How do you stage a dance performance during a pandemic? You film it outside, of course! We asked Artistic Director of the Williston Dance Ensemble Debra Vega to give us an update on Williston’s dance program and heard how Wildcats are finding new ways to express the meaning they find in the strange times we face. Through ingenuity, creativity, and sheer joy at being able to dance together, they are finding ways to meet this moment head-on.
What modifications have you made to the dance classroom?
In the dance classroom, we have made several modifications for safety. I began by taping out the dance floor with markers that are 6 feet apart for easy spacing when we warm up at the beginning of class. I created a “sanitation station” in front of the shared sound equipment, as well as asked our technology department to install a wireless connector to use with our music devices for even less touching as the sound equipment is used. I have restricted the room to 10 students at a time by dividing my large group into two smaller groups each day, which allows adequate spacing. Mask wearing is happening at all times. Students have been given their own individual plastic bins with a lid, to ensure all of their personal belongings stay safe from germs. In addition to the modifications to the dance classroom itself, I have purchased a portable speaker for use in outdoor classes! On class Saturdays I am able to bring my full group together safely outside. We have already done a yoga class on the quad a couple of weeks ago, and just today, we were able to rehearse for our dance film by taking video footage at several different locations around campus.
Have there been any silver linings or favorite moments?
This year has allowed for much “thinking outside the box.” Many of the new safety precautions make a lot of sense to keep as a standard moving forward. It has helped me re-think my program in many positive ways that we will implement for years to come!
How has your teaching changed because of the virus?
The biggest has been thinking about ways that I can still project and be heard while wearing a mask, especially when music is playing. So, my solution was a wireless fitness microphone! By placing the headset microphone in front of the mask, I can be heard over the music while teaching, and I don’t have to strain my voice. It is compatible with the portable speaker I purchased for outdoor classes, so it works very well when I’m teaching outside as well.
How will the fall performance be different this year?
The Fall Dance Concert will look very different this year, as for the first time ever, we are creating a dance film. There will be no performances this fall on campus with a live audience, so creating a film that will be shown on Williston’s YouTube channel will be a perfect way to allow the students to work towards a fully produced performance. This new medium has given us a golden opportunity to rethink how dance is presented. This year we had a choice. I gave the students the option to film their choreography on stage with costumes and lights like we would have normally performed it live, OR create a dance film that uses different unconventional locations that we’ve never used in the past. Most of the student choreographers have opted for the more traditional stage piece, however, for my choreography, I am excited to take this unique opportunity to film the dancers in different locations around the campus. It’s like a music video! This will then allow me to create the dance in the editing process as I put the pieces together. I have never created a choreography piece in this way and I think it will be a fun and exciting learning experience for all of us!
What have you been noticing in your students during this time?
I have noticed that the dance students are so grateful to be dancing together in person. They are just bursting to create! I think this past summer allowed for a lot of reflection for all of us. There were many ups and downs. Dance is such a great way to express all those feelings that we have been experiencing. I also feel it has been good for the group to take a mindfulness moment at the beginning of every practice. This is something new that I have added this year. It helps center us and prepare to practice, but it also reminds us how grateful we are to be dancing together once again.
How does dance/movement affect performers and audience members?
Dance is one unique among the performing arts, as the expression is solely done with our movement. Dancers use their bodies, facial expressions, and breath to create movement patterns to music. And just like visual art moves each person who views it in a unique, individual way, so does dance. The choreographer and dancers within a piece have their intention within the movement, but the interpretation is up to the beholder. The same piece of choreography can affect the audience who views it in many different ways. And that very same movement can also be its own physical and emotional journey for the dancer who is performing it. And that exchange between audience and performer is one of the most magical things about dance. We will be missing that live element this year, but we hope to still be able to create filmed choreography that can be streamed to an even wider audience than we’ve ever had.
What are some challenges you’ve faced?
Some of the challenges have included making sure that we are always staying safe by following the distancing protocols. Dance is the art of movement, so maintaining those 6 feet spaces while moving can be an extra challenge. I give the students many gentle reminders about the spacing, but luckily, I’m working with dancers who are generally very good at understanding spatial awareness. Additionally, working in masks has been especially challenging in order to catch our breath. I find that when I am teaching dance in a mask, I get even more winded than normal. However, as time goes on, it seems that I am building up my stamina for the mask wearing and I think the students are as well.
What are you hoping for in the months ahead?
My main hope is that we can keep dancing together safely, and be able to see our filmed performance through to the end result. I would hate for our process to be interrupted or for anyone to get sick. I am very proud of the dance students, as well as the whole Williston Community, who understand fully what is at risk, and continue to take the proper precautions. Even though the restrictions are not always ideal, I think being able to be together in person and dance together in person outweighs the challenges. I am grateful for the whole-hearted student participation in the dance program and how appreciative my students are when they come to the studio every day. I think I must be the luckiest teacher on campus. If these first few weeks are any indication, I am highly optimistic about how the rest of fall term will play out. As for the rest of the year, I plan to take it one term at a time and keep being grateful for every moment we are given to safely create dance together.