2020 Hindsight on Remote Education
The impact that the pandemic had on teaching and students,
my response to the impact, and lessons learned for future teaching.
By Cynthia DuFault, Assistant Professor
Department of Theatre and Dance, State University of New York, Potsdam
When preparing for the remote pivot in March 2020, the concept of teaching virtual dance courses seemed as counterintuitive as putting a square peg into a circle hole. Before the pandemic, learning outcomes in the arts were typically woven around in-person interaction and collaboration, hands-on experimentation, materials and equipment practices, specific space requirements, and live event components. Without these means, faculty have not only been challenged with the mechanics of teaching virtually but with how to redefine courses with very little of those tools that format the art discipline. With that said, it has been key to identify that teaching virtually is a substantially different experience with different skillsets. It has been essential to develop a list of elements where dance can benefit from virtual teaching. Reinventing dance for remote learning and performing has incidentally become my primary focus and the relevant part of my scholarship and creative activities.
The following will describe such activities, including creating a learning and community hub website, professional development for online teaching, a presentation at the REMOTE Connected Faculty Summit,
participation in the Las Vegas Dance in the Desert ‘Virtual’ Dance Festival, development of the student Media Dance Works Series, and how reinventing dance for remote learning and performance has impacted the students.
Creating a Learning and Community Hub Website
When discussion broke out about faculty needing to make preparations for online teaching, admittedly, I felt that I was entering unfamiliar territory. How was I going to provide students with quality education without having the practical course applications required for dance? I certainly did not want to modify my classes, especially when growing our program was an important priority. There was no room but to design an approach, where dance could glide parallel with technology in a virtual setting, while hopefully, providing students with high quality instruction. If we could not be live, being like live needed to be the strategy.
In the notice to pivot to remote instruction, I constructed a virtual teaching component that became cyndance.org, a catchy named dance e-portal. The homepage illustrates emotionalized context with appealing dance images and videos with a menu where students can find all of their class information. Choreographic collaboration, peer feedback, master classes, and virtual classes and performances also take place with the intention to keep students moving, exploring, and discovering.
The website formed into a community hub. As we have realized, engagement with our students, particularly those who have felt overwhelmed by challenges, has been paramount. Putting value on communication has given them a feeling of belonging in a dance community. In also considering research that shows the social as well as health benefits of dance from as far back as our earliest ancestors, there is more to just enabling students to keep dancing during these times. As they have kept the passion of dance alive while building connections, they also found therapeutic relief. I have learned that by finding new ways to do what I do and how I maintain a connection with emerging artists is my sense of duty, so they don’t feel alone. Being available by extending and providing assistance to younger dancers, who feel their wings have been clipped will be food for their souls.
I am gracious to Bret Yagar, who recognized my efforts in his article of spring 2020 entitled, “The Dance Most of All” in SUNY Potsdam’s The Reporter
The article was also published at:
THANK YOU FOR CYNDANCE.ORG!
"Dear Cynthia, I’m so grateful for the work you’re doing with our dance
students on line. The images of your students are simply beautiful, and while
I can’t see our students perform in person, I’m so grateful for the opportunity
to see them virtually. Thank you. The arts and humanities are never more
important than now, and you exemplify the extraordinary creativity of our
Potsdam faculty. I couldn’t be prouder. Warmly, Kristin"
— Kristin G. Esterberg, PhD, then President, SUNY Potsdam
Virtual Dance Instruction: Community Hubs - Presentation
Around the end of the spring semester, SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson announced to the Presidents that David Levin, University Entrepreneur in Residence at Arizona State University was organizing the international conference for July, focusing on higher education’s pivot to remote, distance, and online instruction. Presenters were asked to do a 20-minute TED-like talk at this virtual event either highlighting faculty members gifted in online instruction or faculty who had addressed a particular issue or problem that they discovered in moving to online instruction. Nominations were sent to the SUNY Chancellor, and surprisingly, I was selected. Ninety speakers from around the world presented at the REMOTE: Connected Faculty Summit and over 50,000 faculty and administrators have attended.
