Dance and Theatre Majors Adjust to Online Learning Format


Courtesy of Tricia Kennedy

Students in the performing arts have been hit especially hard by the closing of campus and the shift to online classes.

Bella Biafore, Writer

For some students, the transition to online learning has been smooth sailing. For others, like students with dance or theatre majors, the switch to alternative learning has created an entirely new way to learn their craft. 

Because most dance and theatre classes require an incredible amount of practice and rehearsal, followed almost exclusively by in-person instruction, the online format has been challenging for both professors and students. 

“Theatre is an ensemble, group experience, which requires us to assemble to make it happen. Groups of people are needed to make the performance, the design, the paperwork [and] the project exist,” said Janet Haley, chair of the theatre and dance department. “… The energy one receives from others is an essential ‘tool’ for the work, in [the] process of classes, as well as productions for theatre and dance. A performance without an audience is just rehearsal. Theatre needs an audience to exist.”

Due to the lack of a real audience and not being able to work as an in-person group, students have had to get creative within their own homes to fulfill class requirements. 

I am now dancing in my living room instead of the dance studio. I am now having to watch my professor through a tiny screen demonstrate a combination. I would much rather be face-to-face in the studio learning hands-on with my professors,” said Chelsey Zappella, UM-Flint senior. 

She went on to say, “As for theatre classes, I am now using the help from my family to film my scenes in my acting for the camera class. I am now having to find materials around my house to help build model box sets for my scenic design class. This is not how I wanted to end my senior semester of college…”

In an effort to keep the class engaged and ensure all students’ needs are met during this time, Director of Dance Beth Frieman holds check-ins at the beginning of class for students to express comments or concerns. 

“The experience differs from student to student. For some, the transition has been quite smooth while others have really struggled with the lack of human contact,” said Frieman. “… Since the transition to online, I have a ‘check-in’ at the beginning of class where we can all connect for a bit. I think this helped to create a connection for the students and gave everyone a chance to talk to peers and myself and even have a laugh or two.”

Regardless of the less-than-ideal online circumstances, Zappella is thankful this new format still allows her to do what she loves. 

“At first, my main concern was how are we still going to do our dance technique classes when everything is done online now? Will I still be able to dance? I am so thankful for Zoom,” said Zappella. “The space that I am dancing in may not be ideal but I would rather be dancing in my living room than not dancing at all.”   

In terms of the day-to-day life for students within these departments, the class schedule is rigorous and requires a lot of time on applications like Zoom or Bluejeans. 

“Since online classes, I have been living my life through a strict schedule. I wake up every day at 8:30 and have breakfast, then the homework/zoom classes begin …  I worked on my online classes until about 5:30 every day,” said Zappella. 

For Freiman, class runs business-as-usual each day as she attempts to emulate what it would be like if they were still all together in a real classroom setting. 

“We run the class very similar to a face-to-face class. We start stretching and with warm-ups and then move on to bigger movement exercises and longer combinations,” said Frieman. “This all worked quite well. I was able to give feedback quite easily as I watched the whole gallery or pinning individuals to have an even closer look and give feedback.”

Other times, class does not go all that easy. Freiman explained it can be challenging to evaluate her student’s performance due to a poor at-home classroom setup and online difficulties. 

“My ability to critique was challenged because at times I could not effectively see everyone. Sometimes people were in shadow or too close to a computer etc. If in the future I were to teach a practical class online, I would have a special part to the syllabus regarding best practices for setting up your ‘station’ for class,” said Frieman. “I would even work with students individually to find spaces that would be optimum for workspace.” 

Outside of the difficulties of holding a dance or theatre class online, there have been many positive outcomes of this whole situation. 

“… I find the students who are engaged with the learning, rather than those who eventually dropped or withdrew,  are investing deeper, bringing more heart into their work,” said Haley. “I believe, though, that it is not because of the online format, but because of the times we are in; the uncertainty and questions of this time propel the students to lean into the story and experience of being human and that’s what the arts are all about: expressing the human experience.”