Dancing Away in Our Own Little Boxes

Student dances virtually in online dance class

“Okay, anyone have any questions? . . . No?  Then let’s do it with the music.  We’ll start the combination to the right.”  The instructor, Julie, ducked off camera while she searched through the playlist on her phone.  We had been members of the same doctoral cohort, and she had invited me to visit her virtual class.

Between the start of the music and the top of the dance combination, I made multiple nervous adjustments.  Computer on the floor, computer on the table; glasses on, glasses off; window shade up, window shade down, speaker volume up, speaker volume down, etc.

I am still figuring out how to do this—to teach and take synchronous dance classes online through Zoom.  Or I should say, I am still learning how to do it well.  There is the issue of managing the technology, but also at hand are concerns about how virtual dance courses have changed course outcomes, in seemingly subtle ways.   

Due to COVID-19 and the resultant social distancing, the college where I teach placed all disciplines online, including dance.  For the fall semester, courses will continue online, but departments may petition to offer hybrid online and face-to-face courses.  Instructors teaching elsewhere tell me that in-person dance classes are set to resume as early as this summer, albeit in modified forms.  Eventually we will all find our way back to the studio, but my colleagues and I realize that we are surfing a seismic shift in terms of course delivery.  We believe that for multiple reasons Zoom and other virtual platforms for dance learning are here to stay.  There are some wonderful benefits, but many of us are concerned about the challenges, and frankly the deficits, of this “new normal” in dance pedagogy.

Online dance instruction has flourished for decades of course. With smart devices students can plug into instruction in hip hop, salsa, Bollywood, or nearly any other style of their choosing.  But many of these platforms focus on rudimentary skills or one-to-one instruction in what is called in movement learning, “command mode.”  That is, instructors “break down” dance sequences while learners try their best to copy the demonstrated movements.  However, some online platforms are interactive.  Through these, students can ask for clarifications, advanced variations, review of past material, or suggested adaptations for injuries or other physical concerns.  Virtual, real-time experiences of this sort lend themselves to private or semi-private formats, and thus their cost is higher than a download of prerecorded masterclasses in which students work through set material on their own.

These types of instruction offer wonderful entrees into dance study.  They can also be lucrative income sources for dance professionals who want to scale up their teaching. They make a panoply of dance forms available and affordable for students who might not otherwise have access. But individual classes—particularly at the undergraduate level—are the exception, not the rule in dance pedagogy.

Instead, group, real-time, interactive studio dance courses have been the norm.  Admittedly pioneers in choreography and research have been experimenting with virtual, synchronic classes for years.  The technology that allows multiple people in different time zones and places to dance apart/together offers exciting affordances and dialogues.  Through this, students are able to connect with those distanced—in so many ways—from their particular college habitat.    

But many of my colleagues and I—professionals teaching, but also taking classes to maintain our skills—feel a vital aspect of learning is missing in synchronous virtual dance classes: the development of full, embodied expression of a consolidated group energy.  And while we are delighted to have opportunities to interact with our students as we, “dance away in our own little boxes,” as another instructor puts it, it seems as though we are dancing far more apart than together.  It is as if in Zoom “gallery view” participants are breaking out into their own solos, and not developing choreography for the collective ensemble.  And as anyone who has watched dance at length will tell you, solo dances can be breathtaking, but the ensemble truly holds the power; attuned groups dancing together can be transformative—for the audience and participants alike.

Dancing apart/alone is certainly valid.  Liberation, release, freedom, loss of inhibition, attunement to self—this is a partial list of benefits of dancing privately in the safety of one’s space.  But a major take-away of group dance study is engagement in an embodied group mind.  Even when a pedagogical style veers more towards direct instruction rather than facilitation, feeling and responding to the energy generated by a group offers students the opportunity to be part of a mindful flock, not a hapless herd.   That is, the culmination and summit of dance classes is nearly always the 100%-all-in, committed movement through space and time—along with and in the presence of others.  In this way, dance classes create dynamical systems.  And what a fantastic opportunity for students—a sensing, responsive, and responsible participation in a group process and invested membership in a movement community. From this, students learn to “listen” to one another, with their bodies as well as with their intellects, and for safety of all, they learn to respect the expression and personal space of everybody/every bodies. 

Can you see the importance of honing such skills as students prepare to live in today’s world? 

As an educator I am and will continue to be grateful for Zoom technology (although my institution has stopped its pedagogical usage in the future). I am sure our campus technology department will present faculty with another virtual option, instruct us in best practices, and, in this way, allow us to continue to teach virtual dance courses.  I will continue to use Zoom and other such platforms for my own personal enrichment. But I think in collaborative disciplines such as mine, we need to further discuss how virtual, synchronic, individual instruction changes, albeit subtly, our learning outcomes.  Especially outcomes we have not fully articulated to ourselves, but value nevertheless as being essential and timely—namely, nurturing community and respect for difference in very embodied ways.     

Tara Munjee, PhD, CMA, is a dance artist, educator, and researcher.  With over 10 years of experience teaching dance appreciation online at multiple institutions including Texas Woman’s University (Denton, TX), Tarrant County College (Fort Worth, TX), Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ), and El Centro College (Dallas, TX), she explores virtual studio dance pedagogy, noting the benefits as well as the challenges of this realm in her essay.  Her research has been published in Journal of Dance Education, Journal of Emerging Dance Scholarship, Research in Dance Education: Innovations in Arts Practices, Somatics Magazine: Journal of the Mind/Body Arts and Sciences, and Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and Extraurban Studies.  She currently teaches in the dance and humanities programs at El Centro College.