Honing Resiliency

While the pandemic has put constraints on post-secondary training, dance programs are working to future-proof students’ careers By Lee Slinger
  • Tanya Berg / Photo courtesy of Berg

Just before 5:30 in the morning, Rayn Cook-Thomas lets himself into the Dance Victoria studio he’s currently using to take class in Victoria, B.C. If it had not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, the young dance artist would have been in Toronto, beginning his second year in the York University dance program. Instead, this fall term, he has chosen to stay in Victoria. It seemed safer and many of his friends weren’t going back either, but, most importantly, it would ensure he had access to a sufficiently large and appropriate training space. Twice a week, he bikes to the studio and gives himself 15 or 20 minutes to warm up his tired body before his ballet class starts at 8:45 in Toronto, or 5:45 in Victoria. “No,” he tells me, “I am not a morning person.”

In the small town of Creston in the interior of British Columbia, Tiera Joly Pavelich was also waking up at five in the morning in September. She would head to her partner’s mother’s restaurant where, before they opened for the breakfast service, all the tables and chairs were moved aside so that she could have a large enough space to take class. A final-year dance student at Concordia University (she also studies psychology), she would log in to her technique class streamed from Montreal. By the time class was finished, restaurant preparations would be quietly underway in the background. Even though the environment in Creston was very supportive, Pavelich says, “I was really craving shut doors and a place to be back into my body.” After a couple of weeks, she and her partner made the difficult decision to return to Montreal. Now, her classes are at 9:00 a.m. local time, but she is in the living room of her apartment: “I keep hitting my plants or the light bulb,” she says.

Like so many instructors and dance artists across the country, Cook-Thomas and Pavelich are contending with the ways both time and space have been reshaped by the COVID-19 crisis. Now mainly online – with only some programs able to continue in studio for part of the fall, and even those had to adopt strict social distancing and other safety measures – post-secondary dance training looks drastically different. I spoke with instructors and students in universities and professional programs about professional dance training during the pandemic. Despite the current constraints on training, which have been keenly felt by the students, the teachers are endeavouring to ensure that the situation allows students to hone different skill sets and to emerge nonetheless as resilient artists. 

Cook-Thomas / Photo by Lia Crowe


As is often the case with such historic events, most of the people with whom I spoke could immediately recall where they were last March when they heard their world was shutting down. On Friday, March 13th, between two sections of her movement for actors class, Seika Boye, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto (U of T), and all of her students received the notification that that would be the last day of in-person classes for the term. Pavelich had gone to teach her jazz class at McGill University, but no one showed up. By Sunday, she had secured a job as a nanny to compensate for her lost teaching income. At U of T, Tanya Berg, who teaches in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education as well as the dance department at York University, was in a tech workshop with two information technicians, having cancelled her morning’s class to get help with an online teaching platform with which she had little experience. By Friday evening, less than a week after classes were cancelled at Concordia, Colleen Nagel, a student in the contemporary dance program, had already gotten off a plane in her hometown, Yellowknife.

In the spring, the motivations for both instructors and students were to keep bodies moving, complete programs and retain a sense of community in a chaotic and isolating situation. At The School of Toronto Dance Theatre (STDT), Johanna Bergfelt, artistic associate and dance artist, led a morning technique class from her son’s bedroom for all 55 professional training program students. “My goal,” she says, “was to get them warmed up and ready, to feel like a community, to let them know ‘We can do this.’ ” As performances and projects were cancelled, instructors and students banded together to support one another, and programs found ways for students to complete their year’s requirements. But by the summer, as it became clear that at least some restrictions would remain during the fall, the university departments and professional training programs needed to find alternative ways to build community while ensuring the continued support of their students, instructors and staff.

According to Faye Thomson, co-director of The School of Contemporary Dancers (SCD) in Winnipeg, course preparations for the upcoming school year were like “trying to hit a moving target,” as government recommendations and regulations changed. Schools had to anticipate what would be permitted and educate themselves on best practices and public health standards. Pat Fraser, artistic director of STDT, describes their preparations as “exhaustive.” The day after I reached out to STDT for this article, the Government of Ontario announced on Oct. 9th new regulations that dashed the school’s hopes of offering a hybrid in-studio/online format in the fall term; they were in the midst of pivoting to their prepared strategy to go entirely online for the next 28 days, with the hopes of returning to the studio after that.

