back to news April 20, 2020

Dancing digitally: Instructors and students connect across screens

Professor Susan Van Pelt Petry’s contemporary dance class used to meet three days a week in a large studio in Sullivant Hall for technical training, conditioning, learning sequences and performing.

So when Petry learned she needed to move all her courses online, the first thing she thought was how her students would now be dancing in bedrooms, hallways, family rooms and basements.

“It’s been an interesting experiment,” she said.

Petry is far from the only dance faculty member who’s faced the difficulties of transitioning to virtual education — a challenge felt even more acutely by those teaching performance- or movement-based courses. Instructors across the Department of Dance grappled with how to answer the question, “How does one dance in a virtual setting?” Luckily, the department also had instructional technologist Chris Summers, whose background in technology and the arts enabled him to support and guide faculty members to innovative solutions.

Students in Petry's contemporary dance course practice a combination of 100 gestures over Zoom. One aspect of online dance education Petry said she'd had to adapt to is the delay between when she says something and when her students hear her.

“Chris plays a central role throughout our department, forwarding our mission to connect movement practice, creative process and theoretical inquiry in dance with the cutting-edge technology,” Department Chair Susan Hadley said. “His expertise, infinite patience and clear communication skills have come to play even more over the past several weeks as the university moved to online teaching. We all owe Chris Summers our gratitude as he helps us navigate this challenging time.”

For Petry, that assistance came as Summers taught her new aspects of Zoom, Carmen and Buckeye Box that enabled her to incorporate a variety of options into her online course. She’s now having her students choose from a menu of weekly activities, such as going on walks or runs; taking online dance, yoga or Pilates classes; or doing improvisation.

“The biggest thing about teaching dance performance virtually is students don’t get immediate feedback, particularly in asynchronous education,” Petry said.

To accommodate that drawback, she divided her students into three small groups that each join her one day a week for a live lesson. Being able to split her class into smaller sections has had an unexpected silver lining.

Students dance on Zoom in Petry's classPetry's students dance using Zoom during one of her live classes.

She noticed she’s able to pay attention to students more deeply by literally zooming in on individuals during their live lesson, a focus she hopes to remember when she’s back in the studio with all 30 students. She said she may even consider breaking her in-person course down into smaller groups occasionally to re-create that more individualized environment. 

“It’s so hard to have a really personal connection virtually like I can have teaching in a studio… so it makes me realize how important face-to-face instruction really is,” Petry said. “But being able to reach across the screen a little bit and give feedback to people, it’s amazing what I can see.”

Hannah Kosstrin, associate professor in the Department of Dance, also needed to adapt assignments to create a virtual version of her graduate Ethnographies of Dance and Performance seminar. The biggest challenge was thinking about her students’ field notes assignment, which originally required them to spend three hours observing an environment with movement.

“It just became very clear that I wasn’t going to send students out into groups of people,” Kosstrin said. “Chris helped me rethink how I might do that assignment online, and he pointed me toward a couple different websites that have different kinds of livestreams.”

She built off that idea once again when wide-spread social distancing measures and the stay-at-home order were implemented, asking her students to do a digital ethnography examination of videos posted or streamed online.

All of our professors and instructors are artists by nature, so they inherently know to be creative and how to solve problems,” Summers said.

“Chris has an incredible sense for how to take a problem and figure out the tools at hand to solve it,” Kosstrin said. “He’s always thinking about applications for digital technologies that I don't think about, so because of his ingenuity in that way, our department was really well set up to run online for the rest of the semester.”

Summers, who is a trained artist and has a degree in art and technology, said his background gives him the ability to think about incorporating digital tools into art from both a technical and creative standpoint. He also discerned in early March how COVID-19 could potentially impact the university, sharing a message with dance faculty encouraging them to consider how they would move classes online.

"I want to emphasize that we should begin thinking about these things, rather than make specific preparations at this time," Summers wrote. "The more forethought we put into it now, the less uncertainty there will be in the future if something such as a campus closure happens. As always, I am happy to talk through what remote instructional delivery might look like for your course."

Beyond his own expertise, though, Summers said the Department of Dance as a whole has been proactive in developing innovative solutions for accessible and educational online performing arts classes. 

Senior Seminar students, instructed by Associate Professor Mitchell Rose, and senior students at Connecticut College, instructed by Professor David Dorfman, choreographed trios together using Zoom.

That success was primed by an existing familiarity with cutting-edge digital technologies through the dance department, Kosstrin said. Having so many faculty members already engaging with the digital realm meant thinking about those possibilities was already incorporated into how the department functioned, helping ease the shift during a chaotic and stressful time. 

“All of our professors and instructors are artists by nature, so they inherently know to be creative and how to solve problems,” Summers said. “There was a lot of camaraderie and conversations and really innovative ideas on how to move dance into an online setting, which was really inspiring, and it really set an example for a lot of other performing arts departments.”