Casper College dance students appear in squares on instructor Jodi Youmans-Jones‘ computer screen in her living room. That’s where she teaches since Wyoming schools closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The squares show her students in apartments, their families’ living rooms, dormitory kitchens and even garages during technique classes she conducts through Zoom video conferencing, she said.
The instructor angles the screen of her laptop on a box atop her high dining room table for students to see her entire body as she demonstrates. Dark blankets over windows behind her block the backlight and a white blanket over a chair contrasts against her clothing so she shows up better on their screens.
This is how she leads them through warmups or demonstrates combinations. She walks back to her screen when she needs to watch them run through steps. They’ll hear her directions or corrections a moment after they’ve continued to the next movement because of a slight delay in the sound. Students return to their screens and unmute their mics to discuss what they’re learning. Then they mute their mics to run through the combination again.
The students and instructors have learned to use the technology, work through technical issues and adapt to makeshift dance spaces at their homes. The biggest obstacle, though, is that dance is not a subject that adapts well to remote instruction, Youmans-Jones said.
“It’s not something that can be done well, because you can’t teach,” Youmans-Jones said. “You can demonstrate, you can video, you can upload, they can watch, whatever, or they can do it with you. But you can’t actively teach, because you can’t touch them, you can’t help them understand where their body is supposed to be. There’s not that fourth wall of integration between you and the students at all. It’s not there. It’s just not there.”
Many dance programs across the country have moved to lectures and research, and assignments might be to write about how an online yoga class applies to their training. But freshmen and sophomores — who are learning fundamentals — don’t gain as much from that kind of instruction, and the classes also already include research projects, Youmans-Jones said.
“They’re forming so much, and they really need this information to move forward,” she said.
So Youmans-Jones, who’s also the coordinator of dance and National Association of Schools of Dance accreditation coordinator at Casper College, and dance instructor Aaron Wood decided to teach dance technique courses through video conference despite the struggles and limits.
“But you know, we are being able to teach,” Youmans-Jones said. “And as we explained to the ensemble class yesterday — that though this format is difficult, and though it has its issues and we’re all struggling with it in general — be thankful that you that you guys are actually getting dance class.”
Many of her students initially worried about finishing the semester online, because they’re not online learners, she said.
“And I said, ‘That’s why we’re going to dance,” she said. “That’s why we’re going to Zoom; that’s why we’re going to dance. Because 25 minutes of something is better than nothing, and all computer the whole day.”
Working through problems
Youmans-Jones describes teaching dance remotely as “frighteningly difficult.”
“It’s three times the work; it’s incredibly frustrating; it’s even more exhausting,” she said. “I’ve never wanted to just say, ‘I’m so tired’ so much. But to at least do something — just doing something is better than nothing right now.”
The first week of classes after spring break was largely spent working out the logistics for every students’ floor and space at home, Youmans-Jones said. Instead of the suspended floor, most homes with concrete floor mean jumps must be limited to prevent injury.
Tap dance is impossible on carpet, and concrete garage floors are hard on tap shoes and make it difficult to hear the right sounds. Youmans-Jones and about half her beginning tap class dance bought 8x4-foot plywood pieces to set on the floor.
“It’s not ideal, but it works,” she said.
Those problems just touch the surface for any dance genre, Youmans-Jones said. Some dancers can’t safely work in ballet pointe shoes on some kinds carpet or slick floors. One uses a hard plastic desk chair mat.
A chair can become a makeshift ballet bar with a heavy object on the seat to keep it from falling. Students turn the chair one way and then another so the instructors to see what they’re doing. Some use a couch back or a counter, although they can’t maneuver in the space beneath like they often would at a ballet bar.
“The very first week was just problem to problem, trying to figure that out,” Youmans-Jones said.
Classes had to adjust to small spaces as well. They can’t travel across a room as they’d normally do often in modern and jazz classes. Those in garages have more space, although for some there are drawbacks of colder temperatures and having to bundle up. Some students use dorm kitchens, where there’s room to maneuver more and students can socially distance as they take class, she said. Others only have space between their apartment kitchens and dining rooms.
With the floor and space limits, the dance instructors must be creative with combinations, she said.
The faculty spent two days familiarizing students with the college’s online platform and Zoom. There have been bandwidth problems, internet outages that prevented class, interruptions from freeze-ups, glitches with the college online platform and several technical issues with sound and integrating music.
Large class sizes — 20 squares show up on Youmans-Jones’ screen for her ballet class — create more difficulties than they would in the studio.
The online platform allows students to upload video of themselves performing combinations, which the instructors watch, comment and grade, she said. The remote process for dance classes takes three times as long.
“I’ll be honest, at best we’re giving probably a third of the content,” Youmans-Jones said. “We’re probably getting through a third of the content that we really need to be doing on like on a daily or every other day basis in these technique classes, because that repetition, that feeling through it, that, you know, really, the stamina build.”
‘Allowing us to be who we are’
The Casper College dance instructors spent many hours preparing to teach remotely, and it’s been a steep learning curve for them as well as students, Youmans-Jones said.
The dance instructors joined a National Dance Education Organization Zoom meeting, where one colleague gave hard but realistic advice.
“But one of the things she said was, ‘Just accept it right now: You are going to lose control. You have no control anymore,’” Youmans-Jones said.
Instructors normally have parameters and controls ranging from the floor surface and room temperature to students’ conduct to the push of content through a class.
With limited space and the online format, she can no longer focus a class period on building aerobic strength by moving through combinations more quickly, for instance. One reason classes normally meet for certain amounts of time and frequency is for strength and conditioning as well as for students to learn to build the physical and mental stamina dance requires. There can be no big jumps or turn combinations across the floor now with limited spaces.
“One of the things that the students are losing right now is their stamina, because there’s no way for us to really keep it going because they’re not taking continual class for two hours,” she said. “You know, in a two-hour class, they might be getting a third of the material that they normally would get in that class.”
Some students are working diligently despite the struggle, while some are taking advantage of the situation by texting one another, showing up in inappropriate attire and other etiquette issues that wouldn’t happen in a regular class, Youmans-Jones said.
“There’s just all these little things that are just changing the dynamics of the class,” she said.
There has been one silver lining, Youmans-Jones said. The instructors started optional “feel-good Friday” classes open to anyone, which current students and alumni back to 1998 across 11 states have joined. Some of the alumni study in dance programs no longer teaching technique class this semester. Past students have shared how they’re using their degrees and what they’re doing now. The instructors hope to continue the sessions in the fall, regardless of what school looks like then.
“Because to be in contact with our alums like that has been really inspiring and uplifting and heartwarming,” she said. “And many of them shed a few tears while we were doing it.”
It remains worth it to the instructors continue dance technique classes remotely.
“Today’s lessons were all about this 90-minute class or this 120-minute class,” Youmans-Jones said. “If we can get 25 minutes of something, that’s better than 90 or 120 minutes of nothing, because it’s allowing us to be who we are as dancers and as artists.”
Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner
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