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Returning to the stage: How the dance and drama departments are adjusting after COVID-19 lockdowns

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Bianka Heather/THE REVIEW
With the return of hybrid and in-person classes, students and faculty in the dance and drama departments are coming to terms with the benefits and challenges of pursuing their passions in a pandemic.

BY
Staff Reporter

Past a narrow alley off the street and down a quiet, dark flight of stairs there’s something that hasn’t been in the dance minor studio in a while: music. 

As on- and off-campus life begins to adjust back to operating in person, there are few departments more grateful — and strained — than the dance and drama departments at the university. 

It wasn’t long ago when Gabby Leri, a senior majoring in biology and minoring in dance, was forced to rearrange her three-room apartment in order to attend her online dance classes. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday she moved her couch to the corner of the living room and her ottoman to the front hallway. Jumps and turns were difficult, and as the semester progressed she began to accumulate bruises on her legs from colliding with the nearby chairs and table. The frustration she felt during the times of online classes caused her to lose motivation for one of her passions. 

Students and faculty in the dance and drama departments agree that these programs simply can’t be replicated online. Given that there are still restrictions in place, the departments continue to struggle with readjusting to in-person formats. In some ways, things will never quite return to normal.

Before the pandemic hit, the Resident Ensemble Players (REP), the professional theater group on campus, would put on six to eight productions per year. E-52 Student Theatre, an extracurricular theatre group, put on an additional three productions per semester. The dance minor would hold one main performance every March, titled “Continuum,” that showcased all of the different styles and skills found within the dance minor. 

“I can honestly say that every moment in these productions were incredible,” Jenna Dorrian, president of E-52 Student Theatre, said. “Sure, there were tough moments during the process, but we always have a way of working together and coming out with the best moments.” 

Not only have these programs provided an outlet for self-expression to students and faculty — they have also improved the physical and mental well-being of students.

“Drama has such amazing benefits to my well being,” Dorrian said. “It takes a load off from the stress and anxiety that comes with classes and being away from home. It’s truly something that has positive impacts on my mental health.” 

The strength that dance requires empowers students like Leri.

“It’s amazing what your body is capable of,” Leri said. “The flexibility and strength I gained from dance makes me feel powerful and in tune with my body and mind.”

When the pandemic forced class structures to change, the dance and drama programs were both forced to hold their classes online. With these types of programs, where physical closeness and collaboration are so crucial to their success, the online format took away the charm and benefits that drew students to the programs and the activities as a whole. 

“There are so many details you wouldn’t think about becoming a problem,” Leri said. “The teacher can’t tell when students are out of breath, the sense of cohesion is no longer there. There are also issues with internet lags and timing the dance to the music over Zoom.”

Adjusting to pandemic restrictions was equally difficult for drama students, who weren’t able to feed off each other’s energy, emotions or body language in the same way. 

“The department is taught by professional actors and staff, ” Dorrian said. “Because of COVID they all had to somehow transfer their lessons and classes to still work. This was difficult especially for classes like stage combat. But they are incredibly resilient and made it work.” 

In addition to the struggles that came with online classes, the drama department in particular suffered setbacks in funding and resource shortages. 

“The administration reduced the REP budget by more than 50% and laid off all but a very few of the REP staff,” Sandy Robbins, chair of the Department of Theatre, said. “Some staff members took early retirement to avoid being laid off.”  

However, according to Janice Bibik, advisor for the dance minor, there were no restrictions on budget or staff for the dance program during the height of the pandemic.

Regardless, these adjustments and budget cuts had major consequences on the mental and physical well-being of the students. 

“When I grew up dancing, it was always social — just being a part of the collective,” Leri said. “During COVID, I didn’t know anything about anyone in class, and that made me feel less connected to dance in general.” 

Dorrian echoed this sentiment.

“It definitely affected my mental health,” she said. “Losing the drama outlet was incredibly difficult, and I absolutely struggled. I didn’t have a chance to express myself and enjoy something that makes me so happy. Especially during the beginning of COVID, we had no idea when it would ever come back, but I’m so grateful that it actually did.” 

Although in-person classes have mostly returned, Robbins acknowledged that these departments may never be the same. 

“Because of the severe reductions, the REP will henceforward be able to produce only one to two plays per year instead of the six to eight plays it produced pre-COVID,” Robbins said. 

Despite this, Robbins maintained that classes have been going well since the return to hybrid and in-person classes. The department is additionally attempting to get creative with putting on live performances. 

“The REP is doing audio plays online for free this fall as we work out how to produce live performances with very limited resources in the future,” he said. 

Although Robbins will be stepping down from leading the Department of Theatre at the end of the academic year, for now, he is excited to offer the public at least one play. 

The dance program, on the other hand, seems to be adjusting well to the return of live performances according to its faculty. According to Bibik, the major showcase will return in March. For now, the dance program mostly struggles with balancing hybrid classes and attempting to maintain cohesion within the program. 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve done an eight hour rehearsal,” Kimberly Schroeder, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre, said. 

During rehearsal, students are once again able to watch and learn alongside their classmates and instructors. However, they still have trouble connecting with their peers. 

“I sometimes think this is not what I thought my students looked like,” Schroeder said as she staged her students into a socially distanced performance formation. “I sometimes miss Zoom because I can see everyone’s faces.” 

Overall, students like Dorrian are appreciative that they are able to participate in the activities that they love. 

“I’m just eternally grateful to be in person and work with everyone again,” Dorrian said. “It’s just so nice to be involved again and do something that makes me happy.”

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