Graduating class of 2020 dances into uncertain future with creativity, poise

Courtesy of AJ Myers, Credit: Veronica Sacca
Myers looks forward as she exhibits a soft smile.

June 1, 2020
Volume 1 Issue 2
By: Ashley Gibson and Robin Wharton

Across the U.S. and throughout Georgia, college and university campus closures have forced teachers and students into an unplanned, emergency experiment to test the capabilities of online and distance learning. At the same time, statewide shelter-in-place orders have created an existential crisis for performing arts such as dance. Students and faculty teaching and learning in the dance programs of Atlanta-area colleges and universities are dealing with both of these challenges at once. 

In order to keep dancing over the past few months, they have deconstructed established routines and hierarchies that have traditionally shaped both dance and higher education. Faced with circumstances beyond anyone’s experience, many faculty have done the difficult work of thinking through how one teaches from a place of empathy and compassion and to become “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage.” As traditional roles have been cast aside, students have accepted the call to step up and become co-creators rather than recipients of their educational curriculum and to become co-founders rather than just inheritors of the art form and its long history. 

Collectively, the student and faculty artists interviewed for this piece are recreating dance as an art form in order to get through and to document this crisis. They are reconsidering who gets to decide what takes place in the classroom, even as they are discovering all the possible venues for dancing and learning in the world beyond stage and studio. With resilience and creativity, they are carving a path forward for themselves, their institutions and the Atlanta dance community.   

Courtesy of Rebecca Neish, Credit: Lori Teague
Neish extends one leg to the side in a kick with three dancers in motion behind her.

Responding to the crisis required dance faculty and students to step into new roles.

When they returned to campus from the winter break in January, Atlanta college and university dancers anticipated the usual round of spring performances, the annual American College Dance Association Festival (ACDA) at Florida State University and a final semester training in familiar studios. College seniors eagerly looked ahead to new jobs, new cities and the next phase of adulthood. Emory University senior Maria McNiece and Brenau University’s Kayla Muirhead dove into preparations for senior thesis concerts. Meanwhile, Emory student Rebecca Neish pursued a choreography class project. Similarly, Kennesaw State University’s Alyssa “AJ” Myers planned to present choreography to a senior jury for the opportunity to be selected as part of KSU’s Student Dance Concert. Many of these students, like Spelman computer science major Thulani Vereen and Agnes Scott business major Elizabeth Watkins, were also planning to perform and present their work to a national audience at ACDA. Watkins was especially eager to get back to dance after recovering from injuries and a fall semester spent watching rehearsals and performances from the wings.

Then, March arrived and with it the global pandemic’s first wave of lockdowns across the U.S. On March 13, university campuses in Georgia emptied. In the following weeks, local authorities banned public gatherings of all types including in-studio classes and rehearsals as well as dance performances. Gov. Brian Kemp eventually issued a statewide shelter-in-place order effective April 3. Dance students and teachers from Atlanta-area colleges and universities found themselves living in unprecedented times that forced them to reimagine dance education and performance in a world where one in five people globally were living under “lockdown” restrictions

With the abrupt transition to online learning, faculty and students alike scrambled to revise their spring semester objectives. Dance faculty empowered students by presenting them with choices. Should classes be live or prerecorded? What exercises should be included?  How can we revamp assignments?

UGA senior Claire Peoples said that before the COVID-19 crisis, she had never felt this level of control over her college education. In the shift to accommodate the emerging public health crisis, educators adopted new strategies that broke down familiar hierarchies, creating more dialogue and a shared responsibility in the teacher/student dynamic.

Courtesy of Claire Peoples, Credit: Heather Larkin
Peoples stands on relevé as her upper body twists backward.

Many faculty were also trying to provide the support and compassion they felt students might need in a time of fear and uncertainty. Kathleen Wessel, Spelman College lecturer and Director of Spelman Dance Theater, included the following statement at the top of all of her Transition to Online Learning syllabi:

These are confusing and difficult times. A global event unlike any of us have seen in our lifetimes calls for new and yet unknown steps in all matters of caring for ourselves and our communities. Each day brings new information, a new set of challenges, another opportunity to remind us that, although physically separated, we’re all in this together.

We turn to who we are and what we know for solace and a path forward.

In her response to this crisis, Angela Harris of Emory University dance faculty said, “All of us were and still are trying to navigate a new way of living/working/being. As an instructor, I had to shift my focus from seeing results technically to supporting growth and nurturing positive thinking within my students.” 

For example, Harris shifted the structure of her Ballet 1 class when she realized that many of her students did not have reliable Internet or even the space to safely take class at home. She chose instead to focus on conditioning, dance history and theory. Harris also sent out audition materials for several graduates to help them secure traineeships with the dance companies for which they had planned to audition.

Courtesy of Angela Harris
Harris lifts one leg into passé while recording a class for her Emory students.

When campuses, studios and theaters closed, dance education moved online and into nontraditional spaces.

