The global pandemic has necessitated all educational societies, institutions, and organizations to rethink the delivery of their programs. This essay focuses on online dance education which is conventional, a movement and practice-based learning programme.
This essay will highlight issues arising when the teaching and learning of dance (both full-time training and recreational classes) migrated to synchronous and asynchronous online environments such as Zoom, Google Classrooms, and Microsoft Teams.
Dance content can be broadly divided into movement-based courses and theoretical courses.
The movement-based courses include technique classes, solo and ensemble practice, rehearsals, and performances. Further, movement research, exploration, and synthesis, including collaboration, site-specific or site-responsive practices, the use of digital technology, and alternative creative approaches form the body of choreographic knowledge.
The theoretical components include history, research methodologies, presentation skills, proposal and critique writing, anatomy and safe dance practice, professional talks, and pedagogy. These are predominantly delivered via conventional lectures with varying components of practice.
When dance practice is about time, space, emotive quality, musicality, and energy, how would teachers adapt the delivery of classes across cyberspace to students who may be in confined spaces? What content could be delivered and how? What are the issues of parity and equity that arise and how are these dealt with?
The experience of selected School of Dance faculty, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) — Malgorzata Dzierzon, Artist-in-residence; Irene Lo, part-time Lecturer; and Jake Ngo, Lecturer in Dance Science, and Joseph Gonzales for Dance Theories are used as case studies.
Ngo concentrated on body conditioning and strengthening exercises as part of the Body Work course. Lo taught yoga and ballet technique. Dzierzon was tasked to create new work and deliver ballet technique classes for the senior ballet students.
Both Ngo and Lo adapted their specific course contents to the online platform with relative ease as neither Body Work nor yoga technique required a great deal of space. Core competencies through fundamental exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, stretching, and strengthening that did not require additional apparatus, the floor barre, centre practice with basic, non-locomotor exercises were achievable.
The main challenge for Ngo was to ensure that students executed the exercises optimally and safely. Thus, the class sizes were kept small to enable everyone to engage constructively and meaningfully. Ngo devised a series of exercises that were simple and safe.
For Lo, the ballet technique required students to have makeshift barres often improvising with chairs and tables at home. Centre practice adagio exercises were possible and choreographed to remain in place — utilising change of weight, and small pas de bourree, balances, and releves. The challenges of petit allegro were at times insurmountable.
The students were instructed to work on small jumps, again largely remaining in place however, travelling sequences and grand allegro were not possible. Therefore, the quick footwork and large jump requirements for ballet technique had to temporarily take a back seat.
Dzierzon began by introducing her creative thought processes and artistic practice. This was complemented with prerecorded videos of personal movement research, prescribed reading and viewing material, journaling, and listening to podcasts and links.
In time, the ideas and research possibilities for the dancers emerged. Students were required to develop personal responses to specific tasks. She further requested them to work with homemade props and proceeded to engage in deeper explorations.
The work entitled Waiting was rehearsed, and completed but never staged, and therefore the full results of the process could not be ascertained.
Theoretical courses were delivered via Zoom, and PowerPoint slides were carefully crafted with attractive visuals and videos.
The duration, visuals, and sound quality including the availability of subtitles were vital considerations for effective teaching and learning. They also had to be of an appropriate length.
Teachers delivering theoretical courses effectively online need to ensure that there is no ‘dead air’, as attention spans in these conditions are severely tested. Teachers would have to be ultra-vigilant to observe if students are engaged and learning actively. This can be done in a variety of ways such as asking direct questions, spontaneous quizzes, and encouraging participation through discussion.
Students respond to a combination of approaches and academic lessons should be rewritten and divided into bite-sized nuggets of information. This follows the principle of the memory capacity of human beings ‘seven, plus or minus two’ that to ensure better retention, it is best to break lessons up so that they contain fewer pieces of information. Specific tasks and assignments allow students time to engage at their own pace.
Digital platforms can enhance teaching and learning beyond the regular delivery of courses.
The School of Dance launched a series of webinars on the multiple aspects of the field including health and mental wellness. These sessions with various experts traversed time and space, eliminating problems of travel and expense. Importantly, it brought the global arts community together.
One of the most fundamental challenges of online teaching and learning is internet connectivity.
Even in progressive first-world cities, there are areas where network coverage is poor. Viewing movement sequences and listening to instructions through mobile phones or laptops, does not enable observing details when poorly lit or when the systems lags or hangs. Walking to and from the camera countless times during a session is troublesome.
Equity, parity, and privacy matters must factor into the equation of online teaching and learning. Teachers need to ensure that those from privileged backgrounds are not advantaged because of greater access to technology which includes advanced gadgets, high-speed internet, private learning spaces at home, access to private studios, and other support systems.
Further, students cannot be forced to turn on their cameras as it does intrude into homes and private spaces. Although there is the option of virtual backgrounds, images get distorted if you move back and forth and is dependent on the colour of your clothes. The downside of allowing this freedom of choice is empty, black rectangles on screen, and reduced responses.
Students need to be assured that there would be no judgements about who they are, their backgrounds, and social status. They need to feel that learning spaces are safe and without prejudice.
Thus, validation of the students is a fundamental component of teaching psychology and possibility even more so during online classes when not everyone can be seen simultaneously.
The year 2020 has made it clear that dance programmes need to embed online modules into their curriculum and learning methodology from the outset and not as an afterthought. All new teachers should receive training on course design, incorporating online teaching and learning tools and strategies.
Teachers highlighted the importance of clarity and specificity in their verbal instructions and responses, providing students enough time to process information. Students, on the other hand, need to acquire these 21st-century skills, including additional modes of communication, technical skills, and online etiquette.
Students must be empowered to take ownership of their learning. They should become responsible and autonomous learners which are vital lifelong skills, especially for careers in the arts. Dance students specifically need to be guided towards developing a personal practice and daily rigor that can sustain them at all times and through all challenges.
Creation-driven courses need further thought, research, and planning. These will need to incorporate current approaches to choreography that includes online, national, and transnational collaboration as part of its approach.
New innovative works such as Swan Lake by Corey Baker from the UK that displayed a high standard of ingenuity emerged during this crisis, while dance technology, dance film, or screen dance took on greater significance. Online presentations have significantly developed new audiences.
More than 40 million people viewed Andrea Bocelli’s Music for Hope concert from the Milan Duomo Cathedral indicating there is a huge untapped potential and virtual market for the arts and dance.
Artists should capitalise on affiliations, networks, and partners to initiate collaborations on a consistent basis which inevitably opens more doors for all.
Dance is a deeply personal, visceral, and embodied experience. E-teaching and learning does not and cannot replace the face-to-face processes, but it can enhance the experience. This requires a paradigm shift in preparing for the future.
The experience of online education brought on by the pandemic does open the mind to how and where the arts, dance, and its teaching, and learning can take place.
This essay is the formal position of the School of Dance, HKAPA. It has been published here with the permission of HKAPA while retaining ownership of all data. It has been edited from earlier versions published in the online journal Langkah by MyDance Alliance, Malaysia, and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) Journal Pa:Per Vol. I, 2021.
Cover image: Malgorzata Dzierzon conducting rehearsals for Waiting. Image supplied by Professor Joseph Gonzales.