Whether classes are online or in-studio with strict social distancing protocols, the limitations on space have changed some course offerings while also introducing new avenues of exploration for students. As it has across the art form, filmed dance is proving to be fertile ground for learning and exploration. At STDT, they “determined that it would be impossible to apply social distancing protocols in some classes and so decided to cancel courses in contact improvisation and bouffon and to replace them with film for dance courses,” the school said in an email. The dancefilm course is taught by Allen Kaeja, Canadian film director and choreographer, and explores basic film technique and aesthetics and includes handson practical experience shooting and screening short films. Christina Medina, a dance artist working in Vienna, who would usually provide an in-person process with the students at SCD, is this year working with them on a film project, where the students will film themselves. At Concordia, some dance instructors have incorporated regular filmed explorations into their courses. For example, Sara Hanley, a dance artist and instructor, is assigning a weekly video submission in which students investigate a task-based exploration that they learned in class that week. “The students are used to filming themselves dancing but not in the context of a dance class,” she says. “They can film themselves trying not just the performance of a dance but the process, the failing. It is a useful tool and a new way for them to approach their dance and training.” 

Milord / Photo by Rodney Braun


Such use of video and film, but also remot learning more generally, may find a larger place in dance training programs in the long run. Students, teachers and administrators are now more adept at using online systems, which will facilitate their continued use. The increased use of video and online media in the art form and in training, says Thomson, “was happening, but this experience has accelerated that awareness.” How this current generation of students will use these experiences to inform their careers is yet to be seen, but the effects are already being felt by some. “It will produce different creators,” says Bergfelt. “It has already for some dancers. It has opened another world of creating art because it is the only way to create safely. It makes us look at different ways of reaching an audience.”

At SCD, where the contact improvisation class was also cancelled, the partnering course was moved entirely online. Taught by Sylvain Lafortune, a dance artist, teacher and partnering expert, it is now a series of lectures with inclass activities that allow the students to think through the practice of partnering. “We discuss how we use our centre of mass not only in the studio but in daily tasks, such as sitting down, lifting laundry or taking the bus,” says Sophie Milord, a fourth-year SCD student. Milord has found that this theoretical approach provides rich areas for discovery. “We can’t be in the studio doing partnering with other dancers, but we can interact with objects in our daily routines,” she says. Lafortune has also been working with the students on understanding the importance of effective communication for partnering. “Having the language to say what you are feeling,” says Milord, “the articulation to be able to communicate with your partners, and to listen to them, that’s super important.” 

Like partnering, teaching requires precise communication. Since instructors can no longer touch students, and in most cases only see them through a screen, verbal communication has become an even more central and complex tool. For Bergfelt, this has meant devoting more time to discussing how particular movements feel for students. While having students verbalize what they physically feel has always been useful, some instructors are taking the time to use it more thoroughly, by asking more questions and asking students to better express their physical experience. But words also have a different explanatory power when they are stripped of the usual physical cues that abound when people are in the same space. For Boye, whose U of T students often come with various levels and backgrounds of movement experience, the verbal cues and emphases that she has used in person, like having students focus on their pelvis, are too abstract to translate in a remote environment, when in-person demonstration and feedback don’t accompany the verbal cue. “I have had to shift the focus of how learning happens,” she explains, “while sometimes doing the same exercises so that people can find their way into the work without us being in space together.”

Space has been restricted too. Everyone is dancing in a box of some kind; some are taped on the floor; some are delineated by the edges of a mat; some are marked by the walls of a living room. For some of the students I spoke with, particularly those whose programs are entirely online, the restrictions of space were felt as an intense and significant loss. They were concerned about how their bodies and their development as artists would be affected. Some were frustrated by their inability to perform expansive travelling movements. There was also a bubbling desire to train and perform. The restrictions caused by the pandemic were not only physically confining their development but also slowing down a process they felt was only just starting to accelerate. They had only just been given their chance to hit their stride as they embraced their adult commitment to their craft when an external force put on the brakes.

The instructors, most of whom are a generation removed from the students, saw these changes (smaller spaces and different movements) as an opportunity to work on unexpected but interesting areas for significant development. The maintenance of physical practice until a full return to the studio was a priority, but the teachers often also saw their current courses as permitting the exploration of useful and important avenues.

