Dancing through a pandemic

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By Norah Kim

Music echoes from the far corners of Kerr Hall East where the School of Performance classes take place; chatter from a group of dancers in Kerr Hall West fills the hallways. No matter what time of day, there’s always music and laughter radiating from the building. This was known as Ryerson’s vibrant dance community before the pandemic. 

Performance dance students lay sprawled across the classroom bright and early every morning. As theatre jazz music bellows from the speakers, the students eagerly wait for their dance instructors’ next directions. 

Most students dread the idea of morning classes, but this wasn’t the case for third-year performance dance student Jewell Cormier. Last year, Cormier would wake up at 8 a.m. every day to make it to her 8:30 a.m. ballet class, where she was met with encouraging energy from the people around her. 

This year, however, Cormier had to adjust from an extremely interactive learning environment to making do in her own home. 

“I always feel excited and ready to go into the studio because once I’m there I’m just so engaged and you don’t get that from being online,” said Cormier. “Now, you don’t have the bodies around you to motivate you and feed energy to you.”

Adjusting to the online environment has been a challenge for many Ryerson students, especially for those who solely rely on campus facilities for their studies and personal projects. 

Since the switch from in-person classes last year, students across the dance community said they’ve been struggling to adapt to the lack of studio space. “It just feels a lot less personal…because you’re learning through a computer screen rather than in an open studio,” said Cormier.

Students at the School of Performance are not the only ones impacted by the lack of in-person activities. Student dance groups have also suffered from the loss of a physical studio space. 

“I always feel excited and ready to go into the studio because once I’m there I’m just so engaged and you don’t get that from being online”

Every Friday night, Seerhana Tarannum, a second-year creative industries student, used to make her way to the Recreation and Athletic Centre (RAC) to dance her heart out.  The studio space located on the lower floor of the building was always filled with students from different academic backgrounds and levels of dance. Tarannum, who is a part of Ryerson’s open dance community, said they are facing similar challenges with campus studio closures and the inability to hold in-person rehearsals for competitions.

The open dance community is composed of students from other programs apart from dance including Ryerson competitive dance teams like Dance Pak and clubs like Studio 2 Dance. Tarannum enjoys being a part of these groups because they welcome her with open arms, regardless of her lack of dance experience.

The Studio 2 Dance club used to hold weekly classes in Studio II at the RAC. Every week, the classes would feature a new choreographer to come in and teach a free dance class to students. Due to campus closures, the club has not been able to hold any in-person classes since March 2020. 

Veena Singh, a third-year media production student, is also one of the executive members for Studio 2 Dance. She said it’s difficult to offer dance classes all while maintaining the same “homey” atmosphere as before, while keeping people engaged. 

“We didn’t want to offer live classes online, because we knew that burnout was a thing,” said Singh

Adapting to the new normal

Given the circumstances, Cormier believes the School of Performance has done its best to make the most of the year by staying flexible to fit the student’s various needs.  

“I can’t even imagine trying to run a dance program like this right now,” said Cormier. “I think [the school has] done a really good job modifying the program based on the circumstance.” 

The School of Performance had to brainstorm unique ways to run classes all while keeping students engaged despite the lack of physical and in-person contact. “With compromised non-verbal communication, I have been relying more on language-based instruction,” said Louis Laberge-Côté, an assistant professor in dance at the School of Performance. 

Language-based instruction means the instructor verbally gives direction to their students rather than physically demonstrating, which is the norm for dance classes. 

“While this approach is ultimately not ideal for dance, there is also a silver lining: spending time breaking down abstract movement concepts and figuring out how to explain them with words,” said Laberge-Côté. 

Instructing dance classes online becomes tedious when students don’t have access to the same amount of space like they used to, he added. When creating lesson plans, he would make sure that movement concepts were adaptable, so students would be comfortable doing them in whatever space they had available. 

“Dance, in general, is an active sport and just like any other active sport, if you don’t use your skills, you’re gonna lose them”

Contract lecturer Kelly Arnsby has been a movement and dance in acting instructor for over 18 years at Ryerson and found herself teaching modified concepts online that she would’ve never thought of teaching in person. 

“I begin my class with some movement exercises called the ‘Britannia Fundamentals.’ They’re done mostly lying on the floor,” said Arnsby. “This allows my students to just listen to me describing the exercises to them, so they don’t have to look at a screen.”

As for the open dance community, Studio 2 Dance has shifted towards a different way of virtual learning while trying to maintain community. The method involves offering pre-recorded dance classes weekly and allowing members of the community to submit their own videos to share. 

“Dance, in general, is an active sport and just like any other active sport, if you don’t use your skills, you’re gonna lose them,” said Singh. “So we wanted to offer pre-recorded classes that people could take at their own leisure.”

There’s still long ways to go before dance at the university will go back to the way it was before the pandemic. 

From the School of Performance students to the dance community as a whole, navigating growth in their art is a tedious obstacle, but the will and determination to dance perseveres. 

“[The pandemic] allows us to change our focus and lets us work imaginatively in a different setting. In a sense we get a little break from the situation because we get to explore our imagination,” said Arnsby.

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