Dancing at a distance: During trying times, Li Chiao-Ping focusing on the positives

To say the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to the UW-Madison campus community — and the world — would be an understatement.

Most everything is different than it was just over a month ago. People are grappling with issues that test their physical and mental health, determination, and creativity.

But when life gives you lemons …

“I’ve been trying to focus on a ‘let’s make lemonade’ attitude as much as I can,” says UW–Madison’s Li Chiao-Ping, a Vilas Research Professor with the School of Education’s Dance Department. “When I check in with my students, I let them know I’m concerned about their well-being. That’s very important. But this situation can be a great lesson in resilience.”

Li Chiao-Ping
Li Chiao-Ping, a Vilas Research Professor with the School of Education’s Dance Department, is teaching two online classes this spring from her home office.

Like faculty and staff across the university, Li has transitioned the in-person classes she is teaching this semester to alternate delivery modes. She is currently leading two advanced-level, studio dance courses.

And while there have been plenty of proverbial bumps in the road, after overcoming an initial fear factor — “I had never taught online, so this was horrifying at first,” Li said — she remains upbeat about how the spring semester is unfolding.

“The quality of the work our students are producing is very high — and in some ways even better than before,” says Li. “Despite all of the challenges, they are rising to a new level and it’s making them be more creative and think through assignments more deeply.” (For several examples of this work, scroll to the bottom of the story for links to student videos.)

It was Thursday, March 12 when UW-Madison announced it was moving all face-to-face instruction to alternate delivery modes on March 23, immediately following spring break. Li says that by the next day, Professor Kate Corby, chair of the Dance Department, scheduled a lesson for faculty members with Assistant Professor Natalie Zervou, who Li calls an “in-house online expert.”

“Spring break was spent coming up with a plan to transition my classes online,” says Li.

The two classes Li is teaching this semester each meet twice per week, for 100 minutes per meeting. Initially, she cleared out a good amount of space in her living room to teach from — but found that didn’t work well because most of her students have quite limited spaces to work in. Li is now teaching in her office at home so that she, too, is more confined.

She explains that one class — Dance 312: Contemporary Dance Theory and Technique — is typically taught “in one of our beautiful large studios at Lathrop Hall, with live accompaniment by one of our dance musicians.” The major objective of this class is to build the technical and artistic skills and strategies the student dancers will need for performing at higher levels — but to do so somewhat individually.

Several students shared how coursework for dance majors depends a great deal on connecting with others, sharing space, social interaction, and feeding off of each other’s energy — all things that are challenging to reproduce without meeting in person.

“The toughest part about meeting for these classes online and not in person is the shift out of the wonderful community that exists in Lathrop Hall into a more personal practice,” says student Bailey Seymour. “A huge aspect of dancing is community, and being involved in a group energy and learning experience. Physical touch is often an aid in dance teaching and training. In our department we often work on partnering, so navigating this shift at times can feel lonely.”

Megan Schimke
This is a screenshot from an “installation” video from Megan Schimke for UW-Madison Professor Li Chiao-Ping’s class. View the video here.

Adds student Megan Schimke: “We are all sharing our energy and love of moving when we’re in the studio together, and to replicate that by yourself in a confined space for an undetermined amount of time is nowhere near the same experience. As amazing as the internet is, it can’t replace the physical presence of your friends dancing by your side and the motivation that brings.”

The other course Li is teaching this semester — Dance 455: Advanced Composition — focuses on the making of dances.

“It’s a class where I’ve been able to really challenge our choreography student artists,” says Li.

Li has been utilizing the “Blackboard Collaborate” platform through Canvas to continue meeting with students during the originally scheduled class times.  The biggest challenge, notes Li, is that she can’t see all of her students while teaching.

“I am used to observing them throughout class and can feel what is working or not working by being in the room and walking around them,” she says, adding that the online communication is also clunky and less natural.

Notes student Cassie Last: “The loss of social contact has been especially difficult because our department is such a strong community. I hadn’t realized how much I value the social aspect of dance classes until I lost access to it.”

Despite these issues, Li says that over time she has become more comfortable teaching from a distance — and she is driven to continue finding the most effective ways to connect with her students.

“This is an opportunity for me to innovate pedagogically,” she says. “I’m obsessed with this now and can’t stop working on it.”

Li continues to stress the positives with her students and note that more normal times will eventually return. Her students, too, are doing their best to make the most of a difficult situation.

In the meantime, Li has been thrilled with videos being produced and shared by her students.

“The importance of art in the world is being seen more than ever,” says Schimke. “The amount of creativity that is being shared over the internet is heartwarming and exciting. Hopefully it keeps us inspired for better times. I know that dancers are eager to get back into the studios as soon as possible.”

Following are links to examples of student dance work:

Rakhi Winston
This is a screenshot from an “experimental” video from Rakhi Winston for UW-Madison Professor Li Chiao-Ping’s class. View the video here.