Distanced dance: Making the move to remote learning

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | April 28, 2020

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Transitioning to remote learning posed particular challenges for faculty and students in the performing arts. Although canceling public performances was disappointing, senior Maria McNiece knew it was for the best. Shown are students rehearsing the modern dance piece from McNiece’s honors thesis, “Very Unpromising Material.” Photo by Christina Massad.

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As educators across Emory grappled with quickly adjusting to unfamiliar methods of teaching for remote learning, faculty in the performing arts were presented with a particular challenge: how to effectively teach a discipline that largely depends on the students’ physical presence. Nowhere was the difficulty of such a task more evident than in the classes of the Emory Dance Program.

“In dance, I feel we hold the space for our students differently than other types of classes,” says Lori Teague, associate professor and director of the Emory Dance and Movement Studies Program. “Our bodies share energy, space and time in a unique way. The space is interactive. We create with them. We literally share the space with our students in a democratic manner, facilitating, inviting, allowing, collaborating.”

George Staib, professor of practice, found that teaching dance online requires a significant amount of sacrifice.

“In my field, the learning and growth that come from the mixing of bodies in space and the swirling of ideas into places of easier dialogue has suffered,” explains Staib. “I personally prefer to work with and around the potency of immediate raw data, which can only come from the physical presence of thinkers and doers sharing space.”

Teaching with generosity

So, how to teach a discipline that relies so heavily on physical proximity? When considering this problem, Teague advised her colleagues to follow the words of Emory College Dean Michael Elliott when adjusting outcomes and expectations for students: “Be generous.”

Sally Radell, professor of dance, found interactivity to be a key to successfully manage a virtual classroom.

“There needs to be lots of back and forth,” says Radell. “I find that if a student has to watch a talking head for more than eight minutes or so without an interactive activity, they tend to zone out. This whole process has taught me to dig deep into my well of creative ways to get students actively engaged.”

For Teague, teaching with generosity included devoting the first 15 minutes of her virtual classes to a group check-in. 

“It felt necessary and important to respond to the unusual chaos this drastic change of being isolated, or back at home, had created in our bodies,” she says. Even several weeks into this way of teaching, check-ins continued to be relevant and enlightening.

“Sometimes my prompts offer a dose of normalcy by allowing everyone to tell me what music concert changed their life,” says Teague. “The responses shed more light on who my students are and what they connect to. I doubt I would have known these details before teaching this way.”

These early check-ins also helped Teague connect students’ current situations with the material they study.

For example, in dance literacy students study the dynamics of movement and the meaning of our choices in space. “I help them see and feel how bodies demonstrate intention or what body attitude we embody to express identity,” says Teague. “I am hoping they are going to self-analyze right now — noticing their own posturing. I know our bodies and minds are incredibly resilient, but this may be easier for me to say, as someone in my fifties, and harder for someone nearing 20.”

Flexibility and resilience

As students grappled with losses in both their social and educational life, emotional resiliency held as much importance as physical fortitude. Senior Maria McNiece was one of many performing arts students who faced the disappointment of canceling the public performance of her honors thesis.

“My thesis was entitled ‘Very Unpromising Material,’ and it was a physical reimagining of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play ‘Waiting for Godot,’” explains McNiece. “The final choreography was a 40-minute modern dance piece that included scenes from the original play and music from George Harrison, America, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Johnny Cash.” 

Instead of attending a final performance, her thesis committee evaluated her work based on observed rehearsals and a video recording of the full piece. McNiece then defended her thesis via Zoom video conferencing, receiving Highest Honors for her scholarship. 

“My cast fought hard to perform the work even after the university announced closure. Their commitment was inspiring, but ultimately, we couldn’t risk anyone’s safety,” says McNiece. “Although unfortunate, curveballs happen and, in my opinion, the best proof of artistic maturity is flexibility. ‘Very Unpromising Material’ will someday find its way to an Atlanta stage.”

This hard-earned lesson of flexibility in the face of adversity is one Teague hopes many students will apply to their artistic practice, pointing to the example of artists around the world adapting their work to a world in isolation.

“While students and professors face the difficulty of moving and training in spaces that are ill-equipped for movement’s complexity, we have experienced generosity from performers all over the world,” says Teague. “Student choreographers and performers can see professional dancers giving themselves ballet barre in their kitchen, and families creating choreography shared on social media. The diversity of these performances helps students realize they can do anything and anything is performing.” 

Ultimately, Teague believes one of the greatest lessons Emory dance and performing arts students can learn during this time of isolation is how to develop their own practice for creating and performing outside the structure of a classroom. 

“I don’t care if they spend ten minutes one day and three hours the next day, I want them to move and create every day,” Teague says. “This is what artists do. You have to figure out your own rhythm. By prioritizing your art and sharing your perspective in this world, you begin to understand your voice.”