Alone on a dance floor where time has stopped, SUNY Potsdam students are drawing powerful lessons from a pandemic.
While they’re grappling like the rest of us with a new and overwhelming poverty in their social spheres, students are also learning about the power and limitations of their own bodies, how to build themselves from the inside, and the importance of what we have all temporarily lost.
In early March, SUNY Potsdam Assistant Professor of Dance Cynthia DuFault watched the coronavirus pandemic avalanche across the world stage, and when social distancing and online courses became a mandate, she was ready. On March 23, DuFault launched cyndance.org. The site is a visually appealing and unabashed love letter to the art of the dance. But it’s more.
For the students of DuFault’s four beginning and intermediate modern dance and ballet courses, Cyndance has become a resource center, a virtual community and a source of validation where students can express themselves and see the expression of others. As part of their curriculum, dance students write weekly self-assessments to evaluate how well the classes are going. The summaries range widely over the technical landscapes of dance and also the emotional ones, serving not just as scholarly tools but also therapeutic introspection upon a changed world.
“These uneasy — and frankly bleak — times often involve feeling numb as a means to deal with the whirlwind of updates, and change to future plans I had been relying on for months and years,” wrote Maria Wisniewski, in one assessment. “A month or so ago, no one would have anticipated this situation. What people have been forced to learn over the course of the pandemic and its devastating effects, is how much we rely on each other. We rely on one another to function in the way we desire, to feel happy, and to live comfortably. This is not a bad truth. This is quite beautiful and humbling.”
Dance is primarily a group act, an expression of social cohesion since the earliest of times. DuFault acknowledged there are critical benefits that only in-person training can offer. Despite these limitations, Cyndance has become a learning e-portal for new discoveries and real-life fundamentals like goal setting, balancing a weekly routine, and finding ways to work independently. Students have access to a variety of resources geared to home dance study, including a collection of online classes in modern dance, ballet, fitness and conditioning. They also find links that allow them to analyze different styles, cultures, and dance companies through a variety of performances — along with blogs and forums where they can chat, ask questions, and post their thoughts and ideas.
DuFault made the decision to allow alumni to be part of the classes, letting them tune in and relax from stress into the familiar.
“We have been able to interact, bring our dance community back together, and in a heartfelt manner, restore our faith and humanity,” she said. “Looking at it that way, the only true differences are that my living room has become my dance studio, and the spare bedrooms, dining rooms, and back gardens of the students have become their new dance spaces.”
Medina Vanduyne is using ballet to build strength in her core, legs, arms, and most importantly, her balance. The work is helping her accomplish both the physical and mental stamina the dance requires.
“By taking the classes, I was able to see how important it is to be physically in shape when you’re a dancer and how important it is to stay healthy because these classes kicked my butt,” she wrote. “When we are faced with situations that are hard, especially when you’re working the body further than you normally push yourself, it’s important to have a strong mindset to tell yourself to keep pushing and to keep fighting. I realized that it doesn’t matter how strong your legs or core are, or how long you can stay in an arabesque. If you don’t have a strong mind to tell yourself to keep pushing when your body starts to get tired, all the power you have in your body won’t matter.”
One modern dance student reported that the past month has been “extremely hard in all aspects, including dance.” But her work has helped her face the changes and the feeling that her world has been pulled from under her.
“Even though a lot is going on in the world and for me personally, I made sure to prioritize my work dancing at all costs,” she shared.
Leaders in the fight against COVID-19 have spoken at length about finding the silver lining within the circumstances forced upon us. With that, they urge people to actively seek out ways to find, test, and cultivate their inner strengths. Some are quietly, one by one, discovering these fortitudes as a pleasant surprise.
DuFault’s students are finding theirs.
“Overall, dance remains a high priority in their lives,” DuFault said. “Because, for one, it helps with their morale during these times, as they dance their worries away.”
—Article by Bret Yager, Photos by Jason Hunter