Dancing through a pandemic

The dance community has felt the impact of the recent pandemic in some unique ways. For months, artists were prevented from being together to create and feed off of each other’s energy. Dancers who were unable to attend classes in the traditional studio setting moved to Zoom and Instagram Live classes, turning their homes into makeshift studios. 

Now, the dancers of Hope College are finally back in the studio after nearly five months away, but things are far from back to normal. Many new safety measures have been put in place to keep the dancers and faculty healthy. According to Dance Department Chair Matthew Farmer, ten foot by ten foot boxes have been taped out on the floor of each studio, thus reducing each studio’s capacity, and dancers must stay in their boxes during class. Additionally, time is taken at the end of every class to sanitize the floors and ballet barres. The traffic flow in and out of the studios and the building itself has also been adjusted, with one door to each space designated as the “in” door, and the other the “out” door.

The change that has had perhaps the biggest impact on the dancers, though, is the requirement that masks must be worn by everyone participating in classes. The students exert a great deal of energy while they are dancing, so the masks can cause some difficulty with breathing. 

Erin Maher, a sophomore dance major, said that wearing a mask while dancing has certainly been an adjustment for her. “I mean, I’ve gotten used to them, but it was definitely something that takes a lot of getting used to,” Maher said. “We wore them every day for Strike Time rehearsal, from nine to five, and it was just rough.”

However, dancers are no strangers to intense physical exertion, and so are adjusting to this new requirement and building their stamina accordingly.

“I think it’s not as big of a physical problem as I think everybody thought it was gonna be,” said Farmer. “I think it was more of a mental problem, for a couple reasons. Number one, dancers don’t just use their body, but their whole face to express. Teachers, same thing.” 

A dancer’s face is a tool to make the audience feel the dancer’s emotions, and a mask somewhat takes that away. Additionally, teachers not being able to show students the entirety of their facial expressions leaves room for miscommunication. This, on top of the new policy that instructors cannot use touch as a teaching tool, means that the professors have to get creative with how they’re teaching their students.

These challenges have not deterred the Hope dancers, though. “I think the fact that we all had to dance in our bedrooms over spring made us be like, ‘we’ll do anything to dance,’” Farmer said. 

While “normal,” in-person dance classes have resumed, virtual classes are far from a thing of the past.

Hope’s two pre-professional dance companies, Strike Time Dance Theatre and H2 Dance Company, often have guest choreographers come to campus to set work on the dancers. Several choreographers were scheduled to do just that during the fall semester; however, due to college policy, guests are no longer allowed on campus. Rather than miss out on the opportunity to work with these artists, though, the students are learning choreography from them via Zoom and pre-recorded videos. 

“It was kind of hard to do, since they are trying to teach you something and you’re like trying to mirror it,” said Maher, who had to learn choreography for Strike Time through Zoom calls, “but we’re getting the hang of it.” Though it is difficult to learn choreography through such means, the dancers are rising to the occasion and pushing through to learn and perform.

The use of the internet does not end at the choreography stage. Performances this semester will be virtual, in multiple ways. “For Student Dance Showcase we will be livestreaming for both of them, and they’ll both be in the Knickerbocker for that reason,” Farmer said. “For the H2 concert, we are doing essentially what Hamilton did over the summer. We’re doing a multi-camera shoot in the theatre and then editing it and uploading it for people to view.”

Farmer also shared that Strike Time Dance Theatre’s annual show that tours around to local elementary schools has changed formats. “Strike Time, instead of touring to schools, is creating a children’s show, essentially like a PBS children’s special, and then they’re sending that,” Farmer said. 

Formats for the spring semester shows have not yet been determined, as Farmer says they do not know what guidelines there will be at that time regarding audiences. As of now, all choreography done for any of the department’s shows this year must have the dancers spaced six feet apart, and there can be no partnering with dancers touching each other. 

Despite all of these changes, morale in the Dance Department remains high. Farmer said that the students have absolutely risen to the challenges presented to them, just as he expected. “I had no doubt, because dancers always answer the call. That’s just what we do,” Farmer said.

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