As the Department of Dance at Long Beach State began to prepare for virtual instruction for the fall semester, long before California State University system Chancellor Timothy P. White made the official decision on May 12, the transition seemed to be their biggest concern.
On May 25, the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide civil unrest in response to police brutality and systemic racism in America. People were taking a critical eye to institutions everywhere, including CSULB.
Suddenly, the conversations amongst faculty and students within the department were no longer just about the pandemic. It was about advocacy and equity.
“A faculty member can start a conversation, but it isn’t one until the students show up and want to have it,” dance department Chair Elizabeth Cooper said.
That is exactly what fourth-year dance majors Clara Vigil and Derrick Paris did.
“We had a meeting within our department and found there was a need for something that was advocating for students of color within our department, specifically black students within our department,” Vigil said. “We all felt that we have such a diverse student body but that wasn’t reflected in our faculty.”
Dance Affinity Advocates for Inclusion and Dancer Equity was born, a student based organization where, according to Vigil, students from marginalized communities can unite, create a safe space for each other and advocate for equity within the department. While the organization has not been officially recognized yet, they have begun working on how to start the process of building inclusivity.
According to Paris, one of those ways has been editing their student handbook to remove outdated language. Later in the semester, Paris and Vigil plan for Dance Affinity A.I.D.E to introduce spirit weeks that celebrate a different, underrepresented community each time.
As these problems were addressed, Cooper and the faculty continued to discuss how to fix the other issues they saw arise during the end of spring semester.
“We’re concerned about making sure all of our students have access to the internet,” Cooper said. “We are going to purchase some more laptops and buy some hotspots for students. If our students can’t connect with us, then they can’t learn.”
Zoom fatigue was also a concern, according to Cooper. To mitigate this problem, faculty discussed creating more community building exercises, had conversations about mental health and how to better accommodate students.
“We are talking about some of the policies in place for a long time that clearly don’t work in a pandemic,” Cooper said.
One of these policies includes attendance.
“Our department previously had a really strict attendance policy,” Paris said. “We’re working with Betsy [Cooper] and making it more of an agreement. We’re all adults and we’re sort of past that. We’re all responsible.”
Another problem students and faculty faced in spring was the adjustment to performing and teaching at home.
“Students don’t have a lot of space,” Cooper said. “Most of us are working in a small space.”
Practicing and performing within the confines of a bedroom or apartment proved to be difficult, but lack of space was not the only issue. The environment of training inside a studio with their peers was lost.
“Dance is being with other people and working together and feeding off each other’s energy,” Vigil said.
While students like Vigil and Paris have accepted that virtual learning may not always be conducive towards their original plans for fall, both have seen the positives of what the past few months have brought.
“It’s been nice because I don’t think a lot of things we’ve been doing would be looked at or done if we didn’t have this time,” Vigil said. “We’ll have these new things implemented that will help future students.”
When CSULB returns to in-person instruction, Cooper intends to continue these lessons and conversations for the betterment of the department.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Cooper said. “But, we’re starting it and that feels exciting.”