Britteny Chew / Sun Photography

October 19, 2020

How COVID Changed Cornell Dance Groups

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It is impossible to go an entire semester on campus without running into at least one of Cornell’s many dance groups. They form an integral part of the on-campus Cornell experience, performing at events like clubfest and putting on numerous shows throughout the semester.

There are 35 active dance groups at Cornell, according to the Cornell Dancers’ Alliance. To better understand the challenges they face and how they plan to keep their art alive this semester, I spoke with the leaders of Cornell Bhangra, Pandora Dance Troupe and LOKO.

This semester, student dance groups at Cornell are faced with the unique difficulty of having to adjust their craft away from performances and in-person group collaboration to fit social distancing guidelines and remote learning. These groups depend on a collaborative atmosphere for most of their activities — from choreographing dances to deciding what new members to admit into their groups. Now, they must establish new strategies and norms, all in an attempt to discover how they can reinvent what it means to be a dance team in a virtual semester.

Organizing tryouts was the first big roadblock that most of these groups faced in adapting to a virtual semester. For the groups that decided to admit new members, they had to find creative ways to adapt their tryouts to be more accommodating and virtually accessible.

Bhangra and Pandora reformatted their auditions by having applicants submit videos of them dancing to assigned choreography. This gave dancers an extended period of time to learn and practice the tryout material, instead of learning the choreography the day of auditions. Both the leaders of Pandora and Bhangra were surprised by the outcome and found a lot of value in the new format.

Clara Fontaine ’22, the president and captain of Cornell Bhangra, discussed how “the virtual tryout system gives people who may not have been so familiar with the culture and have a lot of potential and passion more of a chance. It has helped us support a diverse set of prospective dancers.”

The process was not without difficulties, however. The president of Pandora Dance Troupe, Amanda Hernandez ’21, explained how “The dances we taught had to be able to be done in a small space… It’s hard to judge a dancer on their abilities if we can’t see them fully execute a movement.”

For this reason, some groups, such as LOKO, elected to not do tryouts at all. Betty Bai ’22, co-president of LOKO explained: “Stage presence and things like that can’t be measured too well in video… If we did only virtual auditions we wouldn’t be able to fully see what the dancers are capable of.”

The actual essence of what it means to be a dancer in these groups has completely changed as well.

Bhangra, for example, has greatly lessened the time commitment required from its dancers. “Usually [we would have rehearsals] seven to eight hours a week. This semester we are only doing an hour and a half a week.”

LOKO has also shifted into a “semi-inactive” state, and rather than having large weekly practices, they are having members independently learn choreography and submit videos for feedback. This has opened the door for these groups to spend more time on social activities and bonding. Dancers have enjoyed everything from playing games over Zoom to a greater emphasis on the Big/Little system.

For many dance groups, the pandemic has led to even more fundamental changes. Bhangra has found that the shock of going online has helped them realize that some of their longtime practices aren’t the best or most efficient. This has made them reflect on the reasons and intentions behind many of their choices, and reconsider what may be better for their group moving forward. Fontaine talked about how they are constantly needing to readjust to their dancers’ changing needs, and are having to ask often not just what works, but what the dancers actually want to spend time and effort on. Similarly, Fontaine discussed a renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion for Bhangra. “[We are thinking about] what cultural ties Bhangra has, how we explore it with our own identities, and how we do that as a community of people who are all united by our passion for dance.”

This semester has also given many dancers the unique opportunity to learn new skills that they might not have had the chance to learn otherwise. Bai discussed how in LOKO “[Our virtual format] is a valuable chance for newer members to learn how to pick up choreography from a video rather than having someone teach it to you. It lets them experiment a little more with the style and personal flavor they’re putting into their dances.”

One of the biggest changes for dance groups across campus has been reevaluating how to show their talents to a wider audience when traditional performances are no longer an option. One of the main ways they plan to do this is by hiring videographers to record their dancers.

Bhangra believes that by doing this they can also uplift smaller dance groups that may not have the same budget. They hope to work with other teams to put together a collaborative set of small group and individual choreography in order to make a large video project that highlights all of their dancers’ skills.

Likewise, Pandora’s showcases have historically been self-choreographed, with dancers creating their own solos and group dances. They hope that this semester they can continue this focus and create one cohesive video of choreography that brings together everything that the students have created over the course of the semester.

This semester has been full of obstacles, expected and unexpected, for all these groups who depended on being together in order to dance. However, all three of the leaders are enthusiastic about what dance will look like when the pandemic is over. Hernandez best summarized how most groups feel when she said, “The remote semester has allowed us to appreciate the small things in terms of how well we can interact with each other… once we are back to normal everyone will be ready to dance a lot more than we typically would have been.”


Christina Ochoa is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].