When university dance classes were forced to shift online in the middle of 2020's spring semester, dance professors struggled to reinvent their lessons for the virtual environment.
But Sandra Parks, assistant teaching professor at Drexel University, was prepared. She had spent the previous three years developing an online-only dance degree for Drexel's Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. The program, which will admit its first class this fall, is intended for late-career and retired dance professionals who didn't earn an undergraduate degree during their performing days.
"We started our work on it in 2018," Parks says. The pandemic shutdown hit at the perfect time to show just how viable the program could be.
Yet Drexel's degree won't simply be a continuation of the virtual programming students have gotten used to. Parks describes the new BS in dance: "The students are given a structure of the semester schedule and their weekly schedule. But they actually have full control over when they finish their work, as long as they complete their assignments based on the structure that the professors have designed." They do not meet together as a class, nor do they meet with professors in person or online.
It is the difference between synchronous learning, when students gather at the same time on the same day—either virtually or in a classroom—and asynchronous learning, when students complete the assigned work at their own pace within a set time frame.
Parks learned that this design demands much more work up front on the professor's part. "Everything needs to be pre-designed, pre-produced, including the discussion questions," she says. Students respond online on their own time, and the discussion unfolds at a different pace.
Parks notes that no one will learn to dance or improve their technique in the online-only program; instead, dancers will be prepared to transition to new careers in the dance field, like administration or criticism. Courses include pedagogy, writing and choreography—along with general education classes in English, math and science. The BS can also ready students for graduate work in arts management and policy, physical or dance therapy, or education.
In addition to late-career or retired dancers, the program also hopes to attract younger dancers who may want to begin their degree while still performing. (Students can earn up to 50 credit hours based on documented performing experience.) In fact, Drexel is looking at partnering with a few ballet companies, though nothing has been decided yet.
Parks adds that tuition is 40 percent lower than what on-campus and synchronous students at Drexel pay.
Of course, some retiring dancers seek financial stability and the challenge of a new field. But others, like Parks, a choreographer and former dancer who toured in Broadway's The King and I, can't leave dance behind: "It depends on the student. I tried other professions and was miserable. I realized I need dance to be a whole person."
She adds, "This program is not going to attract students who are done with dance and want something else. We're for students who want to continue their passion and their expertise in dance."