by Hannah Hall and Matthew Westberry
In light of recent events we, two rising senior dance majors at The University of Alabama, were inspired to write about how COVID-19 has affected the dance community. The financial crisis has had a tremendous impact on the dance community, because the business is largely dependent on live paying audiences. This has affected unemployment rates, financial security, and therefore, caused dance companies to close. Although we have not been directly affected financially, COVID-19 has deeply impacted us as dancers in college. As a dance teacher, Hannah has found new ways to adapt her classroom to the online model. We have both had to adjust to online dance training. While this crisis has presented many inconveniences by isolating us in our homes, the transition online has also connected us to a global dance community. Dancers and teachers are collectively adapting to maintain their motivation and continue their training. Online classes and virtual platforms are by no means a replacement for in-studio dance classes, but we are a part of an industry reinventing itself in the face of unprecedented obstacles.
There are things that dancers are accustomed to that cannot be replicated through virtual learning due to the limits of technology. Dancers are accustomed to studio space. This includes mirrors, ballet barres, loud stereo speakers, and marley flooring specifically designed for dancers. Some dancers may find it difficult to move in the space they are confined to during this time. When taking classes online, we have found it difficult to execute floorwork without running into objects around the room. The risk of injuries is heightened because the space may be limited and floors are generally not ideal for dancing. Hard floors can cause injuries to the feet and lower legs. Another technological obstacle that dancers face with online learning is only being able to see a combination from one angle at a time. This requires a dancer to spend more time reworking the orientation of movement and refining details. These challenges have complicated our ability to function academically and develop professionally during the pandemic.
I, Matthew, have had to change the ways I approach my academic studies in dance and beyond. As someone who has to work around an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), COVID-19 was an abrupt disruption of my routine. Since March, I have found it difficult to manage my time, energy, and focus. With technology as the only medium for consuming education during the pandemic, the difficult task of balancing marketing and dance degrees became even tougher. As someone who has started their dance training in college, my primary exposure to many aspects of the dance world, both physically and socially, have come from the in-person experience of being mentored by my faculty instructors and motivated by my peers. Additionally, applying corrections received from instructors is a key element in the proper training of a dancer and is essential to the dancers’ health, well-being, and prolonged career. Unfortunately, online classes are not able to replicate the guidance provided through the in-studio interactions.
Although online classes have often proven challenging, dancers have been innovative in adapting. As a dance teacher, I, Hannah, kept my local dance studio students active and dancing throughout this time. I created graphics for social media to ensure my dancers stayed engaged while also encouraging them to participate in other activities that connected them with friends at a distance. This includes improvisational challenges, virtual dance competitions, dance classes being offered on social media by industry professionals, “bingo” games, and social distancing buddy challenges. I have also been able to host several zoom classes to keep up dancers’ technique, while providing them with new educational opportunities that would not usually be offered. This included instruction from experts who would normally not have the time, a dance documentary night where we watched a film on “The Children of Theatre Street,” and separate choreography, career, acting, and screen dance workshops. The students have learned a great deal about various aspects of dance that they had not been exposed to before and would not be exposed to in a traditional in-person class setting. One specific project they have had time to work on is creating their own screen dances. Because of the pandemic, I have had ample time to work one-on-one with each student, while also providing them with the adequate tools as needed to create their unique dance on film.
Despite COVID-19 creating opportunities to forge well rounded dancers, we worry about the future awaiting us upon graduation. Our industry has been placed in a dire financial situation as a result of the pandemic. Broadway went dark on March 12th. Companies were forced to close, dancers were sent home, and performers’ tours were cancelled. This pandemic will cause long term harm to our industry because buyers are not able to put as much money into dance companies due to the economic recession. Over time, companies will not be able to afford to maintain their building, stock, or pay their employees. Millions of people involved in the performing arts are unable to provide a sustainable income for themselves and their families, because they have been furloughed or fired due to COVID-19. An inadequate government response has done little to quell the anxieties of our industry. Not knowing what the future holds for dance, many of our classmates, friends, and colleagues may be unable to find work in the future.
Still, the dance community we have joined at The University of Alabama serves as a vital support system. The Department of Theatre and Dance started a “Virtual Black Box” to promote the art of dance over the summer and keep incoming students, current students, and graduates connected. The summer started with various student-directed films posted for audiences to view from their homes. This series concluded with a talkback via Zoom for directors and choreographers to discuss their works. During “Virtual Black Box” classes, instructors taught jazz, improvisation, modern, and tap. It was wonderful to see some of our friends and professors and dance with them virtually.
The popularity of virtual events is growing, as many within UA’s dance community are striving to make the best of the circumstances. Dance companies are holding events such as virtual dance competitions, conventions, and online performances to keep dancers entertained and educated while also providing themselves a small financial cushion. There are performances being live streamed that are not usually available to the public for viewing. Dance is an industry that embraces innovation.
We remain hopeful that we will be stronger coming out of this crisis. Many people from all over the world have connected in the past few months through various online platforms to continue their training and are working together to invent new ways to adapt to the current circumstances. Now more than ever before, albeit digitally, dancers have access to different classes and styles of dance. In one of our modern classes at The University of Alabama, Instructor Aiden Nettles assigned her students to take a Dancio class taught by famed instructor Elisa Clark. This was an opportunity that would never have been presented without the pandemic forcing us to reorganize our sense of normal.
The challenges for dancers and dance instructors will continue. On July 22, 2020, UA Theatre and Dance stated their decision to produce its entire 2020-2021 season in a digital format. The Department of Theatre and Dance is following the University of Alabama’s lead in ensuring that this next semester proceeds with everyone’s safety in mind. In UA’s recently released return plan for the Fall semester, returning employees and students are expected to maintain distance at all times, while UA is implementing staggered class schedules, smaller class sizes, and changes in dining and events. Face coverings are required in classrooms, labs, communal office space, and on-campus gatherings when physical distancing is not possible. Students and employees are required to be tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus and randomized tests throughout the year will be implemented if available. Anyone who tests positive will be subjected to isolation and quarantine procedures. Obviously, these policies will make it difficult to refine our art, but these are important steps in navigating to the new normal. The dance community will continue to adapt and find new ways to thrive.
While the current circumstances are not ideal, this ordeal provides a learning experience about adaptability. A key quality to have as a dancer is being able to turn on a dime and adjust to whatever life throws your way. Finding innovative ways to stay in shape, be creative, and dance in the space that is available will leave dancers with a newfound respect for tenacity that will follow many of us throughout our careers. Dancers are finding motivation in various outlets inside of their homes to keep dancing and improving. The effects of COVID-19 are something that all of us are faced with. Still, in the midst of crisis, we dancers have found a global community.
Hannah Hall is a senior at The University of Alabama. She is majoring in dance with a liberal arts minor through the Blount Scholars Program. At UA, she is a member of the Dance Honor Society of Alabama and Alpha Psi Omega. She is also a performer and choreographer for Yonder Contemporary Dance Company, Dance Alabama!, and is a guest artist for Alabama Repertory Dance Theatre. This year she was selected as a Dance Ambassador for the UA Department of Theatre and Dance and serves as the Co-Director of Dance Alabama Film Festival. After graduating in 2021, she plans to work to receive her Masters in Elementary Education.
Matthew Westberry is a senior at The University of Alabama. He is double majoring in dance and marketing. Matthew is a member of the Dance Honor Society of Alabama and is a performer for Dance Alabama!. After graduating in 2021, he plans to join the entertainment industry to pursue a career in dancing. He would also like to combine his interest in marketing with his hobby of knitting.