In addition to coping with the logistical challenges of online learning in crisis mode, dancers also had to adapt to training and working in spaces that were never intended for dance. Student Kayla Muirhead said, “Developing a space large enough for movement has proven to be a bit of a challenge, but it has also propelled me to explore moving outside the home and to be innovative with the space I have.” Muirhead, whose experience of dance before college was primarily in classical ballet, could no longer take pointe class because she lacked the proper surface. So she began wearing her pointe shoes around the house and taking every opportunity to roll through from demi-pointe to full pointe in order to keep her feet and ankles strong. She has also started making site-specific work outdoors and explored the creative potential of an old railroad track near her home in Sugar Hill, GA.

Many instructors opted to forgo synchronous, real-time interaction and to move to an asynchronous format. One example is Bridget Roosa, associate professor and chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Agnes Scott College. She made this strategic teaching decision in response to the needs of both the students and the faculty who were coping with a totally new and unexpected reality.

Like many other dance faculty, however, Roosa plans to reintegrate synchronous meetings into her online classes for the summer, and the fall if online learning is still necessary because students cannot safely return to campus. She says that even though getting together in real time presents challenges to faculty and students alike, her students reported that even occasional synchronous interactions helped to provide more structure and community.

Roosa observed that although in-studio classes and in-theater performances came to a halt, the generosity of the global dance community in sharing online classes and performances opened up the world of dance for students. She said the access her students had to different forms and cultures and the opportunities they had to take open classes, where they truly felt welcome, was beautiful. Similarly, for Spelman College student Thulani Vereen, the loss of her usual schedule of classes combined with the proliferation of dance learning opportunities led to a complete restructuring of her daily life. Vereen said, “With this new presence of unstructured time, a new landscape has appeared for me to incorporate dance into my daily routine. Pre-covid . . . [t]ime was so strictly structured with starts and ends. If dance wasn’t in my schedule, it just did not happen. . . . With our current circumstances, I have the opportunity to just practice. I have prioritized studying my body and strengthening the basics of my technical foundation. . . . I’ve been dancing so much!”

Many students, however, say they have struggled to continue taking class while at home. They express feelings of disconnect from teachers and peers, or they have had difficulty finding the motivation. UGA student Kristin Jaspers struggled through a period of constant sadness and negativity in the weeks following school closures until she finally forced a change in her mindset. Since then, Jaspers has challenged herself by continuing to dance, doing yoga, building a personal website and developing dance reels and resumes.

Elizabeth Watkins described her difficulty finding “solace in moving or creating.” She said, “I took what energy and focus I had and put it towards doing whatever I had to in order to finish my classes and graduate.” Now the semester is over, and Watkins said she is “left to pick up the pieces and . . . to figure out how to connect . . . body, mind and heart again.”

Courtesy of Elizabeth Watkins, Credit: Agnes Scott College Dance Department
Watkins sits on the stage in profile, holding and gazing up at a carved wooden bedpost. She wears a short dress, brightly patterned in yellow, red and white.

Even though she “grieved in stillness,” Watkins stayed connected to Agnes Scott’s dance program nevertheless. “[E]ven though I wasn’t moving, I still loved dance and my program. I was able to feed that by running our dance department’s social media,” Watkins said. “Doing that strengthened my relationship with my professor and my classmates because I had to keep in contact with them for content and because I didn’t want to let them and the program down.”  

To salvage work in progress, students transformed their projects and are changing the art form.

Students with senior projects to complete had to cope with grief and anxiety while thinking about how to remix and remediate their work in order to salvage it. A number of them turned to film. 

Very Unpromising Material, the interdisciplinary honors thesis that Maria McNiece spent a year researching and developing, was one of the first events to be canceled. Fortunately, McNiece was still able to defend the thesis on schedule by using a previous recording. The work has been commissioned for other performances and Emory Dance has offered to produce the concert at a later date. Although it would be an incredible opportunity to present it live, McNiece feels hesitant to revisit the work with different dancers at a different time because of the “incredibly sacred” air that the initial development had.

Rebecca Neish also found herself transitioning from live choreography to a film project, despite having no substantial video editing experience. She collected raw footage from her cast of nine dancers, who are now scattered across the country, all while scrapping her original concept and drawing new inspiration to create a poignant film, For the Times

Courtesy of Maria McNiece, Credit: Christina Massad
Two dancers in dresspants and jackets stand downstage covering their eyes from a silver contraption behind them.

Like McNiece and Neish, Thulani Vereen transformed a work intended for Spelman dancers and presentation at ACDA into Amorphous, “a film to communicate how this time has made [her] feel.” Vereen hopes that “the film can also be used to help others articulate and understand their own feelings” about the experience of living through this particular historical moment. Kathleen Wessel, one of Vereen’s teachers, said Spelman is hoping to showcase Vereen’s film in the fall.

The student and faculty stories collected for this piece demonstrate how dancers are dealing creatively with the problem of how to keep dancing in radically altered circumstances where gathering together in person — to take class, to rehearse, to enjoy live performance — is unsafe or impossible. Their stories also show how dancers are clearing a path so that they and the communities they inhabit can keep moving forward into whatever comes after this. Despite the lasting mark that COVID-19 has left on the graduating class, the resilience of these students continues to grow.