My Presentation Abstract - “I wish to help dance faculty prepare for Fall 2020 by identifying the differences between teaching virtually and teaching in a face-to-face dance environment as well as ideas aimed toward building best practices in virtual dance instruction. I will also be highlighting the importance of community and collaboration as well as the importance of confidence building, motivation, and support for students.”
View my presentation: Virtual Dance Instruction: Community Hubs
Feedback From Presentation
"Dear Cynthia, A huge thank you for being part of REMOTE and congratulations
on an incredible presentation. We were thrilled when Kristina Johnson nominated
you as a speaker and I have to say your session surpassed my already high
expectations. Plus, a virtual dance session was the perfect way to close REMOTE.
First, some numbers from the overall event: we had final registration of 46,116 and
25,999 unique attendees across the two days (57% of registrants attended!). This
shows there was a real need from faculty to learn how to adapt to this new era. We
are honored to have been able to share your expertise with so many of them.
Your impact on attendees was invaluable, as you can see in the questions and chat
entries from your session (attached). Your session had an amazing 614 live attendees.
But as you know the core architecture of REMOTE was about having an online
library (and we have more than 1,000 registrants post the event) and so we are sure
that the final tally of viewers will be much higher as a result of continued on-demand
access to your wonderful presentation.
I'd be really keen to hear any feedback from you about the event and direct
comments you get - we are trying to think how best this concept can serve the
development and dissemination of online and hybrid teaching pedagogies in the
future. Thank you again and I hope we stay in touch. Yours, David" (July 2020)
— David Levin, University Entrepreneur in Residence, Arizona State University
Journal of Dance Education Reviews
Normally, I have spend my summers teaching in the heart of the Rocky Mountains at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School. However this year, after the school has operated summer programs for 107 consecutive years, it was canceled because of the pandemic. Like many cancelations during this time, it was crushing, but I decided to replace my time by writing and contributing to the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO). I am a member of NDEO and have written book review articles in the past for its official publication, Journal of Dance Education — a publication that presents both scholarly and practical articles relevant to dance education in the U.S. and abroad. During these 'stay at home' times, reading books and writing about them seemed like an ideal match, especially as one book in particular was about the life story of my former boss and friend, Danny Lewis, founding Dean of Dance at New World School of the Arts — and a legendary dance figure.
See my book review articles:
“Choreography Invisible: The Disappearing Work of Dance” Book by Anna Pakes See Article
“Daniel Lewis: A Life in Choreography and the Art of Dance” Book by Donna H. Krasnow and Daniel E. Lewis See Article
"Loved your review. You really captured what the book is about.
— Daniel Lewis, PhD, Author, President of Miami Dance Futures & Founding
Dean of Dance, New World School of the Arts
A Virtual Choreographic Adaptation Work, entitled Last Stop
My newest work entitled Last Stop (choreographer, costume designer, media designer - originally performed live at the February 2020 Faculty Dance Concert) was derived from recent summer travels through Europe, learning the secret language of train stations and the unknown that lies beyond foreign words. For Last Stop, I captured train station sounds and video footage to create a collage that would be a backdrop. It turned out that the stage projector was without the proper lens to project on a full-sized cyclorama, and unfortunately, the work was presented without the video collage.
For some time, my research has been working with technology and dance on and off stage (see my 2019 TEDx) as well as teaching the subject ‘dance on camera’ and most recently, ‘media dance’ – the art of taking the digital/virtual element of media and applying it to the craft of dance-making. After not being fully satisfied with the staged version of Last Stop, my cast of twenty students and I came together to record a special media dance version, and I edited it together with the Europe video collage. True to my original vision, the media work demonstrated the evocative space that is modern Europe interwoven within an imaginary dreamscape that takes inspiration from the rich layers of cultural history, the connotations, and possibilities that unite the global cities of Paris, Copenhagen, Cologne, and London.
