As all corners of campus adapt in an effort to accommodate students, faculty, and staff during the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Iowa Department of Dance seeks to provide safe rehearsal spaces while still fostering a sense of community for its members.
Rebekah Kowal, professor and chair of the department, said that when classes initially moved online in the spring 2020 semester, the department knew it had to start conceiving of new ways to teach its dancers. A key aspect of daily dance training is a feeling of community and togetherness, Kowal said.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Dance's beloved Dance Gala—a University of Iowa tradition now in its 39th year—will take place virtually on Friday, November 13.
Experience Dance Gala via the Virtual Dance Studio, as UI artists perform original works by UI dance faculty.
“So that was a moment when our community really came together,” Kowal said, "to try to preserve the things that we think are really important and valuable for us, knowing that people were under so much stress.”
The department originally planned to host in-person classes during fall 2020 in its home facility, Halsey Hall, Kowal said. Then, two weeks before classes were to begin, UI Facilities Management deemed the 105-year-old building's ventilation inadequate for group activities.
The department began communicating with its campus partners to determine where it could hold rehearsals, Kowal said.
“In really short order we had to start looking for new spaces for dance,” she said. “A place that’s going to work for 25 seated people is not going to do as well for 25 moving people. It looks different when you’re thinking about moving bodies, compared to putting desks in a classroom.”
The university came through for the department, and classes and rehearsals are happening not only in the Iowa Memorial Union, but also in one of the world's renowned homes for dance, the UI's iconic Hancher Auditorium. The dance department is currently practicing in the multi-use Strauss Hall, as well as on the Hadley Stage, Hancher's main performance space.
At the beginning of the semester, Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson spoke with the classes to give them a history and perspective of dance at Hancher.
“I wanted them to know not only that this is a beautiful place, but also that this place has a history of presenting dance, a history in which they’re involved,” Swanson said. “So it was important to me and to Hancher to inspire these students and let them know that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve.”
Kowal said the department worked closely with Melanie Wellington, clinical associate professor in the UI Carver College of Medicine, to return to the studio with the proper epidemiological protocols in place to keep people safe.
Changes included how much space each dancer would have in any given room, how to sanitize their personal spaces, and how choreography could avoid clumping or waiting. Faculty had to rethink the flow of their classroom and choreography, Kowal added.
“We also had to think about the kind of things we were asking students to do, because we didn’t want them to be so breathless and breathing hard that it would create risk,” Kowal said. “So we had to think of training in a more stationary way.”
After some high COVID-19 numbers in the first two weeks of classes, Kowal said the department conferred with epidemiologists again to increase mitigation methods, which included reducing class sizes even further, adding space between dancers, and rehearsing outside when possible.
“The students have been really cooperative and community-oriented, and I think that they appreciate that we’re trying to balance this community dimension of our department and trying to keep them safe and keep faculty and staff safe,” Kowal said. “It feels like a tremendous responsibility for us.”
Even before the Department of Dance knew it couldn’t host rehearsals in Halsey Hall, Kowal said there were talks with Hancher to bring first-year dance majors to the big stage. She hoped to create new feelings of pride and community in the space.
George de la Peña, professor and director of dance production, said he’s impressed with first-year dance students and how hard they are working and embracing new modes of learning.
"It’s exciting to witness for teachers, and the students inspire each other with their commitment to carrying on and doing the best possible work they can under the circumstances," he said. "One of the things I admire in dance—in all artists—is the determination to make the best of a very complicated situation. That’s just a beautiful characteristic of our community.”
Not everything that dancers in the department do is intended for performance, Kowal said, but there’s something about daily dance training that can be monotonous. Practicing in a facility like Hancher allows for the imagination to run in a way that’s not easy in an ordinary space.
“It puts you in a completely different space and frame of mind in terms of who you are and where you could go with your work,” Kowal said. “I think it makes what we’re doing very real. You can see the seats and you can imagine the audience when you’re training.”
In addition to keeping students and faculty safe, Swanson said that a primary goal of Hancher's partnership with the Department of Dance is to inspire students.
"Part of the dancers' education is entering from the stage door and performing on a world-class stage like Hancher’s," Swanson noted. "I think there’s a real connectedness that, during COVID, a lot of people have not been feeling. I want to create a memory that students will always remember, because there are a lot of memories from this pandemic that are not going to be positive."
He added, "During this time of the pandemic, the arts are more important than ever before. And during this time of social unrest, too, the arts are a way to heal. The arts are a way to learn. The arts are a way to bring people together, and the arts are a way to make the world a better place.”
De la Peña said the most important thing for the dance department right now is to be sensitive to the needs of students. That includes making sure they are not stressed or expelling a lot of air, especially considering they are wearing masks in class.
Though there are modifications, de la Peña said, there’s also a real rigor to the learning of in-person practice. For him, dancing in Hancher is a return to his days of professional dance, which de la Peña said is lovely to re-experience and a terrific opportunity for students.
“I think this has been a tremendous lesson, showing how the arts help one another,” de la Peña said. “Not only has Hancher Auditorium come to our rescue, but so did the Department of Theater Arts. It shows this solidarity with the arts community that has been really fantastic.”
UI senior and dance major Jensen Steinbronn has an in-person class at Hancher, as well as an outdoor modern dance class, which she said is fun when the weather is nice. The department is doing its best with the information it has about the virus, she said.
Students stay in socially distanced spaces, Steinbronn noted, and they train with less range of motion. She said that it can be sad—she wants to dance with abandon, and she’s lost strength, flexibility, and some of her drive to keep going.
Having class in Hancher, however, she said is uplifting.
“Every time we go into that class, I’m just even more thankful that we get to dance,” Steinbronn said. “I get to look out there at the audience and be like, ‘I’m still doing this. There's still space for us.’ It makes me grateful every time I get to do it.”
—By Katie Ann McCarver