A Digital Dance

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 5/7/2020

Categories: F1RST Magazine F1RST Summer 2020 Faculty and Staff Pioneers Persevere Theatre Arts

Computer monitor showing video chat
Theatre arts professor James Zager's computer monitor displayed class members doing their warmup routines.
The note James Zager received from his condo association was to the point: you can’t have a dance party at 10 o’clock. Apparently, some of his neighbors took umbrage at the music and dancing coming from his condo two mornings a week. A dance party? During a pandemic? 

But Zager, a professor of theatre arts, wasn't hosting raves in his condominium, he was actually trying to teach his theatre dance class. Online.

When Carroll announced in March that the remainder of the spring semester would be taught online, Zager had mixed feelings. He teaches Intro to Theatre Arts, a big lecture class, and he could envision that being taught digitally, with recorded lectures, assigned readings and homework assignments all completed online. But his other class? Theatre Dance? Here is how the course is described in the course catalog: “Exploration of various dance styles within the context of dance performance. This course will include the analysis and practice of dance techniques from various periods of theatrical dance.”

Zager had been teaching the class in a dance studio on campus. It’s a semester of demonstration, rehearsal, observation and performance, all done in a large, open space surrounded by mirrors. It’s a choreography of gestures small and grand, of jumps, runs and drops.

Lectures, he could move online. But the dance class? 

“When you are in a studio together with mirrors, it’s one thing, but when you are in your basement or bedroom, it’s another thing altogether,” Zager said. In this class, the 10 students learn and practice about various styles of dance through history. How could he properly demonstrate the choreography and observe their attempts to learn it?

The answer came to him in a training session Carroll presented to faculty during the extended spring break. The seminars were created to help teachers move their classes online and determine best practices for delivering content to students. The lecture class could be taught asynchronously, with readings and assignments spread out over the course of the week. But the dance class would work best presented live to students at the regular class time, twice a week. 

At ten o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Zager and his students gathered together virtually. The students see Zager; Zager sees all of the students. He demonstrates choreography, moving further from the camera to highlight larger moves, the moving closer to demonstrate smaller gestures. 

It is not ideal. The confines of his condo limit the scope of the movements he can perform. And his students deal with similar issues—one tunes in from his parent’s basement and others have improvised studio spaces in bedrooms and dens. 

Yet, being apart has in some ways brought the class even closer together. He has met his students’ boyfriends and girlfriends, parents and pets online. One student performed a duet with their dog.

“There is a real bonding that goes on,” Zager said. “Best practice is that you log in and turn your mic off. We did away with that. In each class as everyone is gathering, we have this personal conversation. Chat with me, chat with each other. And at the end of class, I make sure everyone can see each other and talk to one another.”

They are, after all, in this together. 

As for Zager’s neighbors? “Once they knew what I was doing, that I was teaching a class, they were very sweet.” 


In Difficult Times, PIONEERS Persevere

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