With the pandemic on the verge of hitting, preserving the work ended up beneficial. As Last Stop was scheduled to be revised during the summer at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School in Colorado, it was canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, Last Stop was accepted into the 22nd Annual Las Vegas Dance in the Desert ‘Virtual’ Dance Festival. The SUNY students were very pleased to learn that they were a part of the festival and performed in Vegas.
See more on the research component and view the media dance work.
Professional Development for Online Teaching
In preparation for teaching in fall 2020, I took an eight-week Continuing Professional Development (CPD) accredited course from the Open University, UK entitled, Take Your Teaching Online. I learned to make informed decisions when choosing new tools and pedagogies for dance, identifying benefits and disadvantages to teaching dance online, making use of online opportunities such as social networks, creative platforms, and open educational resources, and understanding how to create and evaluate approaches to online teaching that were appropriate for me and my students. While the initial point of the course was to turn an emergency pivot into a more effective way of teaching, using these tools ultimately served the success in student engagement and dedication through their creative practices. See Certificate
Reinventing Dance for Remote Learning and Performance
Since cyndance.org launched on March 23, 2020, the hub has 10,000 visits and is where students, alumni, and dance enthusiasts have come to access resources accompanying their dance interests such as classes, discussions, and virtual performances. I have also engaged in numerous conversations about teaching practices with academics who viewed my REMOTE presentation.
With social distancing guidelines, virtual dance instruction continues, and Zoom has been a critical part with 'that gallery of squares' being the lifeline connecting teachers with students. It has been important to be present for my students, even if it meant being virtually present. Fall semester did allow for hybrid classes, where two-thirds of my students were either in the studio with me or in an alternate studio on Zoom. Very few students remained remote. Students enjoyed working in this arrangement opposed to remote learning, as they felt like a class again. Sometimes, students were not able to attend class and recordings were always available at cyndance.org. I also offered asynchronous coursework, and students appreciated working at their own pace and investigating deeper to move mindfully, with intention, and while focusing inwardly on muscular and bone principles to find various perceptual outcomes.
In the virtual creative setting, students have experienced choreographing collaboratively as well as keeping their creativity flowing through community sharing on social media. Technology has provided teaching applications that engaged them to investigate technology through new media and dance making (media dance), and as a result of the theatres being closed and new investigation with media dance, students have discovered how to see dance through the camera and explore a deeper level of the creative process. Students have embraced combining new media with choreography, broadening their boundaries and giving them the reins to steer the eye of the viewer and enhance the visual intention through special effects unlike what they were ever able to do for live concert dance.
As an additional medium in the choreographic process, technology has contributed to an expansion of higher quality virtual dance education. Keeping up with new trends in dance without understanding media trends is challenging but bridging this helps students to better navigate online innovations in the field of dance. Furthermore, the class has been easily taught online, and the student’s work has been easily presented online. As for equipment, students have smartphones, which come fully equipped with quality cameras, editing apps, and various storage and transmitting options. With that said, after our first of three Media Dance Works Series presentations, the students received a generous gift by donors Don and Bette Bergeron, and we were able to purchase filming accessories that applied the same principles as professional video equipment. This extended students’ ability to learn and experience deeper production concepts behind filmmaking.
Choreographing was definitely not the same experience for students, as rehearsals for productions are typically fourteen weeks followed by the end of the semester concert. The Media Dance Works Series allotted just three weeks for students to develop their ideas, choreograph, rehearse, give and receive feedback, film, and edit. They did this process three times over, where they would normally create only one work. It was not an experience for the weary at heart, but I believe that the repetition of three small works opposed to one large work allowed students to develop a greater understanding of the process, not to mention that creating art and dancing are also healing when times are rough.
