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CMU dance returns to in-person activities this semester

As the COVID-19 pandemic caused a worldwide halt to life in March 2020 and Carnegie Mellon University transitioned to virtual learning for the rest of the Spring 2020 semester and beyond, dance- and performance-based organizations at the university found themselves in a uniquely difficult position. The Tartan spoke with representatives and members of some dance organizations to find out how they navigated the pandemic and the virtual semesters and how they are staging a comeback for this in-person semester.

While Spring 2020 was a virtual semester starting in March, Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 were hybrid semesters with about half of the student community on campus. “We tried a lot of different things,” said Matías Jonsson, a captain of the Carnegie Mellon Ballroom Dance Club and fifth-year senior in physics and computer science, speaking of how the organization managed to function during the hybrid semesters. They did not conduct any in-person meetings and instead adopted some virtual learning measures like conducting social events on Gather.town and paying their coaches to “continue teaching things that members could work on on their own” via Zoom.

Dance sessions on Zoom, it appears, were a common measure undertaken by many dance organizations on campus. But it came with its own set of challenges. Jonsson explained that though one could learn technique and how to move through Zoom lessons, learning how to move with a partner — an essential skill in ballroom dancing — would be hard to work on in a pandemic setting.

Ashima Sharma, a captain of Carnegie Mellon Jiya, the all-female Bollywood fusion dance team, and a civil engineering senior, echoed the sentiment. Jiya is a group dance team whose choreography involves synchronized movements among its dancers. “The whole point of dancing is you’re dancing on the same beat,” she said. “It’s really hard to achieve that sync at all over Zoom.” Members of the team were scattered across the country and faced a wide variety of technical issues; they experienced trouble with audio and video transmission delay, poor WiFi and internet connectivity, and live streaming-related problems. Despite the issues and the resulting annoyance, Sharma said, it was nice to be able to be social and active.

Some managed to have in-person meetings with the few members on campus during the hybrid semesters, but the strict COVID-19 mitigation rules on campus premises naturally limited interactions and brought up other issues. Having facial coverings on while performing meant adapting to not being able to emote through facial expressions. Sharma explained that members of Jiya learned to practice moving their eyes more often, and wore costumes and choreographed movements that emoted what they could not.

Besides the mask mandate, activities that entailed physical exertion, such as dancing, required 10 feet of social distancing. SLICE worked with the Cohon Center and the athletics department to add visual indications in places like studio spaces to assist the organizations in maintaining distance.

Many organizations felt challenged by only being able to perform indoors with limited capacities and few options to have an end-of-the-year performance according to Elizabeth Koch, associate director of SLICE, in an emailed response to questions from The Tartan. SLICE and the Activities Board worked together to advocate for the outdoor stage last year, which was used by organizations to record dance videos and host limited in-person, end-of-the-year performances.

Keeping up member participation also proved challenging for many organizations throughout the virtual semesters as more people experienced Zoom fatigue. For Lili Chang, who was the artistic director for the Carnegie Mellon Helix Dance Crew at the time and is now one of their choreographers and a senior studying business and computer science, trying to keep the team morale high was a priority. She explained the importance of camaraderie with people in the team, and the effect the loss of it has in a group setting. “Everyone going to practice and talking to each other … [it] doesn’t happen over Zoom, so it kind of makes going into practice really dreary,” she rued.
“It was draining,” revealed Jonsson. “Every semester, we would see fewer people show up to the Zoom calls. And there was nothing we could do.” At some point, people were so exhausted from Zoom calls that adding one to their schedule just so they could dance alone in their rooms was not feasible. “[If] everything being hybrid had lasted one more semester, I think our club might not have made it,” he admitted.

As many students returned to campus this semester for the first time since the pandemic started, it was also an opportunity for the organizations to rejuvenate and recruit. The new COVID-19 mitigation rules, while still requiring facial coverings on campus, now also require students, staff, and faculty to be fully vaccinated with exemptions for medical and religious reasons, and indoor gatherings of up to 50 people are now permitted. The success of the Activities FAIR on Sept. 14 resulted in a large number of signups for many organizations.

“Seeing over 100 people come and then seeing them continue to come back to our lessons and seeing how excited they were to learn how to dance — it brought back my motivation,” revealed Jonnson, recollecting the Ballroom Dance Club rush this semester. To abide by the COVID-19 indoor gathering rules, they divided the Rangos Ballroom in the University Center into three rooms and had about 50 people in each room during the rush events. According to him, they had over 200 people sign up for the mailing list and 60 of them paid membership dues.

Chang, too, is happy to have her team members interact in the same space again. “Having people cheer for each other, and hype each other up — it was really fun,” she said, reminiscing about a choreography homework session where everyone has to choreograph their own small thing and then perform it for the team. “That’s probably one of my favorite moments, just watching everyone dance.”