Point Park Dancers’ Struggle through COVID-19

Written By Virginia Garner, News Photo Editor

Learning online has been a big adjustment for all students. Going to in-person classes every day and interacting with their peers has turned into black screened Zoom calls tucked away in bedrooms or living rooms. It’s been one year since remote learning began, and students are beginning to reflect on their evolution during the pandemic. 

The dancers at Point Park have had an especially difficult transition. 

Dance is an extremely collaborative art form. Partnering and physical interaction are vital to many group pieces, as well as cooperative efforts for choreography ideas and storylines. Participating in dance classes virtually has caused professors and students alike to overcome obstacles they may never have thought they’d have to face in their dance careers. 

Last March when COVID-19 caused Point Park students to abruptly leave campus and take classes remotely, leaving the faculty to have to alter their curriculums quickly. This past fall, students were able to return to campus, given that they must follow strict COVID-19 guidelines of mask requirements, social distancing and limited capacities in classrooms. 

Courtney Hart, originally from Allen, Texas, has been dancing for 17 years. After all that time dancing pre-COVID, the 22-year-old reflects on her former ‘normal’ career. 

“Before COVID, one thing that I think we all took for granted was being able to dance with each other and physically touch,” Hart said. “Many classes involve dancing with someone else, such as improvisation or contemporary partnering.” 

Now, dancing on campus at Point Park looks very different. 

“Taped off boxes on the floor, waiting 30 minutes in between each class, warming up outside of the studios, never being able to touch physically, and keeping your masks on at all times is our reality now,” Hart said. “It sounds like a lot, but we all knew that it’s what needed to be done in order for us to be able to finish our year together. We are very lucky that we even have the opportunity to come together in the same space.” 

Dancers who are completely remote and do not attend in-person classes are faced with a whole new world of struggles and will continue to face them until normality resumes. Studying from the Atlantic Ocean on the island of Bermuda, 21-year-old senior Mikayla Wilson feels that dancing remotely has been challenging yet rewarding. She’s had to learn how to reverse choreography, as each move is backwards on her computer screen. Additionally, she’s had to take classes from her home at times, causing her to miss the large open spaces of a Point Park dance studio. 

“Dancing at Point Park pre-COVID was amazing. It felt free, and I experienced a lot of growth,” Wilson said. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned from dancing during COVID is how to adapt.” 

Not only do the students have to adjust to these changes, but professors also have to modify their teaching techniques in innovative ways so they, too, can accommodate the times. Garfield Lemonius, the department chair for dance at Point Park, did not respond to a request for more information regarding the department’s decision-making process in how to conduct classes amidst COVID-19. 

Pearlann Porter has been teaching at Point Park, her alma mater, for 21 years since she graduated in 1999. Teaching improvisation, modern-repertoire and contact-improvisation, Porter has always strived to teach dancers to be as adaptive as possible; the pandemic could not have come at a better time. 

“This whole situation with the pandemic upending the normal idea of teaching has been my bread and butter,” Porter said. “It’s just another circumstance, it’s just another situation that we have to deal with, it’s just another set of parameters that are unexpected, but that’s improvisation.” 

Porter has taken to moving her classes outside, allowing her student to experience sight-specific dancing in downtown Pittsburgh. Outside, there are no space restrictions, no boxes on the floor or limited capacities and plenty of fresh air. Point State Park, Market Square, Garrison Place and Strawberry Way are just a few of the spots Porter’s classes can be seen improvising. 

“It’s been such a joy to take them to all these different locations. The students have really taken to it,” Porter said. “It’s made them understand something totally different about their performance. When you have audience members going to work, observers waiting for the bus or someone having a smoke break … they’ll walk right up to my class wanting to know more about dance. The students are having to encounter real people in real time. We’re not incubated in studios and holding our work hostage for ticket prices in theaters. It’s free and open, and available to the public, and that has definitely taken my class to a completely new place. I hope to always continue to keep these aspects a part of my class even after COVID.” 

With all of these alterations to her last year at Point Park, Hart feels as though it’s made her stronger as a dancer. 

“Personally, I think the class of 2021 dancers are resilient. As artists, we are trained to adapt to different circumstances sometimes in a matter of minutes,” Hart said. “If this virus taught us anything, it’s that there is always a way to shift your perspective and adapt to the circumstances around you versus trying to maintain the same approach because it’s what feels safe.” 

While pushing her dancers to adapt in never-before-seen ways amidst a pandemic, Porter has also been able to accomplish something she has been trying to implement in the dance department for years, full participation in performances. Under normal circumstances, auditions were held for the four live performances a year, and not everyone was cast. According to Porter, there are some students that won’t get cast in the performances for years; she knows this feeling all too well because she was one of those students. The old audition process involved large groups of dancers cramming into a studio space, but with capacity rules due to COVID-19, these types of auditions can’t take place. Although these auditions were stressful, what senior Point Park dancer Samantha Doyle misses most about life pre-COVID are the live performances. She feels that although these auditions were taxing, they were worth it to be able to perform. 

“This year, we’re able to have performances that were filmed and broadcasted, which is great,” Doyle said. “But there’s nothing like that live performance aspect.” 

So, this was the first year that everyone has been able to and will be able to perform through video and live-streamed performances in the Playhouse. Porter has been fighting for these changes for years, and they’re finally happening. 

“I’m hopeful that things don’t go back to the old normal; I don’t necessarily think that was working,” Porter said. “We have this scorched earth kind of moment; we have the opportunity to build back better. I want to see Point Park take this opportunity not as an intermission but as a reboot.” Visit https://playhouse.pointpark.edu/ for the livestream link and ticket information for ChoreoLab 4, broadcasting May 12-16.