The restrictions have, for example, forced the students to focus inward, resulting in dancers who are learning the importance of autonomy in a new way. Hanley says she has incorporated more choice-making and task-based work, paired with an even greater amount of self-reflection, all of which aims to foster autonomy for the students in their own training. Boye says students are also learning the importance of self-advocacy, knowing when to ask for help or advice. In her ballet classes, Berg notices that the students are learning the class material faster on their own. Before, she explains, they didn’t necessarily need to remember the exercises that well; they could rely on the cues in the room, from the teacher, from the other students. Now, when they turn to the other side, away from the camera, it’s all up to them. The students, however, are proving themselves up to the challenge by studying the recordings of class and coming better prepared than they did before. 

Boye’s teaching setup / Photo courtesy of Boye


Jennifer Bolt is an adjunct professor in York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) and a contract faculty member in the faculty of education. She’s also the founder of PRIMED for Life Education Incorporated, which offers a framework to support student transition, health and well-being. Without the sensorial experience of the studio, she explains, “Some students are having an opportunity to be more introspective. They have the opportunity to dance with a new perspective, a new awareness of their bodies.”

Nagel, who is in Hanley’s third-level technique class, says she is learning to feel more confident in her own creativity. “Before, I always wanted other people to like my work, or other people to agree with what I was working on. But we have all been pushed into being individuals. I have felt myself become more comfortable in what I am interested in and in creating what I want to make. I’m all on my own,” she says. The importance of autonomous practice was something her teachers had always been teaching, says Milord, “but now it makes sense.”

But in such a drastically different learning environment with its new requirements of autonomy, coupled with the lived traumatic experiences outside of the dance world and the precarity of live performance, there is a greater chance for individuals to experience a bout of learning paralysis. This, in turn, can cause them to retreat from the challenge entirely.

Some instructors in York University’s dance department have been drawing on Bolt’s framework, which she has been developing for 20 years. Its goal is to foster the transferable traits that facilitate transition or PRIMED (persistence, resilience, internal motivation and excellence defined). The PRIMED framework has been shared with other postsecondary and professional dance companies including Peggy Baker Dance Projects and now across York’s AMPD faculty. The framework encourages instructors to understand how the classroom experience acts as part of students’ larger transition as they come into a new program or any new learning context, as is the case since the pandemic. There are four stages to this process – separation, transition, incorporation and transformation – and instructors can frame course material around different learning strategies – social, psychosocial (identity formation), cognitive and social emotional learning (SEL) – at each stage. In this way, while teaching core content, they are fostering the development of the PRIMED traits, which could help ease anxiety caused by transitions and inspire students to learn from challenges. 

One of the differences during the pandemic, according to Bolt, is that “Learning paralysis happens very quickly.” The same challenges that can create autonomy on a good day for a student can also make them shut down on a day when they feel tired or less motivated. “Our worry,” she says, “is that paralysis will lead to them not tuning into their class on Zoom and then to leaving the program entirely. We will lose talented people.” Bolt recommends that instructors continue creating safe and inclusive spaces, which she defines as those in which there is a sense of community, connection and inclusion or celebration of difference.

Among many of the instructors I spoke with, both in universities and professional training programs, creating a sense of community in their classes was seen as an educational priority, brought emphatically to the forefront by the COVID-19 crisis.

In some ways, dance practice itself builds community. The experience of coming together synchronously and performing a shared physical practice has never been more important. “Movement class has a different value to overall well-being this year,” says Boye. Ensemblebuilding is one of her key objectives in teaching movement to actors. After classes were suddenly moved online in March and students were at home in the first unsure moments of the pandemic, pulling out their mats and going through the warm-up was “a real light bulb moment” for them, says Boye. “We could continue to practise together because we had this shared thing. The warm-up was something we held together as an ensemble.”

Those early days of the pandemic also highlighted the importance of community for Bergfelt. One of her goals in those programwide morning classes in the first few weeks of the lockdown was to foster a feeling that they were all in it together. She describes those classes in the plural: we learned about Zoom fatigue; we had Wi-Fi problems; we warmed up and got ready. She wanted the whole class to feel the joy of dancing as a group and, through that, to know they were not alone.

