Dance orgs reimagine recruitment, rehearsal, performance

HYPE members practice distanced dancing. Courtesy of Onyinyechi Attah.

Despite Vassar’s recent shift into Phase Two, many student organizations still feel restricted by current safety regulations. Of the countless clubs operating this semester, performing arts orgs are perhaps the most affected by the pandemic. Mask-wearing and physical distancing, though necessary precautions, complicate the lives of student performers who use their voices and bodies for creative expression. But with some technological tweaks, unconventional rehearsal strategies and a little ingenuity, dance organizations at Vassar are discovering new ways to share their art without spreading COVID-19. 

Many Vassar students felt apprehensive about returning to campus and adhering to COVID-19 guidelines after nearly six months in quarantine. Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre (VRDT) member Emily Tieu ’24 admitted to feeling nervous about adapting to these restrictions in addition to starting college and joining a new company. She explained, “When corona started, I danced a little bit at my home studio with a mask on, and it’s definitely very different. You’re like, ugh. You get really tired really easily and you get very sweaty.” VRDT, the faculty-run dance company on campus, strives to give students professional-level experience in choreography and performance. This semester, some worried that pandemic protocols would impede that goal.

Director of VRDT and Chair of Dance John Meehan shared these concerns. “People are socially distanced in the studio, we have only a certain number in the studio at one time, there’s no touching at this point, there’s no dancing close to each other. With all of that in mind, we had a very anxious summer wondering how it was going to work,” he stated.

Artistic Director Maliya Faulstich ‘21 and Tech Director of the multi-genre dance org FlyPeople Leah Rebarber ’21 were also wary of these limitations, and almost suspended recruitment. “We were actually debating whether or not we were going to have auditions at all this semester beforehand because of COVID,” said Rebarber, noting that FlyPeople is the only student-run group that holds auditions. Normally, the process involves close group interaction, including the entire company piling into the audition room to encourage prospective members. With social distancing in effect, this tradition wasn’t possible. 

However, the directors soon realized the importance of admitting new members, not just for adding numbers, but for the incoming first-year dancers. “We were thinking, you know, the freshmen coming in with COVID [restrictions], this sucks already, and their social interactions are definitely not what we had … We wanted an opportunity not only to get to know them, but also to let them get to know us,” explained Faulstich. She and Rebarber both described FlyPeople as a tight-knit community made up of dancers from all genres and training levels—  a community that they didn’t want to close off to new members just because they had to maintain physical distance.

In response to these challenges, Faulstich created a COVID-safe audition plan with the goal to “not just accommodate, but have a sense of normalcy and still give everyone a fair chance.” In addition to the socially distanced dances at Kenyon Hall, FlyPeople also allowed for virtual auditioners, integrating three remote members. All potential recruits were asked to send in a home video of their own “personality walks” to give the group a glimpse of their individuality without the obstruction of a mask. The plan was a success, and the group recently welcomed seven first-year dancers to the FlyPeople family. 

For VRDT, the audition process for underclassmen was altered to ease the program’s transition. Meehan explained that  the entire company would have to re-audition for a spot in the program under normal circumstances. This year being the exact opposite of normal, he shared, “[The faculty] just auditioned people who hadn’t been in the company before, which is mainly freshmen and sophomores. And, you know, we figured it out!”

Many of the non-audition groups on campus experienced a similar need for imaginative recruitment. Co-Creative Director of hip hop ensemble HYPE Ilana Frost ’22 explained that new members in past years usually came from tabling at the org fair, which was virtual this semester to avoid large crowds. Although promoting the org exclusively online was a strange transition, Frost was happy with the outcome. She wrote in an emailed statement, “We did that this year on Zoom, which was different, but worked out!”

Korean Dance Crew (KoDC) President Sam Sze ’21 agreed that the online turnout was better than she expected. She was initially concerned that the group would remain under the radar at virtual events: “Because it was online, people would have to have, like, an interest and kind of know what we do before they signed up,” Sze explained. Despite this virtual hurdle, KoDC held its ground. The org added  about 45 new students to its email list from the online “table.” 

