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Helen Gould: Supporting well-being and relationship building - reflections on online teaching

ICDS4 was a safe, supportive and enriching environment to present my first conference paper following my MSc in Dance Science and Education. The rich and diverse programme of seminars and practical workshops quickly dispelled my preconceptions about practice being distinct from academia.

A conference of Dalcroze studies by its very nature draws on the practice of ‘doing’ in a way that other conferences might not. Any ICDS workshop is a melting pot of artform specialisms, cultures, perspectives, and experiences that provides a fertile ground for new ideas, experiences and inspiration. The time, the space, the people and the responsiveness all contribute to an unrepeatable and unique experience. It also harnesses a sense of community which, for my nerves, was especially helpful given the new territory of paper presentations! Little did we know as we parted company in Katowice, in August 2019, what life would be like just a few months later.

Moving online

The energy which manifests between people from practising Dalcroze, dancing or playing music together activates a physiological response that positively influences multiple body systems. As facilitators we utilise various communication modalities to fine tune and respond to the needs of others. Similar to my experience at ICDS, this experience fosters a sense of community and supports wellbeing. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to work online, it felt an impossible task to replicate this impact.

As a dance artist I have a particular interest in the relationships between music and movement. I am a bassoonist and have studied Dalcroze for many years and frequently incorporate activities inspired by Dalcroze Eurhythmics and the Dalcroze Subjects. I also specialise in practice that engages people living with health conditions such as Parkinson’s, dementia, people living with a physical or learning disability, and those who may identify as neuro-divergent.

I strive to create a space where barriers to inclusion are overcome, where individuals can form a community with the common purpose to engage in a creative artistic experience. Initially remote teaching felt totally counterintuitive to this idea. Furthermore, embarking into the unknown world of online teaching I found myself concentrating on its limitations whilst still attempting to reproduce my live practice. Early group sessions were more didactic, more choreographed, less responsive and ultimately less person-centred.

Subsequent developments have been a result of a community effort between our team of artists, and the participants who have enthusiastically provided constructive and honest feedback for self-reflection. This led to a realisation that it was often social isolation that was bringing people online.

Understanding why participants were choosing online classes required a review of content. Were the sessions addressing need? How could participants find a meaningful connection to self and others?

Adaptations and benefits

Small adaptations have made a big difference, for example:

1. Personal touch: Ensuring zoom boxes provide the correct name of each participant. Everyone can then address each other personally.

2. Taking time, slowing down: Recognising that relationships are highly valued, activities were factored in that helped to foster the sense of community. It included time for those who attended in pairs or as a bubble, with opportunities to connect to each other in their homes.

3. Acknowledging personal environment: Incorporating activity that encourages participants to turn their focus away from the screen, by using strategies that help people connect to their surroundings. Taking time to explore their rooms using sight and touch.

4. Individual encouragement: It is easy to feel invisible in a virtual class. Having personal recognition values individual contribution.

5. Familiarity: Participants take longer to embody material so more repetition is valued. Our participants have expressed how they enjoy working with familiar music too. The mute function encourages participants to sing along to well-known melodies in a way that they may not have done in a live class.

6. Co-curating: Finding ways for participants to contribute ideas which ultimately creates a more meaningful experience for all.

7. Connecting to others: Giving time for everyone’s voice to be heard and listened to. Participants might be muted throughout much of the class, but including time to arrive in the online space to connect to others, time at the end to touch base and also, moments during the class to check in, ask questions, give feedback have been valuable. Breakout rooms have given extra social time at the end of class.

8. Discovering the creative possibilities online: We have investigated ‘Zoomography’, through improvisation and set material, exploring how the proximity to the screen and our individual Zoom box can offer creative opportunities. Interacting with each other via the screen and to others in our home environments, we have also created dance film and had the opportunity to link up with other groups nationally.

Online artistic practice may present challenges, but there are also clear benefits.

It is accessible. Assuming there is access to a computer with a camera or tablet, it can provide a lifeline for those who would otherwise be unable to attend classes. The home is a safe space and new opportunities are at their fingertips with no need to commit and no need to be visible; you can just turn the camera off!

It is cheaper. Without travel costs and time to consider, classes can be more affordable for the participants and cost-effective for the teacher. Project work for vulnerable groups rarely covers costs, so when funding streams are tight, online activity can offer a more sustainable alternative.

Looking ahead

We are planning to continue the delivery of our online programme. They may even remain a permanent feature of our offer. Our community is committed, passionate and benefitting from the classes. For many, they would be unable to engage in activity should we move back into live delivery.

As creatives, we are resilient, resourceful and versatile. With this new medium, we have a responsibility to review who we do not reach. How do we build safe spaces for more people to come together to experience the benefits of music and movement feels more valuable than ever?

Personally, I have been able to attend more professional development in the last year than I have in ten years, and that is with two young children and without leaving the front room. An opportunity to engage in high-quality activity is at my fingertips, affordable, and relatively carbon neutral. It may be different to sharing a room with others but it remains undeniably enriching and fulfilling. I am in no doubt that ICDS5 will be equally as generous as previous ICDS events whilst addressing some of the barriers for some who would otherwise be unable to attend in person. I am very much looking forward to it!

Helen Gould is a dance artist and Director of LPM Dance. She is based in Lancashire, UK


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