Kelsey Wegman used to never want to share the stage. Like most dancers, she dreamed of big, dramatic solo numbers, dancing center stage, spotlight following her every move.
But now the sophomore dance major wants nothing more than to pirouette next to her peers. Her private studio space is lonely, and watching her friends dance from hundreds of miles away during Zoom classes just isn’t the same.
After UB announced that the university would implement distance learning, the dance department worried how classes would continue. UB dance students used to spend all day together in the studio. Students would be in technique classes on ballet, jazz, modern and others from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., before going to dance performance rehearsals from 4:30 p.m., sometimes until 10 p.m. UB dancers used to spend every moment immersed in their craft.
Even before knowing whether or not classes would continue in-person after spring break, the dance department knew the entire performance season would have to be cancelled when UB President Satish Tripathi announced on March 11 that group gatherings would be limited.
“At first, we were all devastated by the fact it was going to be a big change and did not know of an alternative to being in class in the physical sense,” Wegman said.
Students worried about their performances, not only because they worked hard to perfect them, but because many of their final grades depended on these shows. But the students and faculty have proven that they can continue their work despite the distance.
Wegman believes distance learning has been better than anyone could have anticipated.
“The professors for all of my dance classes have each allowed for a smooth transition into this temporary new normal,” Wegman said. “Even though I miss everyone so much, I am certainly grateful that we have found ways to connect, keep our bodies moving and learn from a distance.”
Rachel Kotas, the senior student representative for dance, said online dance classes have been both challenging and rewarding.
“It has been hard taking classes over Zoom but it really helps me stay motivated,” Kotas said. “I still get up every morning for a 9 a.m. ballet class in my living room.”
Many students attribute the program’s success despite quarantine to their professors, who have worked to adapt to new classes, new methods of group performances and new ways to evaluate student success, such as performance videos to replace in-person practical exams.
Jeanne Fornarola, director of the dance department, says faculty members have had to be “really creative” in how they teach dance technique classes. They have to consider that students cannot do all the same moves in their homes that they could in spacious dance studios.
Thomas Ralabate, an advanced choreography professor, is teaching his students to explore “physical and artistic approaches to dance making through the lens of confinement and isolation.” Ralabate said he encourages his students to find new ways to perform both traditional and non-traditional choreography forms in their new environment.
“The camera became the useful tool; the new lens to discover new environments and movement possibilities while in confinement and isolation. The bedrooms, bathrooms, showers, patios, neighborhoods, fields and driveways all became the new landscapes for movement and what they were feeling,” Ralabate said. “My instruction with each subsequent project was that creativity is all around us if we choose to see it. Creativity was not just in the Center for the Arts, in our beautiful studios or stages but it is everywhere. They had to now choose where to find creativity in their self-isolated environments.”
Katherine Tomney, a senior dance major and art history minor, was afraid that the quality of her dance education would decrease without in-person classes. Now, Tomney is impressed by all the work faculty and students are putting into making online learning a success.
“I have found that these new ‘virtual’ dance classes bring out a lot of creative innovations from both faculty and students alike in order to account for the new situation we all find ourselves in,” Tomney said. “However these creative moments shine through, they each stand as an inspiring reminder of the resilience in the human spirit.”
Erica Sedor, a senior dance major, and Nicholas Wawrzaszek, a senior dance and political science major, are directing this year’s Senior Showcase, the department’s final show of the spring semester.
Seniors direct the entire show themselves, and it consists of solo dances as well as a final dance with all the seniors together. This show would normally occur during the weekend after the last day of classes, but Sedor and Wawrzaszek have worked to move the Senior Showcase online.
“We of course still wanted to honor the seniors, so we decided to create a video composed of solos from each senior, which we will then share over Zoom with the department, friends and family,” Sedor said. “We thought this would be the best way to support the seniors and to share our dancing with everyone one last time.”
The department will gather one last time this semester to watch the final product on May 15 at 3 p.m.
While Fornarola and the rest of the dance department do not know exactly what next semester will bring, they remain optimistic.
“We’re just kind of going one day at a time, and we would be remiss if we didn’t have some discussions about what the fall would look like,” Fornarola said. “But right now, we’re keeping our fingers crossed and moving forward in a positive way, thinking that we’ll [either] be open and everything will be the way it was, or our new normal.”
Anastasia Wilds is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @AnastasiaWilds
Anastasia Wilds is an asst. arts editor.