Moving in a New Space: Dance During the Pandemic

January 27, 2021

Screen grab of dance instructor on Zoom, with class attendees along the top of the screen
Screen grab of dance instructor in motion on Zoom, with class attendees along the top of the screen

Before the pandemic, UC Berkeley’s dance students had all the space they needed to practice their art. The campus’s Bancroft Dance Studios offered them ample room to learn what their bodies could do when given permission to fill and claim space in a creative way. But after COVID-19 hit and instruction moved to Zoom, Berkeley’s dancers were confronted with the loss of that precious resource. 

“My students now have vastly disparate amounts of space to work with,” says Katie Faulkner, a continuing lecturer in dance in Berkeley’s Theater, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) department who now teaches all of her classes by Zoom.

“Some of them are only moving between their two bunk beds in their dorm room. Others are dancing in their bathrooms, and yet others have full-on DIY dance studios set up in their homes.” 

The disparity in her students’ experiences has motivated Katie to meet the creative challenge of finding new ways to look at the issue of space. “Teaching by Zoom has asked me to turn my attention more to the psychological aspects of what it means to inhabit a space, to work with the space that you have, and to be willing to fully occupy whatever it is that you have.”

Teaching dance has always required a willingness to experiment but, for Katie, working on Zoom has intensified that process. “I vacillate between showing moves that are more spatially demanding for people who do have the room,” she explains, “and then creating things that are more restrained for people who don't. But sometimes it just happens that there are movements people can't do. So then I try to provide modifications. I also try to give them a number of opportunities to generate their own choreography so that they're making some decisions based on what they have available.”

Katie and her colleagues found early on that one of the biggest hurdles to teaching dance on Zoom was the audio sync problem for which the platform is known. How were students going to move together if they didn’t hear the music at the same time? Berkeley’s dance classes had always featured live music, and in the early days of the pandemic it wasn’t clear if that could continue. Luckily, however, the TDPS team located a device that would solve the issue: the Synchro Box, created by a couple working for the Houston Ballet. Now Berkeley’s dance students hear live music on Zoom, and all at the same time!

And yet there were still more challenges to confront. As the weeks passed in the early days of remote instruction, it became clear that students needed help with building community while working so far from each other. They also needed guidance on staying healthy and functional during such a difficult time. So Katie and her colleagues — James Graham, Latanya Tigner, and SanSan Kwan — applied for and received the Presidential Chair Fellows Instructional Resilience Grant at the beginning of the school year. They will use the grant to address themes of community, wellness, and social justice in their classes. “The curricular choices I've been making have been in the service of those themes,” Katie explains.

“We spend a lot of time on the wellness issue by doing mindfulness work. And we’ve used the grant to bring in other practitioners and experts in the social justice, community-building, and art space fields.”

Katie has been particularly aware of the challenges her students face as they live and study mostly in isolation from one another. “I try to put them in groups on Zoom as much as possible. That hopefully feeds the community building that we want to do. I think it makes students feel better and less alone. I also ask them to collaborate with each other to generate material together, which I hope fosters community as well.”

To facilitate even greater collaboration, she has devised group exercises, which Zoom can accommodate in a variety of ways. In one instance, she can divide the class into two groups in which one group performs while the other turns off their videos, observing the performance and giving feedback. Then they switch and group two performs. Katie also has students partner up to do improvisational exercises where they pin each other's images and engage in little “movement conversations” and dialogues with each other, because their partner will be the only face they see on their screen.

Surprisingly, learning to dance via Zoom offers benefits to some students, especially beginners who are hesitant or may struggle with performance issues. Says Katie, “For some who are shy or less confident, being able to be in their home and not be under a watchful eye can be comforting.”

There are advantages in any situation, and Berkeley’s dance students now have more opportunities to work on assignments outside the dance studio than they did before the pandemic. They have taken cameras out into the field to record their dances in the spaces around them, many creating pieces that respond to what they have in their own environments. 

Many things can surprise us — students and Zoom and what it takes to survive a pandemic. “These students are wildly resilient,” says Katie. “They are getting me through this pandemic. I look forward to seeing them each week, and I do feel like I'm getting to know them. I'm starting to get their sensibilities and can 'read the room' in a way that I was not expecting to be able to do on Zoom.”

Screen grab of dance instructor stretching on Zoom
Screen grab of dance instructor stretching on Zoom