If dancers had not been required to wear masks, it might be hard to miss the smiles during ECU’s senior choreography production.
The performance, which will feature works by more than half a dozen student choreographers, will be streamed Saturday and Sunday on the university’s website. Although everyone would be happier if this weekend’s performance could be live in McGinnis Theater, students are thankful that dance was not canceled.
Dance is among the few majors at East Carolina University that have been able to retain face-to-face classes as COVID-19 has forced other programs to shift to all-virtual instruction for the second consecutive semester.
“We’re one of the very few programs that are on campus at this point because of the kind of work that we do,” said John Dixon, an associate professor of dance in ECU’s School of Theatre and Dance. “They (dancers) just feel so grateful the university has made the exception for our program.”
When ECU announced during spring break in March that classes would continue online due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ashley McDonnell did the same thing other students did. She made the best of it, despite the fact that it meant the cancellation of the spring dance performance.
“We tried doing dance classes online, everyone kind of doing it in your living room and more asynchronous work than we’re used to,” the Newton, New Jersey, native said. “I think we all were kind of down in the dumps about it. It didn’t really work out well.”
When it looked like an uptick in COVID-19 cases might set the stage for a similar scenario this fall, senior dance performance and choreography major Liza Eller was concerned. Taking a semester off during her senior year didn’t seem like a good option, but she also didn’t want to spend it all performing solo via Zoom.
“Depending on your major, it’s hard to continue on,” she said. “Dance majors, it would be really hard to not have any interaction; that’s how we get our training.
“It was really nice that we were able to work things out to where we could get a little bit of the normal experience that we need to engage in training,” Eller said. “We’re really lucky that that was able to happen for us.”
Having junior and senior-year dancers rehearse on campus has required an almost choreography-like level of complexity. Besides the typical masks and hand sanitizer, dance students have had to remain covered from nearly head to toe, wearing long sleeves, long pants and socks.
No more than eight dancers are permitted per studio, where instructors have used tape on the floors to mark 10 feet of spacing. Single classes have been divided into as many as four studios across campus, where groups of dancers rehearse simultaneously, with some of their classmates joining in via Zoom.
Entrance and exit doors are designated so that students’ pathways don’t overlap. Class times have been reduced by 10 minutes to allow for everything from the ballet barre to the dance floor to be sanitized between groups.
“Our floors have never been so clean,” Dixon said, laughing.
But precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are serious; students understand that an outbreak could send everyone home. Dancers are also aware that at many colleges and universities across the country, classes don’t come together at all.
Dixon said such situations are leaving students feeling apathetic, depressed and disconnected from their drive as artists.
“I think that’s consistent with so many people around the world,” he said. “It’s a lot to bear when you can’t interact with others, and in an art form where interacting with others is a huge part of the form, I think the impact was even greater in many ways.
“From our perspective art is a necessity, but it’s also a luxury,” Dixon said. “We ride that line every day.”
While in-person rehearsals were allowed, ECU’s performing arts students have been prohibited from participating in live performances that are open to the public. That’s why this semester, dance has gone digital.
But despite the unprecedented circumstances, recording dance is nothing new for many students. Dixon has been schooling dancers in this technique for years.
Students begin their freshmen year with creating a website and progress to learning basic camera and film skills. By the time they are upperclassmen, they have been taught to create and edit video footage of their dancing and choreography.
“You have to have those skills today,” Dixon said. “Of course, it’s possible to just be a good dancer, but in the complexity of the dance world, certainly right now in the pandemic, the people who are going to be sought after are the ones who can solve the digital barrier.
“It’s even more important now,” he said. “But it’s always been important to me given the reality of the professional lives they’re going to need to lead.”
Eller is excited to premiere not only her choreography but videography this weekend.
“We filmed multiple angles,” the Salisbury native said. “My piece is intermixing a dance film almost with a real film-show look.”
McDonnell, who is dancing in two works as well as choreographing a piece for the show, said COVID-19 restrictions have created challenges for staging a performance as well. Masks are a required costuming accessory, no more than five dancers share the stage at one time and dancers are not allowed to touch.
“We do a lot of partnering,” she said. “To go from always touching each other to all of a sudden you have to be social distanced and then wearing masks makes it significantly harder.”
Still, McDonnell is pleased with the work that she and other dancers have managed to create amid challenging circumstances.
Dixon believes the online audience will agree.
“You don’t see the masks; you don’t see the distance,” he said. “You see beautiful dancing, great choreography, and you end up going, ‘Wow, how amazing they’re able to pull this off with all these restrictions.’ Art thrives, not just survives.”
Group works will stream at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and solo performances will stream at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Both events are free to watch, but reservations are required. One reservation is needed per device. Visit theatredance.ecu.edu/current-season.