With courses mostly online, classes based on physicality look very different
Faculties with hands-on programs such as dance, film and acting are having to take a creative approach to teaching, according to various Ryerson instructors. While theory-based programs upload their content easily, instructors of tactile arts don’t have as straightforward a path for their lessons.
Vicki St. Denys, director of the dance program at Ryerson University, says everything about the current format is different from the way it was.
“It is not possible to train a dancer through a computer screen while they attempt to move around in their small spaces like kitchens (or) bedrooms,” says St. Denys.
“It would be like trying to train a swimmer without a pool or a skater without an ice rink. It just isn’t the same.”
Typically, students are required to be in the studio constantly, taking at least two classes per day, with more hours devoted to practice. With the online format, students are only taking one online class daily.
However, dance students are also now participating in an online creative project. Each year of the program works with a different guest artist. St. Denys says they are required to do creative tasks on their own time, which usually means uploading videos of themselves that will later be compiled. The first-, second- and third-year students will present their project as a dance film festival in December. The fourth-year project is going to continue into 2021, with the hope they will have a live performance along with the film.
As can be expected, there are many limitations to this new way of teaching.
“Dance training is a form that is meant to take place in a large studio with space, sprung dance floors, barres, music and even more importantly, with other people sharing and exchanging energy, creativity, expression and inspiration,” says St. Denys.
St. Denys explains that not everyone has the proper space to dance, while some students are sharing space with others who are also working from home. She adds it is not possible to give proper feedback to individuals when students can only be seen on a computer screen, and that seeing the student move in person is an important part of both training and expression. This is especially difficult when there is often a time lag between the music and the dancing.
To better accommodate the restrictions online brings, the evaluation has changed. Students are being evaluated on their participation in classes and contributions to the creative project.
“Dancers are a resilient group of people who understand hard work, sacrifice and perseverance,” says St. Denys. “We try to encourage, inspire and challenge one another and ourselves. We appreciate coming together to feed our shared love of dance and to keep it alive, ready for the return to the stages and the studios.”
Film studies program director John Tarver used to have all of his classes in-person. The switch to remote learning shifted everything for Tarver and other professors in the Faculty of Communication and Design.
“It really threw all of us. It was a very quick adjustment that we had to make in the middle of a semester and that’s not always easy,” said Tarver.
A class that Tarver had to change completely was cinematography and studio lighting design. The course – which used to allow students to work with professional film equipment in order to learn the best set lighting methods – was altered to computer format using any helpful software Tarver could find.
“I basically had to find more post-production activities that the students could do from home on their laptops,” Tarver says.
He adds the change entails a lot more work. While he is giving lectures over Zoom to his students, he is also planning, recording and posting content materials for all of the classes he is teaching this semester.
On the brighter side, Tarver says the recorded videos he has created for his students are going to be a great resource after the pandemic.
“Even though it’s a lot of work right now, I’m feeling like it’s going to be a great online resource that could actually be really beneficial,” he says. “It’s going to free up a lot of my in-person class time with the students to just do more of a mentoring workshop, because they can watch all that other stuff, on their own time, at home on their laptops.”
Tarver says the use of a future online format can make these courses accessible to students abroad who might not have the means to travel for post-secondary. He explains that he has a student who is an exchange student, but had to stay in his home country of Germany due to COVID-19.
“Maybe this opens up an opportunity to have students in other countries join the class. It does open up the possibility of more international participation with students who would love to be involved with our students for a semester, but don’t have the resources necessarily to travel to Canada,” says Tarver.
Cole Lewis, a director of the acting program at Ryerson, says that in some ways teaching acting classes online is not that much different than it would be in person. She explains that individual coaching sessions have been done online for years, and therefore some of the classes she teaches at Ryerson are just like coaching in the professional field.
However, there are also ways acting classes have had to reframe for online and are more challenging.
“It is much more difficult for an actor to use the full capacity of their body as an expressive instrument while actively listening to a scene partner on Zoom,” says Lewis. “It takes more herculean efforts to build a sense of community and/or ensemble listening.”
Lewis doesn’t see this as entirely negative, but rather a space for innovation and disruption. She explains this is a time for students to develop their technical skills and use this opportunity to experiment with what is possible. Zoom offers a new side to acting, one that adds a way to explore more of performing arts.
“I am looking forward to seeing what kinds of new performances emerge from these explorations and I think it’s a good reminder to emerging artists to be uncompromising in their exploration of the form,” she says. “It’s easy to give up or to want to do what has always been done before, but this kind of attitude is where so much has already gone wrong in the industry.”
Lewis believes students within the School of Performance can receive the same quality of education for now, but is unsure if this will be true if online learning continues. In their classes, students document what they cannot achieve in online classes. Lewis says these shortcomings will be discussed when it is possible to congregate in person again.