Learning to Dance through COVID-Prevention Measures

As COVID-19 cases continue to emerge in universities across the United States, NYU Shanghai has taken a more conservative approach to prevention measures. Like everyone else needing to enter the academic building, dance students must go through temperature screening and abide by the rule for mandatory face masks. Health ambassadors roam across the school, enforcing the policy and distributing face masks to students who don’t have one. On top of that, there are plastic dividers that enforce social distancing in the cafeteria and library. While all students must respect these strict prevention measures, dance students at NYU Shanghai are subject to even more supervision.

The Associate Arts Professor of Dance, Aly Rose, leads the dance program on the Shanghai campus, teaching contemporary dance and choreography. Aly collaborates with Siye Tao, an Assistant Arts Professor who teaches Chinese folk and minority dances ranging from Tibetan, Mongolian, Uyghur, Yanbian Korean, Dai, Chinese classical dance, and ballet. 

This semester, all students must undergo a ritual of sanitation before entering the dance studio. This begins with face masks. Since dancing with surgical face masks makes it impossible to breathe, the university has prepared plastic face shields typically used in the food service industry. These masks also allow professors to see students’ facial expressions during their performance. All students must spray the bottoms of their feet with disinfectant and sanitize their hands, and they must do so again if they choose to leave the studio for a drink of water or use the bathroom. The university is also installing ultraviolet lights in the studio. These will be turned on at night to kill the bacteria from bodily perspiration. There is also a no-touching policy; neither students nor professors can engage in any physical contact, a first for both parties.

These policies have had an enormous impact on the types of dances students can perform. This has impacted students like Yinqi Wang, who says that “it’s natural to touch when people are dancing, (but) with the restrictions because of COVID, we can’t have bodily contact.” Usually, there are duets and trios within the performance; however, the no-touching policy has forced the professors to rechoreograph the pieces. To combat this, Professor Siye has to provide a detailed explanation of how to do the movement. “We can make interesting pieces of people dancing without contact, but this is only because we have these limitations during COVID,” Yinqi says optimistically.

Despite all of this, the professors and students are not complaining. Students majoring or minoring in dance across the world have had their plans disrupted as a result of being unable to reach a studio, or perform to their fullest potential. “We understand why the no-touch policy is in place; we are grateful that students from NYU Shanghai are even able to dance in person,” says Siye. 

Last semester, Siye taught the Dai Minority dance remotely on Zoom. She filmed over a hundred videos of the choreography for the class. “After I filmed the choreography from the front, I had to film the choreography from the back in case the students couldn’t differ from different angles.” She was always worried that the students could not make out the moves from a video. “It was difficult to edit the final performance together because people would jump at different times.”

Yinqi Wang took the online dance course last semester and said there wasn’t much room to dance in his house. The floor at his home felt nothing like the Marley floors in the dance studio. It was difficult to collaborate with other students since there was a lack of mutual encouragement. “We could see that Siye was very stressed and tried really hard for us, but there was no way to mimic a 2D visual and turn it into a 3D movement that well,” he said. Even though dance classes are now in person, Yinqi still feels like he’s looking at a screen when Siye demonstrates the movements in class.

Unfortunately, the final performance that students work on for the entire semester will not be happening in December. Dance is performance art, and when such a huge component is taken away, the class lacks something. Yet, students like Yinqi and Professor Siye remain optimistic, agreeing “these are small frustrations, but we can still be passionate about our dancing.” 

Surprisingly, quite a few silver linings have come from the pandemic. All students now have a greater appreciation for dancing together such as Xiao Liang. “Having a collective space is a powerful thing. You create, dance, and simply be with one another in the studio. I hope we can transform that huge privilege and energy into something great.” With the addition of go-local students from New York, there are over 150 dance students this semester. They are grateful that room 808 is solely used for dance, whereas in previous semesters other departments also used it for yoga and hip-hop classes. Students can also use the filmed lectures from previous semesters as references for this semester and at any other time. 

Students and professors on the Shanghai campus are making extreme efforts to integrate COVID prevention routines and those currently implemented in the academic building. Most dance classes outside of NYU Shanghai have returned to normal; performers can touch one another and perform for large audiences. Thus, students have high hopes that the pandemic’s situation will improve so they can return to their regular dance routines.

Photos: Rui-jun Zhang, Students of Minority and Folk Dance FA 2020 – Performed Korean Sogo dance

This article was written by Kathy Kaixin Song currently based in Shanghai. Please send an email to kks412@nyu.edu or contact on Instagram @kathesong to get in touch.

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