Lam Nguyen, 26, practices in Little Theater at SF State on Aug. 31, 2021. Him and his wife, Yasmine Nguyen, had to share their living room for performing, practicing and attending Zoom classes, which wasn’t suitable for them. (Sabita Shrestha)
Back to the studio: dance and other art students reflect on their return to campus
Visual and Performing Art Students share excitement, common consensus as in-person learning returns.
Lam Son and Yasmine Nguyen, a husband and wife duo both studying dance at SF State, said their return to campus brought back a sensation they had not felt in a while – soreness.
After three semesters of practicing at home, the couple said that returning to the studio left little room for error. Lam, who grew up a part of the street dancing community in Vietnam and won the Vietnamese version of “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2015, noted that dealing with the virtual and at-home restrictions allowed the pair to try new ways to practice and perfect their technique the best they could.
But since they couldn’t perform an entire movement to its best quality, Lam said it felt like cheating.
“I missed being corrected, because with Zoom we only had a frontal or whatever direction you were being watched, but here you get a full 3D view of our bodies and the professor is able to correct us whether it’s our posture, our spine, lowering our chin or something,” Yasmine said. “It’s little things that I wasn’t fixing as much over Zoom, because you can’t really tell I think a lot, especially when the professor is like demonstrating and has to go up to the screen and demonstrate.”
The Nguyens, like other dance majors at SF State and around the country, turned their living room into a makeshift dance studio. They said they had to maneuver through distractions such as family and their dogs, and had to be careful to avoid slipping on their rug floor, which they said is harder to dance on than the hardwood floors found in studios.
A belief that the Nguyen’s have in common with other students and faculty in the School of Theatre and Dance, as well as the School of Art, is that being in-person gives them the chance to properly work on their skills and technique in their natural environment with their peers close by to collaborate with.
Like the Nguyen’s, Ray Tadio, an associate professor in the School of Theatre and Dance at SF State for 13 years, was forced to turn one of the bedrooms in his house into a dance studio in order to teach his classes. Tadio teaches multiple dance techniques including modern dance, jazz dance, Philippine folk dance and composition/choreography.
Although he was on sabbatical during the Spring 2020 semester, Tadio said that himself and other faculty as well as the students in the program were able to grow through the whole experience. Still, he said that many of his students and peers were eager to return to the studio.
“The saving grace out of all of this experience is really the students’ drive and passion to learn no matter what modality that was, whether it was online through zoom, whether it was rehearsing in their own space, it was definitely a big change for the students,” Tadio said. “All the students are generally enthusiastic and they’re very grateful, hopeful to return to the studio for in-person classes.”
Professor Tadio mentioned that dance films were made during the time of all-virtual classes since they couldn’t meet on campus, which was different than what he was used to.
“It’s mentally challenging, but we managed, we talked, communicated. There were a lot of good things actually, we can create dance films in our living rooms, backyard,” Lam said. “I was climbing on top of my roof and filmed a dance film on top of my house, so we realized so much we could do with limitations, but it led to a lot of frustrations because everything cannot be the quality that we want because it’s at home and it always looked homemade.”
Sean McFarland is a professor who teaches darkroom photography classes. Like Tadio, McFarland had to alter the way his classes were taught when they moved online. Since students didn’t have access to the darkroom and other tools of the department, he worked with technicians to mail students darkroom kits so they could process film at home.
Due to the pandemic, McFarland had to postpone many of his projects, including one at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, that he made with the help of students and a grant from SF State. He noted that he and many other artists prefer to show their art physically.
“The thing about visual art is that we can try to throw all the technology at it as we want, but so much of experiencing artwork is being in-person and that whole theater of being in a gallery and being in a really crucial part in a lot of people’s practices,” he said. “So trying to get that back is what I’m working on now.”
That experience of showcasing their work in-person is something that, starting this semester, many students enrolled in art classes are able to do for the first time since shelter-in-place.
Rebecca Vela, a cinema major in her final semester at SF State, said she was prompted to take a ceramics class due to her penchant for hands-on creativity. Reflecting on her first day of instruction, Vela said that her ceramics class met her expectations.
“With COVID and everything, I expected it to be very different, but it was still very intimate,” Vela said of her ceramics class.
Vela said that she would not have taken a ceramics class, or any other art class for that matter, if it had been offered online because she believes being in person allows her to grow as an artist since she has more opportunities to speak and learn from other students and the professor.
Ting Alvarez, a senior at SF State, double majoring in both zoology and dance. On top of taking 19 units, they teach an off campus dance class in Benicia. Like the Nguyens, Alvarez said that they used their time at home to work-around with the limitations that came with virtual learning.
While Alvarez said that the pandemic allowed them to spend time at home incubating ideas and dancing for their class during virtual learning, in-person instruction provided more opportunity to tell stories with their body and experiment with movement in open spaces.
“I found myself kind of yearning to want to be back in the dance studio even though I was enjoying the personal space,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez and the Nguyens are in Tadio’s Modern Dance II class. In Tadio’s studio – a long room with hardwood flooring and large mirrors – they are able to practice and perform with other students, something that Yasmine thinks is very important to the craft of all dancers.
“For dance specifically, it’s very important to be physically present, I think just because our whole study is our movement, our bodies, and it’s not like some other classes where it’s more lecture based and studying on your own,” Yasmine said. “To train technique for modern, jazz, ballet, being in person is like 90% crucial in having to see your alignment. It’s very hard to succeed technically.”