Amorphous by Thulani Vereen

Students like Alyssa Myers are emerging out of this situation with renewed determination and a will to succeed. “I’ve always been interested in choreography and production but even more so now,” said Myers. “I want to go into the world and make my own work, rather than wait on someone else to hire or cast me.”  As a senior preparing to embark on a career, Myers said that this situation has actually more clearly shown her the needs of the community and how she can fill those gaps.

Madia Cooper-Ashirifi, the chair and assistant professor in Brenau University’s dance department, shared how Brenau has been dealing with change. She said, “This time of uncertainty has left us vulnerable, but the beauty of vulnerability is that innovation and creativity emerge and propel us to adapt and to be agile.” She and her colleagues turned to social media to connect with students and also to connect with a broader community. Together, they have been sharing their work and creating a conversation about the body’s expressive capacity in dance.  

Courtesy of Madia Ashirifi-Cooper, Credit: Martin O’Connor of Nashville, TN
Ashirifi-Cooper, chin resting in her cupped palms, gazes forthrightly into the camera, her wrists adorned with black and white bangles.

Comparing the versatility of his students to older generations, Emory University’s Professor of Practice Gregory Catellier believes that in some ways these students are actually better equipped to handle change. “COVID-19 has completely disrupted my profession of 20 years,” said Cattelier. “Although educators continue to grow, they do get more established in the field and form patterns of what they teach and how they teach it.” Meanwhile, he suggests that college-aged artists may adapt quicker because they are not as far along in careers.

The uncertain future raises countless questions for Atlanta dancers. It will take time to find the answers. In the meantime, artists on campuses from Decatur to Athens personify the same ideal: Atlanta dance is resilient and will come out stronger on the other side. While many artists argue that dance for camera deprives the art of its ephemeral qualities and yearn for a day when Atlanta finds ways to continue live performances, students and teachers are using the medium to create dances and reach audiences that they could not have imagined before the shift. The plethora of dance films currently emerging will someday serve as a historical record of current events for posterity. 

As artists learn how to rest their minds as well as their physical bodies, enjoy newfound hobbies and surprise society with their ingenuity, they remind us that artists have always been highly adaptable. Their studios and theaters can disappear, but their burning passion persists. As the heart of Atlanta dance, young artists are choosing not to let this setback define them. Instead, they are choosing to fight back and to stride with purpose into a future they are helping build. If you can, consider supporting your own alma mater and organizations such as the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund and C4 Atlanta with a donation so that artists in Atlanta, Georgia, and across the U.S. can continue their vital and essential work.

Faculty and students from six area colleges and universities shared their stories for this article: Agnes Scott College, Brenau University, Emory University, Kennesaw State University, Spelman College and the University of Georgia. In the coming months, Promenade and DanceATL will publish individual profiles of the artists interviewed from each school. In the meantime, we encourage you to discover and stay connected with them and their work:

Agnes Scott College 
Instagram: @danceatagnes
Bridget Roosa, MFA, Associate Professor of Dance, Chair, Department of Theatre and Dance
Elizabeth Watkins, Senior, Business Management & Dance Major, Social Media Manager, Dance Department

Brenau University 
Instagram: @brenaudance
Madia Cooper-Ashirifi, MFA, Chair and Assistant Professor of Dance
Kayla Muirhead, Senior, Dance Major

Emory University 
Instagram: @emorydanceprogram 
Angela Harris, BA, Instructor
Greg Catellier, MFA, Professor of Practice
Maria McNiece, Senior, Dance and Movement Studies/Business Administration Double Major
Rebecca Neish, Senior, Human Health Major, Dance and Movement Studies Minor

Kennesaw State University 
Instagram: @_ksudance  
McCree O’Kelley, MFA, Assistant Professor, Interim Chair of the Department of Dance
Alyssa “AJ” Myers, Senior, Dance Major
Michaela Heide, Senior, Dance Major

Spelman College 
Instagram: @spelman_dt 
Kathleen Wessel, MFA, Lecturer and Director of Spelman Dance Theater 
Thulani Vereen, Senior, Candidate for BS in Computer Science

University of Georgia 
Instagram: @ugadancedept 
Claire Peoples, Senior, Dance Major
Kristin Jaspers, Senior, Dance/Advertising Double Major

Ashley Gibson holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Kennesaw State University. During her time at KSU, she performed with the KSU Dance Company, working with renowned individuals such as Christine Welker and McCree O’Kelley. She is a current faculty member at both Studio Go and the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. Ashley is also a freelance writer in the Atlanta community and contributes to DIYdancer. When she’s not dancing or teaching, she enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors.

More from Ashley:
Courtney Lewis redefines her self-perception, welcomes future of Atlanta dance

Robin Wharton is a writer working in Atlanta, Georgia. She studied dance at the School of American Ballet and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and she was a member of Tulane University’s Newcomb Dance Company. She holds a law degree and a PhD in English, both from the University of Georgia.

More from Robin:
Sammy Spriggs creates a dance class where all bodies have value