As an educator, my objective for the classes was to present a multi-faceted framework or a buffet of learning objectives where students could explore, discover, investigate the creative process, and find outcomes where they felt a sense of accomplishment. In the last two semesters, I feel that students learned a great deal from virtual dance instruction and projects, and they enjoyed the challenge. I learned a great deal about them, their potential, and the next steps toward teaching them, successfully. Overall, students really just wanted to be in a dance structure, where they could work, learn, be creative, and feel a sense of belonging. (Period). Students also found dance to also be calming in the hectic reality, and I believe that’s what has been keeping us all afloat.
The arts communicate and make the world smile, cry, and feel. Regardless of COVID, the Media Dance Works Series produced more choreographic and performance opportunities for students than any semester before. This kept the Dance Program students and the community connected and was even recognized for its efforts in six virtual news sites, entitled SUNY Potsdam Virtual Concert Series Melds Dance with Media Arts:
These efforts were also recognized by North Country Public Radio (NCPR), interview edition of First Person entitled, Pivoting (or Pirouetting) onto the Virtual Stage
Throughout the semester, the students and I have shared the Media Dance Works Series each first Friday at cyndance.org, where dance patrons have viewed the virtual student choreography – from their couch.
See the Fall 2020 Media Dance Works Series:
Series #1, Oct. 2, 2020
"Cynthia— These works were so beautiful, and so inspiring. I am so very proud
of all of your students, their tremendous resiliency, and their incredible talent.
Please congratulate all of your students for their exceptional work this semester.
— Bette S. Bergeron, PhD, Provost & Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs,
"Hi Cynthia, Congratulations on another great set of videos! I really like the creative
use of spaces other than the dance studios and how the movements interact within
those spaces. Thank you for making the most of the current circumstances for our
— Sal Cania, Vice President of Advancement & Executive Director, Potsdam College
Foundation, SUNY Potsdam
"Cynthia, What a great second concert! The students’ increasingly sophisticated use
of space and interesting camera angles is such fun to see. I hope you are doing well!
— Gretchen Galbraith, PhD, Dean, Arts & Sciences & Professor of History,
"Hello, Cynthia! Loretta and I finally took a moment to check this out last night.
Congrats to you and your students for getting this out there! We'll definitely check
out the other two parts of the series - thanks so much for letting me know. Jim"
— James W. Fryer, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, SUNY Potsdam
As the country may be in lockdown, that is not stopping SUNY Potsdam dance students from being productive. Instead, no matter what the situation or time, they took on the challenge enthusiastically and with devotion, and I have been so pleased by just how hard they have worked. They have retooled their dance making and have been creative in utilizing new media and social platforms to deliver art. Combining dance and technology brought us from a pivot of emergency events to flourishing students in education and art. It is exciting to see how this has given light to their inspiration and future creative work and even, perhaps, taken them toward a new meaning of arts in the age of technology.
Looking ahead to next semester, the Dance Program plans to kick off with a February ‘First Friday’ media dance presentation by students to honor Black History Month. We will continue to offer the Media Dance Works Series for the Senior Choreographers’ Concerts in collaboration with the Crane School of Music student composers each first Friday in March, April, and May, followed by the Spring Informal Dance Concert on May 12, 2020. Included in spring, the Dance Program is offering students an amazing treat of working with members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company on a two-week virtual residency, teaching master classes and rehearsing repertory for a final virtual presentation.
“Ms. DuFault has been in the forefront of the technology we are using
today to deliver programs and performances, and in teaching technique
and choreography. Due to Covid-19, the way we work has changed. Ms. DuFault
is equipped to meet these challenges of this new era in education and in the
creative process. She will be able to develop the students’ movement potential
and direct them to a high caliber of performance whether in person or online.
She will guide students to be creative, using new media and innovative ways
to deliver choreography to the public. She has always been supportive of the
students she teaches, making sure they get the tools necessary to succeed.”
— Daniel Lewis, PhD, President of Miami Dance Futures & Founding Dean of Dance,
New World School of the Arts