Dancers turn social distancing into choreography, film exploration

May 26, 2020Courtney Morris
Dance performance class

Jasmine Lopez wasn't expecting to rehearse in her backyard instead of a studio. Nor did she expect to twirl around her kitchen instead of on stage.

But when COVID-19 moved San Jacinto College's dance performance class online mid-semester, Lopez and her nine classmates changed course. The class that houses rehearsals for the South Campus performing arts company's end-of-semester concert changed into an opportunity for students to choreograph, film, and YouTube-post weekly dances from home.

Boredom, Lopez discovered, sparks creativity.

"It's thrilling to know I have the capability to create something people enjoy," she said.

Salvaged semester

When COVID-19 nixed the spring concert, dance professor Jamie Williams knew she had to provide a creative alternative.

"My first thought was we'd worked so hard and prepared so much," she said. "My second thought was, 'How can I salvage this?'"

Williams landed on seven weeks of graded performance projects at home.

"I wanted to keep students creating and performing and knew they might be limited by space and other factors of their environment," she said.

Each Sunday, the dancers received that week's "creative task." The project included four to six guidelines but could be tweaked to fit their circumstances. After choreographing and filming, students posted their dances publicly or privately on the San Jac dance performance YouTube channel.

Leap of faith

Some of the creative tasks included...

  • A choreographed or improvised kitchen dance performed solo or with household members/pets to any version of "This Little Light of Mine"
  • A duet to Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me" performed with another household member/pet, maintaining at least 6-foot distance
  • A solo dance inside a 5-foot square performed to music by Michael Wall and inspired by social distancing

While some dancers sought Williams' advice, others flew solo. Minus face-to-face instruction, the projects stretched them all.

"It's a different kind of learning — to be given a task and have to do something, anything, then take a leap of faith and post it for everyone to see," Williams said.

Kitchen creativity

Lopez choreographed for the first time during these home projects. Without mirror-lined walls, she had to record and watch later to critique herself. But isolation also freed her to explore movement.

"I'm not afraid of looking stupid when I'm doing something," she said. "I see interesting movement choices I made that I wasn't thinking about at the time."

Each week, Williams featured the most interesting videos on the South Campus dance program's Facebook page. Lopez's kitchen dance made the cut.

Lopez picked a soulful rendition of "This Little Light of Mine." In her video, she twirls around a U-shaped kitchen, pulling herself nimbly onto the countertops and swinging open cabinet and fridge doors as if searching for something to banish boredom.

Williams saw the detail involved — from what song version Lopez chose to how her sister and neighbor clapped in sync with the song's background chatter.

"That's what I value in dance work — all the pieces fit together like a puzzle," she said. "For it to be Jasmine's very first project, I was amazed."

Déjà vu days

Lillie Glasscock, another choreography newbie, found her groove several weeks into the creative tasks.

"I felt like once I was home and choreographing myself, I was getting to know myself a lot more as an artist," Glasscock said. "No one is watching you or giving you feedback at all until the video is uploaded. It's scary, but it's freeing in a way."

For the 5-foot square project, she chose Wall's tense, repetitive "5 115" to express the broken record feeling of current life.

"I was doing the same thing every day, seeing the same one or two people in my house," she said. "It was a déjà vu feeling — days are jumping back and forth. Like I can swear it was Monday yesterday."

Glasscock worked backward from her recorded improvisation to choreograph the dance. Then after filming, she cut the clips to represent cuts in time, interrupting and restarting the dance "like the semester was interrupted and restarted."

Williams marveled at how Glasscock used both space and time to illustrate isolation.

"She used some film editing skills to restart her movement phrase over and over again, 'interrupting herself' in a different place each time," Williams said. "I was impressed to see how clearly she communicated her ideas."

Distance dancing

"Dance performance class 2.0" gave students a taste of both choreography and filming. Post-COVID, the class will return to concert rehearsals, but Williams may apply some social distancing takeaways to her choreography classes.

"I feel like dance specifically is something that needs to be done face to face," she said. "But there's a lot of learning that can happen when a student is given the time and environment to learn on their own."

She muses: "Dance and technology — I would love to add something like that to choreography class."

To view all the videos, visit the San Jac dance performance channel at

(Banner photo courtesy of Jennifer Salter)