Straps around their heads tighten with a toggle, and nose wires pinch in place. They move within 12-by-15-foot rectangular zones, their masks secured amid droplets of sweat.
Dancers like Hannah Weinmaster, a senior in the University of Arizona School of Dance, are used to dancing freely, side-by-side. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, campus dance studios bubbled with interaction as dancers glided close together, traversing in sync to choreography.
“It’s been extremely challenging … a journey to find a mask that works and is breathable,” Weinmaster says. “Still, I take whatever I can get. Dancers will do anything to be in a studio and be together — to do what we love to do.”
The dancers left for spring break in March and didn’t return to campus until the fall. After enjoying state-of-the-art facilities with sprung floors, they found themselves working at home on carpet, tile, and uneven surfaces to finish the spring semester on Zoom.
Faculty did their best to be supportive. “We realized in March we had to reinvent the wheel,” says Sam Watson, UArizona artist in residence and a faculty member since 1999.
Living rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms became dance studios. One student attended Zoom calls with a hot spot on a dry-docked boat.
“One thing we’ve learned is to never take for granted the space to dance. Being in a dance studio is sacred space,” Watson says.
At UArizona, strict protocols are now in place for in-person learning, and dancers are tested weekly for the coronavirus. Studios in the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre that once held 45 dancers now include space for 12 dancers in cordoned-off grids. Class space for 24 dancers also was created in the Ina Gittings Building’s gym.
Dancers don’t cross out of their assigned spaces. Water bottles are allowed in the lower right corner of each rectangle — and if they are accidentally kicked over, spills trigger interruptive cleaning protocols.
Faculty accommodate students in person and on Zoom during the same class. They’ve adapted to provide dance combinations that allow students to practice techniques.
“Zoom will never replace in-person, but some elements are here to stay,” Watson says. “I realize how important contact is — being able to go up to them and offer an adjustment or ‘drop your shoulder.’”
Social interaction and learning from peers may be at a minimum for students, but appreciation for dance has deepened.
“We’re a close-knit dance community. Sweating, dancing, hugging each other,” Weinmaster says. “Faculty rewired how we learn so we can be in person. It shows they are absolutely with us. If they weren’t, they would have kept us on Zoom.
“Anything is better than dancing in my living room.”
By senior year, most dancers have come to understand their path. While uncertainty is part of graduating, it is tempered with excitement for the future.
“I would love to move to New York City and pursue a dance company — Broadway, Rockettes, a modern contemporary company. My big dream would be to dance somewhere in Europe with a European company,” Weinmaster says.
“When you are a senior, the uncertainty is so real — and now we have this scenario, so it is even more. A lot of us are scared and looking forward to being the next generation of students who made it through, persevered and kept dance alive.”