension and the school can pay for seniors to return. But Mason’s annual spring “fete,” where dance students perform at an intimate donor reception, has also been cancelled, and that hampers fundraising.

While coping with her heartbreak, Shields is also navigating a host of logistical challenges, ranging from finding international student housing to figuring out how to teach 40 dance classes online. Tenured faculty have stepped up to co-teach technique classes normally taught by adjuncts, while most movement courses for non-majors will be converted to something more like online dance appreciation.

Unfortunately, Shields and her colleagues cannot teach via Zoom or other dance-friendly video platforms. Virginia’s state universities strictly adhere to a federal privacy law called FERPA, which is intended to protect student information. Other schools interpret the law more broadly, but at Mason, professors can only interact with students through online platform Blackboard.

“It’s funny too, because we all know you can go online and watch Tiler Peck in her living room give you a barre,” Shields says. She’s been reminding herself, and faculty, that their students have “chosen to study with us” and earn a BFA in dance. They’ll do their best over the next six weeks.

At Boston Conservatory at Berklee, faculty members can upload videos—including their own choreography—to a private YouTube channel and communicate mostly through Google Hangouts. “The conservatory has been pretty liberal with that,” says Alissa Cardone, an associate professor of dance. “We’re saying, ‘Okay, let’s not try and reinvent the wheel. Let’s have you work with things that you already know.'”

Berklee sent out surveys and assigned “super users” like Cardone to mentor colleagues who were less familiar with online teaching tools. When she’s not helping others, Cardone has been busy updating the syllabus for her Dance on Film & Video class.

“This is such a great moment to talk about dance on the internet,” Cardone said. “I want to capitalize on that. I mean, you can take a Gaga class online. That work is usually so inaccessible.”

While a plethora of online resources for dance educators has emerged in recent weeks, Cardone says she’s had to be choosy about what she’s utilizing. “I don’t want all the resources to overshadow my job, which is to somehow structure these next six weeks,” she says.

A screenshot of a Zoom class, with around 12 students doing exercises on the floor in small windows on the screen.
Cardone’s modern release class on Zoom

Courtesy Cardone

One institution having a comparatively easy time structuring classes is the University of Southern California, where the five-year-old Glorya Kaufman School of Dance was midway through developing an “emergency business plan” when the coronavirus hit. Weekday mornings are now devoted to consolidated technique classes, and afternoons are for repertoire and performances classes or improv and composition. Previously, most students took an extra round of elective technique classes three days a week, but asking students to spend six hours a day “dancing” online seemed unreasonable.

“I’m super grateful,” says faculty member Patrick Corbin, who spent his spring break developing dance exercises where “you don’t necessarily need to be moving across the floor or taking up huge amounts of space.” Classes will begin with guided mediation, and then “segue into some seated spinal articulation,” including some Martha Graham contractions and release techniques, and then get to “standing, and bending and marching and prancing in place.”

“And maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to do a little bit of jumping and lifting the legs, and of course balances,” Corbin says. “By the end of this six-week period, I hope to have a class put together that is rigorous, vigorous and fun, but allows you to be pretty stationary.”

The rehearsals are more complicated, and getting copyright permissions will be key. USC has cancelled its spring performances, which were slated for April 17 through 19 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, and would have featured work by Corbin, Hope Boykin, William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, Ohad Naharin, Andrew Winghart and Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit.

Patrick Corbin teaches a virtual class in his living room. He's in a large "X" position, looking up toward the ceiling.
Courtesy Corbin

If all the choreographers agree, faculty members will continue rehearsals via Zoom, and each student will be asked to film themselves performing a solo. Those video clips will be graded, although Corbin is quick to point out that his “as objective as possible ” rubric rewards students for things like staying within the camera frame and filing the assignment on time.

He’s more optimistic than most professors about the future of online dance teaching, but also knows that right now, to finish this semester, dance teachers need to cut themselves “a huge amount of slack.” Slack they may never allowed themselves as professional dancers accustomed to seeking perfection in the studio.

“Forsythe has been drilling into me, in the most beautiful way, that failure is an option,” Corbin says of his colleague, who serves as USC’s artistic advisor. “There are no rules, and failure is an option. We have to really lean into that right now, especially those of us of a certain age.”

As a 55-year-old man who’s not into social media, Corbin views the pandemic as “an opportunity to learn.”

“There is no choice,” Corbin says. “There’s so much negative going on right now, but, I just feel like dancers and choreographers are the most amazing people. Every day there’s something new.”