DULUTH – "Five, six, seven, eight …"
Bodies start moving in bedrooms and living rooms across the state as computer screens become a stage. It's not synchronized, but it's movement, and it will have to do.
Classes that typically require close contact have been especially difficult to move online as college continues in this new COVID-19 reality, but students are coming along for the ride.
"Can you all see me still?" University of Minnesota Duluth theater and dance professor Kelly Grussendorf asked a screen full of faces. "Good."
Now back to the warrior pose during warmup.
Grussendorf's jazz dance class could have been canceled or turned into a book-bound lecture, but she had another idea.
"I thought, what the heck, let's try to do the same thing we always do, except over the internet," she said in an interview. "I'm not saying this isn't insanely nerve-racking for me — getting everyone together."
At one point during a class last week her internet connection kicked her out. One of her children walked in and out of the screen at another point — of course everyone was in the middle of a plank, so it didn't matter much.
"This is one of the best classes to have to do this with," said freshman Fiona Ehling, who took her laptop to her front yard in Rochester to spend the class outside. "Kelly is super enthusiastic."
It is not, as social distancing dictates, quite the real thing.
"We don't have the floor, the studio," Ehling said. "I miss talking to our classmates and helping each other, working together in an active class."
In it together
When the pandemic first pushed classes online, Rebecca Katz Harwood asked her students if it would still be useful to meet virtually. Absolutely, they said.
With a handful of students in two dance classes and an audition techniques course — plus two larger lecture classes — the past few weeks have taken some adjusting.
"For those of us who are in the arts, we are making it work, but we are also very aware of what is being lost," said the UMD theater professor. "The biggest challenge is to allow ourselves to have all the feelings we're having, negative as well as positive."
One of her students, a senior majoring in musical theater, is staying positive despite missing the performances that would have been a capstone on her college career.
"It is really hard for us all in mourning our shows, what could've been," Anna Matthes said.
The 23-year-old from Mounds View is currently holed up in a Duluth house with six roommates, which has been more a comfort than a source of tension, except when the internet gets bogged down.
"We are all staying here during the shutdown and have accepted the fact that if one of us gets COVID-19, we're all in it together," Matthes said. "We are all pretty respectful of each other's space and when people need the living room to move for a dance class."
Sometimes roommates have class together and use the same computer and the same shared space; other times, the video gets a little choppy as seven people log on separately around the house.
Tap class has fallen out of regular meetings and will rely on video recordings, since not everyone has a suitable surface available, but jazz and audition have made the difficult transition online, Matthes said.
The limits of technology became quickly apparent.
"The hardest part of all of this is the lack of instant feedback and individualized attention," she said.
Matthes sees a silver lining, though. "Instead of these typical senior year memories, I'm making others," she said. " 'The Time I Was Quarantined For My Senior Year,' — the story I cannot wait to tell."
End of an era
For students returning next semester, the School of Fine Arts will not exist as a stand-alone school. It's merging with the College of Liberal Arts, and the combined college will, for now, take that name. A new identity is in the works.
"The faculty and staff of this merged unit are already working on what their future might be," Fernando Delgado, vice chancellor of academic affairs, told the Board of Regents earlier this year. "I would not be surprised if I or the chancellor were in front of you a year from now with an item on the renaming of that college."
UMD Chancellor Lendley Black, a theater professor himself, has defended the consolidation and the university's continued commitment to fine arts. No programs will be lost as part of $5.2 million in budget cuts going into effect this summer that prompted the merger and the loss of dozens of jobs.
Any celebrations that would have marked the end of the school's separate identity have succumbed to coronavirus cancellations.
"Senior year spring semester in the theater department is a huge celebration," Matthes said. "We have a banquet every year and it is sort of an honor to the seniors. Now we all have to miss out on that."