Dance classes may be online this semester, but that isn’t stopping professor Ariella Brown from creating valuable dance experiences over Zoom.
Twice per week, Brown’s Jazz 1 and Tap 2 students have been setting up their cameras in their respective homes and meeting synchronously to dance together.
“My biggest goal with these classes was to keep them as true to form as they would be if we were meeting face-to-face,” she says of the new format. “I try to create the atmosphere that I would have in the studio as much as possible, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
In order to give students the closest experience to an in-person class as possible, Brown has employed the use of monitors, mixers, external speakers and multiple camera angles.
“I’m having to use my pedagogical technique skills to the max,” she says. “There’s no getting in front of the class and having them behind me and showing it and them catching on. I really have to be cognizant of how I’m phrasing right versus left. I label the corners so that with the mirror image it’s easier for them to catch on.”
AJ Wielichowski, a junior musical theatre major taking both jazz and tap this semester, says, “It forces you to know your choreography. If you’re in the studio, you can look in the mirror, you can look at the people around you if you forget. At home, you really can’t watch somebody unless you pre-pinned somebody to watch. It’s a lot of practical dance skills that you really need, and if you don’t have them, you will struggle.”
Brown agrees, saying that some of the skills students develop as a result of remote learning will ultimately benefit dancers pursuing a professional career.
“Especially for beginning dancers, it’s really pushing them to be self-reliant. I know that some students really need to have at least someone to follow, so I’ll have people volunteer to be spotlighted while I’m watching so that they can have at least one person, but most of the time they’re just doing it themselves from what they know. And so it does cause them to be more self-reliant, which I think will benefit them ultimately when they go into an audition, and then they’ll come off as more confident.”
Although Brown and her students are using technology to their advantage, there are also a few downfalls of a fully online dance class.
Jazz 1 student Christopher Lindquist says, “You can only do so much. If you’re turning the wrong way on a turn or if your posture isn’t exactly stacked, it’s hard to correct that when you have to focus on so many screens on Zoom.”
“The music is live to them, and they’ll be dancing to the music, but when their images come back to me during class, it’s delayed, so I can’t tell if they’re on the music or not,” Brown admits. Even so, there are ways around that specific disadvantage. “I can usually tell if they’re on the music if there are people dancing together. They get technique feedback throughout the entire class, but the actual musicality part is probably the part that suffers the most, and so because of that, I have them turn in something with the music live so that I can make sure that they’re getting the musicality that they need. And honestly, I think they’re doing a really great job, considering.”
While techniques can be taught effectively over Zoom, Brown says, “Even in person, you can’t give every person a correction every time, so I’ll have them break into couples and give each other one-on-one feedback and guide them with what to look for, which then helps them also if they want to become teachers.”
Speculation about how the switch online might affect the performing arts in the future is a hot topic within the industry.
“I think that this is going to create a lot more master's in screen dance,” Brown says. “I think the competition for [dance film festivals] is going to go up, because people are going to gain a lot of skills when it comes to filming dance and doing experimental screen dance films that there weren’t before.”
Brown explains that this semester has been heavily focused on screen dance for the camera, especially for this year’s Confluence Dance Project. Due to social distancing requirements, her students have been experimenting in solos and duets, and either rehearsing outdoors with masks or virtually. Toward the end of the semester, the plan is to film the pieces outdoors with masks on and socially distanced and edit together a virtual concert experience to be screened in May.
As for now, though, there are still plenty of opportunities within the dance program for students to get excited about, especially this year’s masterclasses. “This semester in tap, we’ve had two master teachers come and teach. These are people from New York and Tucson, and people who we would never have the experience of working with.” This year’s instructors include Pam Vlach, Megan Maltos, Mark Wilkinson, Tammy Dyke-Compton and Chip Abbott, all highly regarded professionals in the field.
Online classes have been a major learning experience for the music and theatre arts department as a whole. “I think it’s been fun,” Brown says. “I’m glad we can still dance. We just need to dance, because if we don’t for a year and a half, we’re going to go crazy.”