Students find space for dance on campus despite pandemic


Image courtesy of Annie Solomon

Controlled Chaos, a hip hop dance crew of about 12 people, usually books as many as 10 performances in one semester, but this year the group compiled its routine into an eight-minute video posted on its YouTube page.

By Kaitlyn Nuebel, Staff Writer

Emily Duque has performed “The Nutcracker” ballet every year since the age of seven.

“[For] a lot of dancers … ‘The Nutcracker’ particularly, but also just dance and dance class and dance shows, are so important,” Duque, a senior mathematics and music major and president of the Ballet Club at Pitt, said. “It’s always been a winter staple for a lot of people — especially ballet dancers — to do ‘The Nutcracker.’”

Duque is one of many Pitt students who have found ways to pursue their desire to dance amid the University’s policies restricting social gatherings. Several of Pitt’s dance organizations nixed their live performances last semester and reimagined choreography to deliver socially distanced performances in a virtual format.

Ballet Club at Pitt decided to replace its usual 90-minute performance of “The Nutcracker” that occurs every fall semester with an 18-minute video. Members danced their respective parts alone in their kitchens, dorm rooms and garages, but on screen they performed the ballet together.

For Duque, performing the winter staple this year meant logging onto biweekly Zoom rehearsals where she danced from her living room, swapping out big jumps for small ones to avoid hitting a chair.

While other dance ensembles have used Zoom as a tool to teach choreography as well, the platform also poses challenges. Olivia Nestrick, a senior psychology major and the events coordinator for Pitt Dance Ensemble, choreographed a tap routine for the organization’s virtual fall showcase. She said video lags and audio cuts cause people to dance out of sync on Zoom, which made it difficult to provide feedback to those following along on the other side of a screen.

“When I was trying to teach my dancers choreography and run it with the music and I just had no indication of whether or not the timing was right,” Nestrick said, “and you can’t see everybody, so there’s a lot of guesswork involved.”

Aside from the issues with Zoom, Nestrick said she still faced obstacles when it came time to meet in person and film the final performance. The safest option was to gather outside, which meant no stage on which to tap.

Nestrick had eight dancers but only five 2-by-4-foot tap boards to work with, so she decided to split the dancers into groups and film the performance in several different takes. The final product is cut between shots of dancers tapping outside of the Frick Fine Arts building and the Petersen Events Center.

For many groups, like Controlled Chaos, a hip hop dance crew of about 12 people that performs for the public frequently throughout the semester, the decision to continue had to do with its social component. Annie Solomon, the group’s president, said she struggled to say goodbye to dance and the crew after the University’s shutdown last spring — it didn’t feel right.

“I really feel like it’s worth it [continuing to dance], because especially with COVID there’s no social aspect to anything,” Solomon, a senior psychology and gender, sexuality and women’s studies major, said. “With this at least it’s like a group of people who know each other and get along really well and they can come and share their passion together.”

Like many dance ensembles, Controlled Chaos stuck with Zoom rehearsals for as long as possible. But when it came time to meet for in-person rehearsal, Solomon said they resorted to outdoor spaces where they could socially distance with masks on. Oftentimes this meant dancing on suboptimal surfaces, like the slanted grass on Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill or the concrete pavers in the Quad, to maximize safety and comfort.

“I tried to find the flattest part possible [of Flagstaff Hill], but it was still on a slant, so now I know we can dance wherever,” Solomon said. “We can really do it all, but it definitely was hard.”

According to Solomon, Controlled Chaos usually books as many as 10 performances in one semester, but this year the group compiled their routine into an eight-minute video posted on its YouTube page.

During a normal year, Pitt Mastana, a Bollywood fusion dance team of 30 members, also spends a significant portion of their time performing in front of an audience. According to Prima Patel, Pitt Mastana’s business manager, the group rehearses three times a week in preparation for the three or four live competitions they perform every year at other universities across the country.

Patel, a senior neuroscience and sociology major, said upon realizing that things wouldn’t be returning to normal, Pitt Mastana decided to offer Zoom lessons for members, alumni and the public as a way to continue dancing. Six members also competed and placed first in eFusion, a three-round virtual competition, after meeting up for masked and socially distanced rehearsals and recording the final product in front of Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall.

Still, Patel said performing in virtual competitions doesn’t match the feeling of performing on stage.

“One of my favorite parts of being on the dance team was the feeling we got after we came off stage, it was like you were on this high almost because you had just been practicing for months and months and everything was given for that one performance,” Patel said. “I think [performing in virtual competitions] is a little bit different in terms of that all or nothing performance because you have multiple tries to do it.”

Patel said Pitt Mastana has grown a lot since its founding seven years ago, gaining enough steam to compete against much older teams. Continuing to dance, even if only virtually, provided a way for the group to maintain the progress they’ve made in the past.

“We all care a lot about Mastana as an organization,” Patel said, “so we want to do everything possible to make sure that we’ve spent these last few years building up its name…to make sure that we stay at the caliber that we hold ourselves to.”

How Pitt’s dance organizations will fare after the pandemic subsides also concerns Alex Marcks, a sophomore psychology major and president-elect of Pitt Salsa Club. The organization, which started roughly six years ago, meets for weekly dance lessons which now occur on Zoom.

“I just love this club and I want to see it prevail through COVID and whatever else there is,” Marcks said. “This is a relatively new club so we’re trying to make that progress, we’re trying to build.”

Marcks said while Zoom is a good backup, she hopes Pitt Salsa Club will be able to get outside and dance socially distanced sometime soon. But it will likely be a while before many of Pitt’s dance organizations perform on stage again, as all have plans to continue virtual performances for the spring semester. But one thing remains certain — students will continue to dance, something that, according to Solomon, even COVID-19 can’t stop.

“With other sports teams, that same sort of team feeling is there, and those bonds with people don’t just go away because of COVID,” Solomon said. “That desire to dance doesn’t just go away because of COVID.”