IADMS Big Messy Conversations #2: Student Concerns

Authors: Ellie Kusner, Beth Ackroyd, and Joe Bowie on behalf of the IADMS Student and Dance Educators’ Committees

August 8 saw the second installment of the IADMS Big Messy Conversations. This conversation was co-hosted by the Dance Educators’ Committee (DEC) and the Student Committee as the topic of discussion was student concerns: What do Dance Science students want today?

The event commenced with an explanation of how we would virtually model Lois Weaver’s Long Table performance art installation. Attendees were instructed to adjust their zoom setting to “hide non-video participants” and then turn their camera on to engage in dialogue, or leave it off to engage in deep listening. The resulting effect was a dynamic discussion in which participants could act as both audience and panelist, thus fulfilling one of the objectives of the Big Messy Conversation series: to explore and adjust our perception of “expert”.

Pawel Chu @pawell, Unsplash

In two breakout rooms, discussions began with student participants seated at the virtual table. In this dialogue, students included those who have graduated within the last 2 years, in line with IADMS’ student criteria. All rooms broke the ice by reflecting on their recent experiences as students during the COVID-19 pandemic. As participants were from different institutions and countries, their experiences were diverse. In breakout room 1, students discussed the availability and effectiveness of mental health resources on campus, while breakout room 2 initially focused their conversation on the challenges of fulfilling research with live participants under lockdown restrictions. At times, non-student participants emerged from the audience to sit at the virtual table and ask questions or make observations, and while some students remained visible throughout, others left and returned intermittently.

In breakout room 1, Beth Ackroyd shared that daily check-ins were an essential part of life last year in relation to mental health and wellbeing. She said, “How are you?” became the most important question of every lecture or dialogue between academic/lecturer and student. The social stigma surrounding mental health was addressed and students noted that lecturers and graduate students were often a first point of contact for undergraduate students in need of emotional support, though they did not always have adequate training nor emotional bandwidth of their own to handle these encounters. One student wondered if mental health professionals therefore needed “more of a face on campus.” Another suggested that greater clarity surrounding referral processes would be beneficial to staff, faculty, and students who are faced with a community member in crisis. Recent MFA graduate Evvie Allison shared the value of Mental Health First Aid training. The time and passion spent discussing mental health might indicate that this is a subject that warrants more attention in our Dance Science curriculum. Should we be offering more courses that look both theoretically and practically at mental skills and psychological health?

Meanwhile, in the second breakout room, barriers to access were also a key theme, though this time in relation to research. During the pandemic, lack of lab access and face-to-face engagement influenced the nature of the research projects that it was possible to conduct; though, these were identified as creative challenges which students thought may have yielded better, more novel research. Still, students noted that even before the pandemic, it was difficult to gain access to participants--not for lack of access to dancers, but rather lack of access to dancers’ time. For example, one PhD student explained that compliance was significantly higher when studio teachers allowed student participants to complete study surveys during class time. However, teachers were often unwilling to relinquish their valuable time with students and students themselves began to report fewer details in their surveys when they realized that doing so would take more time away from class.

From here, the conversation expanded. How can we make more space for research in dance education? How can we gain greater community buy-in? Someone wondered, “Are studio teachers unable to see the applicable value of research to their work in class and rehearsal?” The dance science terminology was also identified as a barrier to entering the field as it was viewed by students as intimidating. Therefore, would it help to introduce Dance Science to younger populations? And, “Where are the students?”, one participant asked. Why were there only eight at this event? What barriers exist within IADMS? Are we doing enough to invite student engagement in real, meaningful and accessible ways?

Both breakout rooms also discussed the pathway to Dance Science education and noted that injury or negative training experiences too often inspired study and influenced research. This allows an opportunity to reflect from a dance educator's perspective on how we recruit and market Dance Science programs and the field at large. Allison encouraged, “Dance science should not only be about injury prevention, but a means to flourish and grow.” Whilst minimizing the risk and impact of injury is a key construct in our field, it is important to remember and advertise the positive influence dance science can have for dancers’ performance and health. Furthermore, to ensure that these messages are well-targeted, we must continuously explore the evolving health and performance concerns of student dancers.

After reconnecting as one large, fully-visible group for a closing discussion, the pace of education was addressed. Can we make sure that there is always time and space for that essential question, “How are you?” Elizabeth Yutzey reminded us that key concepts related to overtraining are applicable in academic environments, not just studio class. The importance of representation and modeling were also important takeaways from the conversation. More than one participant mentioned Simone Biles’ recent withdrawal from competition, with one student saying that Biles’ decision was game changing for him, convincing him that it really was possible to pause and take care of yourself. Rest is a key topic in the education of dance science principles, but we are reminded of the importance to apply it to our own practice as students and educators.