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Dancing across distance: Beloit performers collaboratively choreograph online

April 25, 2014

Group projects can be notoriously tricky—managing schedules and expectations, evenly distributing the workload. But imagine creating a group project in which your collaborators are not even in the same state, let alone the same campus.

That is exactly the task that the students of Adjunct Assistant Professor of Dance Gina T’ai’s class did this spring, as they worked with dancers at Grinnell College in Iowa. Through a method called Distance Dances, Beloit dancers and Grinnell dancers exchanged video posts, exchanging movements and dance “phrases” over the Internet until finally meeting in person just two days before their performance. The Beloit College Dance Company members worked on every part of the performance from ticket sales to marketing. The pieces were performed as Sudden Spring on April 6 in Chicago.

“There’s something really interesting about meeting someone we’ve interacted with online, specifically with dance, because we had been trying on each other’s movements, so I didn’t feel like I was meeting him for the first time,” says Michaela Bram’14, of finally meeting her Grinnell counterpart. “It definitely laid the groundwork for getting to know each other.”

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Not only were the dancers meeting each other for the first time at the cumulative performance—they were all new to the space, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in downtown Chicago.

“There’s something about being in a community of dancers that feels very comfortable, so even though we were with people that we’d never performed with before and a lot of us were in a space we’d never performed in before, there’s a common feeling of performing that we all knew,” says Sarah Miller’15. “There’s a trust that everyone is on the same page, and it’s all new and exciting for everyone, so what happens out on the stage is OK, and it’s part of the experience.”

When the Grinnell and Beloit dancers finally met on April 4, they were faced with selecting music, costumes, and titles for their dances—no small feat.

“I had no idea how it was going to work out,” says Laura Logan’16, who had done a similar project with T’ai over the summer with a Sanger grant. For her, the end result was a revelation. “You don’t have to spend six months on a piece to love it. I’m super proud of what we made.”

T’ai, in turn, is proud of the dancers, and readying for similar projects in the future, looking into other possible technological platforms for the dancers to share movements. (They currently use Wordpress, a blogging platform.)

“I was not surprised, but I was impressed,” T’ai says. “We’re a small program, but Chris Johnson and I try to expose them to as many styles as possible.”

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Miller says streamlining the creative process was challenging at times. “Both companies were used to learning material in specific ways, and producing material in specific ways. I think within the first few hours, each group had moments of realizing what those differences were, and then had to sort of take a moment to say, ok, we come from these different places, now where is this common ground?” she says.

But when the moment of truth came, things fell into place, the result of weeks of hard work.

“When we were backstage, it was like ‘OK, there’s nothing more we can do,’” says Amelia Tarpey’14. “It was like a really awesome feeling of everything coalescing.”

Curious to see how the dances came together? You can see the videos the Beloit and Grinnell dancers exchanged here: