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Just like most, I am ready to “get back to normal.” Although, I’m not sure what this means anymore. What was normal? Will it ever be that again? Should it be? The disparity among our students was highlighted by the pandemic - unreliable wifi, unsafe living situations, lack of support, mental health concerns - all impacted student learning. Educators have been exhaustingly navigating the changing landscape with ingenuity, enthusiasm, and care. We want it to be over and return to our pre-COVID splendor. I am looking forward to not wearing masks, not dancing in 10ft boxes, not spending hours on Zoom. I am excited about returning to live performances, contact improvisation, partnering, water fountains, and high fives. While it’s tempting to want to block out this past year and move on, I think there are many changes that shouldn’t be dismissed as we return to “normal.”
Here are a few things I think we should keep:
Flexibility - Dance can be a paradox - often rigid in its traditions and expectations, yet full of artists and educators who are forward-thinking and open-minded. I hope this forced flexibility can lead us to make better choices for students. A student’s parent cannot provide transportation this week? They can take class from their kitchen. An injured dancer can’t get across campus to observe? They can take observation notes from the safety of their residence hall. Rather than recording students absent and affecting their grade, we can arrange accommodations that utilize technology allowing flexibility and understanding for their situation. Sometimes students will miss class. Other times we may be able to engage students in the learning process even when not ideal.
But what about...students who abuse this and never come to class?
It is acceptable and necessary to establish expectations for our dance classes. If attending in person is mandatory, then stating that in the syllabus or studio policies is critical. I am suggesting it is possible to make accommodations for extenuating circumstances rather than automatically assuming students must miss class/rehearsal. I think most dancers revel in the community and support of each other and do not want to miss class. For those who prefer virtual learning for a variety of reasons such as lifestyle, anxiety, or ability, this may be a call for more online dance classes.
Accessibility - One of the most inspiring things from the dance community at the outset of the pandemic was the outpouring of classes and performances online, many for free. Suddenly dancers in South Carolina were able to take class with Camille A. Brown, Tiler Peck, Jaquel Knight, and Risa Steinberg - artists who they may not have been able to learn from due to financial and travel restraints. And while I wouldn’t suggest it is the same type of instruction as a face-to-face class, it may be similar to a very large master class. Big name artists were offering free dance classes on Instagram. Mid-range artists were gaining notice through their already established social media presence. Emerging artists were able to network and learn from diverse perspectives. Dance companies were offering performances online for free. This mutually beneficial act allowed audiences to still experience dance performances while the companies were gaining exposure. Smaller companies were able to present their work on the same platforms as the multi-million dollar companies. Dancers in rural areas were able to access information that before wouldn’t have been available to them. The dance field has an opportunity to continue this trend by making dance more accessible. Imagine the shift if video auditions were more widely accepted. Students wouldn’t be automatically screened out due to their inability to travel or pay to attend an audition in a city 800 miles away. We are striving towards a more equitable field when we reduce the barriers to access.
But what about…the value of live auditions and performances and the need for dancers to make money?
I understand artists and companies cannot offer all of their labor for free, nor should they. I do not think this is an either/or scenario. We can continue to find ways to make dance accessible to all regardless of location and financial means while also ensuring artists are appropriately compensated. Certainly dance companies and schools will want to meet potential artists and students in person to be sure they are the right fit. I am suggesting perhaps the first introduction could be virtual before the artist or student commits a large amount of time and money to an endeavor that may not be right. Now that many of us have figured out how to do virtual events and streamed performances, we can continue to offer some performances this way to create more inclusive audiences for those who cannot attend in person.
Technology - For years we have seen dance embracing more and more technology in performances, why not in the studio? The forced reliance on technology has required us to learn to use new platforms to serve our digital native students. Recorded dance classes for self assessments, tracking progress, peer feedback, archival portfolios, class discussions about body on film are all valuable processes for learning about dance. Creating dance films and integrating social media (safely) into curriculum help prepare students for the dance field. Virtual residencies reduce cost burdens for schools and artists allowing more diverse content. We should not throw away these practices as we return to in-person learning.
But what about...screen time and when technology doesn’t work?
Screen fatigue is a valid concern. As educators we can develop ways to use technology meaningfully. While there may be frustrations with technology, there were frustrations before. This is where we use our creative problem solving, resilience, and improvisation skills. Technology is changing and improving at a rapid pace.
I know there are many more things we can keep. We can continue to share ideas through our professional networks. Dance teaches us to be creative, reflective, and responsive. Here is our opportunity to put that into action for the betterment of our field.
Dr. Meredith Sims is Associate Professor of Dance and Dance Program Coordinator at Coker University in Hartsville, South Carolina. She earned a BA in Dance with a concentration in jazz dance from the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA. She earned her MS and PhD in Dance Education through the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Sims served on the writing team for the 2017 South Carolina Visual and Performing Arts Academic Dance Standards. Her research has been published in the Journal of Dance Education, Research in Dance Education, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Science, and Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Dr. Sims is the recipient of the 2017 South Carolina Dance Association’s Advocacy Award and the 2018 Palmetto State Arts Education’s Ray Doughty Arts Integration Award for her continued dedication to dance education access in all of the state. Dr. Sims' areas of interest include jazz dance, dance pedagogy, social/folk dance forms, dance science, and physical activity in dance. Headshot by Seth Johnson.