After adopting COVID-safe recruitment processes, the next challenge for dance organizations was finding a safe way to rehearse with new members. During the first few weeks, the student orgs relied entirely on virtual meetings for ensemble building. “We’ve had, like, Zoom events and we basically played games and we had ‘Meet Our Arranger Team,’” Sze shared.

When Kenyon Hall Studios One and Two opened to students, the groups were eager to kickstart real rehearsals in a familiar, physical setting. But despite glimpses of normalcy from in-person practice, rehearsing during the pandemic has proven to be anything but typical. 

“There’s a restriction on how many people can be in the studio, so we have to check in and stay 6 feet apart (there are marked boxes for that.) We also clean after we’re finished,” Frost noted in her email. The check-in, Faulstich explained, is to ensure limited capacity and allow for contact tracing. She also mentioned the thorough post-rehearsal clean-up. “You have to cut rehearsals short by about ten minutes because you have to wipe down all the floors, sanitize everything, and clean out the windows.” 

To accommodate the reduced capacity rules, FlyPeople has taken to renting out both studios during the same hour and teaching the same choreography to two separate groups for each piece. “I’d say the main difference is that we’re not able to have everyone in one room which definitely does create a disconnect,” Rebarber shared. While mixing up the Studio One and Studio Two groups each week does help spark new connections, she and Faulstich agree that the split has proven challenging. 

The precautions are strict, but most dancers don’t mind the physical limitations as much as the emotional block that comes with them. In a pandemic dance space, not only is the choreography required to be separate, but the performers themselves are forced apart. “It’s kind of difficult because a lot of ballet has to do with touch … As dancers you wanna like—or just as people—you wanna hug people and say hi,” Tieu admitted. 

Student leaders feel the strain as well, especially when trying to connect with first-year dancers. For student groups like KoDC, FlyPeople and HYPE, General Body (GB) meetings are a regular opportunity to bond as a group and  get to know each other while learning the group piece choreo. Now, the usual excitement of GBs is dampened by limitations on social interactions.

“The challenge I think we’re most running into, besides just how we run rehearsals, is how we’re fostering a sense of community again, and how we’re going to do bonding activities and continue to stay in touch and get to know each other while maintaining safe distance,” Faulstich said.

Sze described splitting KoDC’s first in-person GB rehearsal into two groups based on interest. She shared, “We basically booked both Studios One and Two and we held two different pieces during that to be taught. And so people signed up and ranked their preference.” And while the logistics were successful, she described the energy as “sparse” without a full group presence. KoDC also split the executive board between the two studios during GBs to make the best use of time and space, which Sze admitted has “dampened the energy.”

As for future performance plans, all traditional fall semester showcases and dance org events have been canceled at the moment. However, that hasn’t stopped student groups from being creative. “We’re transitioning a lot of our performance pieces into potential video projects,” Sze said. Plus, according to Sze and Frost, KoDC and HYPE are in the process of organizing an in-person, COVID-safe collaboration with other student-run groups. In an emailed statement, Frost hinted, “There may or may not be an outdoor ~flash mob~ at some point ;)”.

VRDT is also making the best of the performance limitations. While Meehan doesn’t see an outdoor flash mob in VRDT’s future (“it’s going to be too cold to dance outside!”) he’s confident that the company’s rehearsals will pay off in the future. “What we’re trying to do at this point is think about developing choreographic material in the fall and then, if restrictions are eased enough in the spring, we’ll manipulate the work we’ve done to choreography that doesn’t have to keep to these protocols,” Meehan said.

Despite the challenges that come with physical and emotional distance, most dancers are just grateful to be back in the studio. Faulstich described her experience as, “One of those things where you don’t know you need it, but once you do it, you’re like ‘oh my God, I feel so much better.’” Beyond personal catharsis, simply being surrounded by other students who share a love of art and performing can sometimes be the best medicine for quarantine blues. Tieu called the experience humbling, and said, “When you’re dancing in a room with people, you’re so inspired by them.” While coronavirus protocols have made the studios at Vassar a little sparser, and the dancers a little more spaced apart, the inspiration for dance organizations to express their art has only been magnified by the limitations they’ve encountered and overcome. As Faulstich said, “We’re gonna do it because we love to dance.”

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