Maintaining a sense of community can be hard when you are alone in an empty studio in Victoria at five in the morning and your teacher is in Toronto. “I am trying to stay in touch, but it is hard; I feel isolated,” says Cook-Thomas. “I’m a people person,” Pavelich says. “The social aspect of dance is so important to me. The work feels overwhelming at the moment. People don’t have the time to chat for an hour on the phone.” She is thankful for the classes she takes where the teachers allow a free-form check-in among students.

Hanley described how she thinks of her students every day as she bikes to the studio at Concordia from which she teaches her classes. “My body changes when I step out of my house, as I engage with the fabric of my surroundings. And my dance is related to that because I have engaged with it before entering into the studio. My body is different just by being in a studio,” she says. Many students now lack that daily physical experience.

“Being in the dance space, the vibrations, the communal feeling,” explains Bolt, “a lot of that has been challenged. When you don’t have that community in the space, the way you learn is different.” The difficulties of establishing a shared, communal experience lead to an inevitable ebb and flow of motivation. 

Students of The School of Contemporary Dancers / Photo by Kendra Hope Photography


For the students, there are times when it’s hard for them to remain present during an online class. The inability to move and touch as you want, interacting mainly through a screen, not knowing whether you are doing something right or how to improve have sometimes led to motivation dips. The students described days when things felt good, when dancing was energizing, but also days when simply accomplishing the daily routine was exhausting.

They are grieving, as many artists are. They have lost opportunities, travel and experiences. They are dealing with disappointment and instability. Some are isolated; all of them are missing their friends and classmates. Several teachers commented on the importance of addressing that grief. The challenges both instructors and students face at the moment can be overwhelming: financially, personally, professionally, socially and physically. It is easy, as Pavelich says she sometimes does in her existential moments, to think: Is dancing going to be OK after this?

Despite these challenges, these students have thus far found the motivation to continue and expressed an intense and moving passion for their art form. Nagel talks about her dance program, her colleagues and her teachers with such enthusiasm. As she describes a filmed solo she created for a class with Sasha Kleinplatz, in which they were tasked to dance with an object as if it had the value of a human, her thrill and excitement are infectious. Cook-Thomas, in British Columbia, has learned that he is more committed than he thought he was. He has found out that he is willing to get up (or at least this year, as he hopes for more of a sleepin next year) and to fill his days with dance classes, and if distance education doesn’t work, he will find local alternatives that will allow him to continue to develop as a dance artist.

“You are hard-wired to adapt,” says Bolt, “but you don’t do it by yourself. We must co-create that adaptation.” Maintaining the motivation of emerging dance artists and helping them develop and nurture a growth mindset through what will surely feel like a long year in small spaces is something that will require the work of students, teachers, school administrators, friends, family and more. I was moved not just by the depth of courage of the students but by how deeply the instructors sympathized with their plight. “I just think these students are exceptional,” says Boye. “They will carry this with them always. I can’t imagine being the students in this situation.”

Bolt agrees. She remembers a conversation with a frustrated 18-year-old who said this was not what he had signed up for. She agreed: no one had signed up for this. “But my God, what a generation you are going to be. You can say that you were the students that lived through this,” she told him. She laughs, thinking of his quizzical look: “How do you say that to an 18-year-old?” So, she said to him, “You can be angry and fight it or you can say, ‘I don’t have any other choice.’ So, what are we going to invent together? What are we going to try to create without minimizing the trauma?” 

Nombre d’enseignant.e.s et d’artistes de danse compose avec la reformulation du temps et de l’espace engendrée par la crise de la COVID-19. Bien que certains programmes offrent des classes présentielles depuis l’automne, et ce, avec des mesures sanitaires strictes, la majorité sont en ligne – et la formation postsecondaire en danse s’en trouve complètement transformée. Lee Slinger a parlé de formation en temps de pandémie à des enseignantes et à des étudiant.e.s de programme de formation professionnelle. Malgré certaines contraintes qui pèsent lourd sur les artistes, les instructeur.rice.s veulent s’assurer que le contexte permette aux élèves de perfectionner un nouvel ensemble de compétences et d’émerger comme des artistes résilient.e.s.


This feature was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue.

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