Finding their footing and their frame: Creativity a must for dancers during pandemic 

  • Dancing in the age of COVID-19: a snapshot from a Zoom-based lesson for students with Northampton’s School for Contemporary Dance & Thought. Image courtesy Jen Polins

  • Dancing in the age of COVID-19: a snapshot from a Zoom-based lesson for students with Northampton’s School for Contemporary Dance & Thought. Image courtesyJen Polins

  • Partners Em Papineau, left, and Sofia Engelman of Northampton have been able to continue rehearsing together but are currently teaching dance online. Photo by Peter Raper/courtesy Sofia Engelman

  • Partners Em Papineau, standing, and Sofia Engelman or Northampton have been able to continue rehearsing together but are currently teaching dance online. Photo by Derek Fowles/courtesy Sofia Engelman

  • Left, Sofia Engelman and Em Papineau demonstrate one of their dance poses in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2020 8:06:34 AM

You can use Zoom and other video-conference platforms for a fair amount in the arts: Musicians can perform from their homes, painters can give lessons, novelists can host a discussion about plot structure and dialogue.

What about dancers?

The limitations of doing things remotely — the fixed position of a camera, the inability to be together physically — would seem to be a huge drawback for documenting a physical activity like dancing. But area dancers and teachers say they’re finding creative ways within those limitations to stay sharp during the pandemic.

Sofia Engelman, a Northampton dancer and Smith College graduate, says when the COVID-19 pandemic hit — closing all the local performing venues and places where she teaches, such as the School for Contemporary Dance & Thought (SCD&T) in Northampton — she simply redirected her focus.

“I just kind of accepted where we were and what we were going to be able to do,” said Engelman. “I think there are actually some exciting new possibilities … instead of dance taking place in a big venue on a stage, we can look at creating something in smaller, more intimate spaces like a room of someone’s home.”

Engelman has a few advantages at the moment. Her partner in life, Em Papineau, has also been her regular dance partner, so the two have continued to rehearse together (their choreography draws heavily on Contact Improvisation, a contemporary dance form created in the early 1970s). With the weather improving, they sometimes go outside, or they practice at home.

Engelman has also continued to lead classes via Zoom with many of her students at SCD&T, and she says that dancers anywhere can now sign up for online classes with top-flight instructors who, because of the pandemic, are giving remote lessons. She notes that one of those dancers, K.J. Holmes, a dance artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York, recently led such a session through SCD&T.

“I miss not being able to go out to other people’s shows right now, and obviously the kind of collaborating we’re doing now is very different,” Engelman added. “But I’m also seeing some really creative and interesting [dance] videos that people are posting on Vimeo and Instagram. I think the key right now is to keep things short.”

And as a teacher, she said, “I also like the challenge of trying to describe something rather than just demonstrate it.”

Creative solutions

Despite some improvisation, the reality is that not being able to dance live or collaborate with others dancers in such a setting is still a drawback for many. Dance, says Matthew Adelson, is “by its nature a very intimate experience that’s designed to be shared by the performers and the audience. Physical contact is integral. How do you replace that?”

That’s a question Adelson had to put much thought into this spring: He’s the production manager for Five College Dance, the coordinating agency for the dance departments at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and four local liberal arts colleges. He and teachers in those dance departments had to pivot almost overnight in March when schools shut down and dance students had to begin taking online classes (as of fall of 2019, there were about 100 dance majors in the Five College system, while over 460 other students took at least one dance class).

“This was definitely a new learning experience,” said Adelson, who notes that the unmoving cameras of Zoom and other video-conference platforms restrict dancers to moving within a fairly narrow area, generally doing so solo.

Nevertheless, Adelson said Five College Dance was able to create some online projects for students, including ones that students did to complete classwork on the design aspects of putting on a dance performance: lighting, sound, stage management and other tasks. Five College Dance has also compiled an extensive list of online resources for dance students and teachers, including videos of performances.

Dance “has really taken to a digital platform with great speed,” said Alexandra Ripp, director of Five College Dance. “It’s something we’re continuing to explore every day, since it’s not clear when we’ll be able to be together again.”

Adelson says he has been encouraged to see students sticking to their studies and not switching to other majors or “hiding under a blanket. Everyone is trying really hard to do what they can under the circumstances, staying motivated and thinking creatively.”

Jen Polins, the founding director of SCD&T in Northampton, says she has continued to teach a number of her classes online, including with members of Hatchery, the school’s dance company for students ages 13 to 18. The physical limitations of Zoom can be turned to good visual effect, she suggests, by having students “disappear and then reappear” from the camera in their separate spaces. She also encourages her students to “use their own spaces as part of their material, which adds some real variety” to the combined remote dance.

A video Polins posted in early May from one of those sessions, for instance, shows 15 dancers all moving in various ways in their homes and using their proximity or distance from the camera for special effects, such as showing just their hands at close range.

Certain dance practices, such as working alongside a ballet barre, don’t require much lateral movement, Polis notes, and as such can easily be taught online. Zoom itself has “breakout rooms” that also allow students to divide into small groups, so they can work with one another, she says.

“I’m really encouraging them to improvise and come up with variations on the way we do things,” added Polis. “I know this situation is not ideal, but I have to say I find it quite fascinating from a creative standpoint.

“In a way, it’s really therapeutic, a way to get away from the isolation we’re all dealing with,” she added. “We’ll continue to explore what we can do in this new situation we’re in.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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