Teaching dance from a distance stretches limits of creativity

Dance assignment encourages students to be innovative in tight quarters

RIT/NTID student Sam Bassel choreographed a dance in a small area between the desk, the wall and his closet for his assignment for Jazz and Hip-Hop class. Thomas Warfield, RIT Director of Dance, encouraged his students to dance in small spaces as a way to inspire creativity in this era of alternative methods of teaching and learning.

Dance requires creativity, and the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a group of RIT students with a unique opportunity to express themselves.

Missing the expanse of his dance studio in Rochester Institute of Technology’s Lyndon Baines Johnson Hall, Thomas Warfield recently challenged his 43 dance students to stretch their bodies – and minds—using small spaces in their homes. The resulting submissions from the students included routines performed inside closets, on treadmills, and in bathtubs. Warfield, RIT’s director of dance and a faculty member at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, even showcased his skills dancing underneath the piano in his living room.

Warfield wanted his students to remember that even though conditions for teaching and learning dance techniques are not ideal right now, there are always opportunities to innovate and be creative.

“I left the assignment very open ended,” explained Warfield. “They could choose whether they wanted to include music or not, and they could create their dances anywhere, using any style of dance. The important thing here is movement exploration and nurturing and strengthening creative-thinking skills. I want them to understand that no matter what the situation or challenge might be, their imaginations are pathways that transform our perceptions of a situation, allowing our minds to expand with possibilities.”

Warfield said that one student living in China was limited by intermittent Internet access and recorded his dance on his phone and uploaded it to Facebook. Another student moved twice since Spring Break and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been overwhelmed by packing and unpacking several times.

“Many of our students are scared about the future and what awaits them. Dance is one way to address the helplessness they, and all of us, may be feeling.”

A video of some of the students’ performances is available.

Madelyn Rominger, a fourth-year hospitality and tourism management major from Orchard Park, N.Y., was initially anxious about completing the assignment. but once she started dancing, she was inspired. She choreographed her dance in her closet.

“I imagined how the lighting in my closet could create a silhouette, and I just went from there.”

Student Sam Bassel lives in a small apartment and struggled at first to find a suitable spot. He decided to use a small corner in his bedroom between the desk, the wall, and the closet. “I looked for anywhere that was relatively small and that could fit me,” said Bassel, a fourth-year business management major from Sacramento, Calif. “I knew I wanted to do small, sharp movements so I didn't need too much space. All of this has been a big adjustment for me, particularly for this class.”

Some students, like second-year criminal justice major Trinity McFadden, took the assignment to new heights, dancing on top of her deep freezer, and used it to tell a story.

“I wanted people to feel chills,” joked McFadden, from Norwalk, Conn. “I honestly wanted the space I had to be a cage and I wanted to escape. But, once I escaped, I realized that it was safer to be in the cage. I didn’t want to be in the cage, but I had to.”

Warfield believes that his students are happy to continue to show off their talents even though campus is temporarily closed.

“It’s my responsibility as a teacher to demonstrate and remind them that imagination is truly a form of intelligence.”

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