Loyola’s graduating dancers bid adieu to pandemic-era educations with energy and optimism

This Friday, Loyola University Chicago’s dance program celebrates the graduating senior class through the annual “Dance Senior Showcase.” This year, the performance highlights the changed artists who are taking the stage after a year and a half of the pandemic, and it features one ensemble work and six solos performed by each of the graduating dance majors—all prerecorded and streamed on Zoom.

Every Senior Showcase consists of solo performances by graduating seniors dressed in white, plus a group piece. Stephanie Martinez and Noelle Kayser of Para.Mar Dance Theatre choreographed, filmed and edited the group piece, which aims to show contrasting emotions as two sides of the same coin.

Masha Bandouil, graduating dance and biology double major, worked with choreographer Jana Bennett of Skunkworks Dance in Wilmette for their solo. In an interview, Bandouil (they/them) reflected on the process as an opportunity to train in a different style of movement from what they normally are exposed to at Loyola and said that they look forward to surprising their peers through their solo performance. Given that rehearsals would be virtual, dance and psychology double major Lucy Jaffar decided to work with Lauren Edson, who is based in Boise, Idaho. Jaffar remembered building an entire section of choreography through improvising movement to each line of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” as a highlight of the creative process.

The solos also feature choreography by Shannon Alvis, Mei-Kuang Chen, Drew Lewis and Eriko Lisaku. Clare Roche, the Loyola Department of Fine and Performing Arts (DFPA) lighting and sound supervisor, filmed and edited the solos for their release on Zoom.

As a Loyola dance program alumna, I have also been through this process and know how enlivening of an experience it is to perform for friends, family and community members in the glass-encased Palm Court on Loyola’s campus. The “Dance Senior Showcase” is a celebration of accomplishment any year, but this year in particular, Loyola dance faculty member and artistic director for the showcase, Sarah Cullen Fuller, views this performance as a triumph for a group of artists who were devoted to thinking critically about themselves as human beings while “having radical artistic experiences in their kitchens” during the pandemic.

“It didn’t minimize the impact of the movement in any way not to have that strenuous physical practice for hours and hours and hours a day in a big space. I was completely blown away by these newfound developments as artists that they have now—a lot rooted in focus and an internal, reflective quality that feels very generous and grounding.  I don’t know if that would have happened in another situation,” Cullen Fuller said.

University standards of safety during the pandemic left uncertainty around how to approach the “Dance Senior Showcase,” and Cullen Fuller expressed her gratitude for the team of DFPA faculty who helped coordinate the rehearsal process and showcase. Starting in February, each dancer was given one hour of time in a campus studio to rehearse (though many had already begun rehearsals elsewhere). All other rehearsals took place over Zoom in dancers’ homes or in an off-campus studio space. Filming took place in one day. The university gave each dancer 30 minutes to space the solo and ensemble work and film both pieces, with 30 minutes in between each dancer to disinfect the space.

Though this process may sound isolating on the surface, the dancers shared that they actually found it unifying. Compared to being in virtual class with almost 20 students, where students can’t see or hear their peers moving, the senior solo process for the six graduates allowed time for the dancers to come together and watch each other perform. This was especially true in the ensemble work. Though each dancer filmed the phrases separately, in the three ensemble rehearsals they had together, much of the process involved observing each other dance over Zoom.

Cullen Fuller observed that pursuing dance education during the pandemic has led to a deeper maturity in this group of graduating dancers, where they are more honest and in-tune with who they are as individuals and artists. She saw this in how they took time for themselves and their families throughout the pandemic, and how they actively consider not only how to be an artist but a person contributing to the communities they call home. What is often a self-gratifying act of performing a senior solo has been humbled by the pandemic.

“There is such a performative aspect of a solo where you feel like you are on display, saying ‘look what I can do.’ It feels like these dancers are tapping into a deeper level of vulnerability, saying ‘look at who I am,’ or ‘look what I am exploring,’ rather than the armor that we often wear in the performance of things,” Cullen Fuller said.

Bandouil looked at the amount of time that they spent alone over the past year and a half as playing a significant role in their deepened sense of self.

“I think that emotional journey translates to learning everything about movement,” said Bandouil, “because when you’re in a class, you’re always looking at other people—and while I love that about dance—you don’t always think about yourself and what you actually want to focus on as an artist.”

Bandouil has been focusing on mastering true stillness, both in their approach to movement and outlook on each day as a human being. When it comes to graduating in a pandemic, Bandouil has embraced having no plan and taking the next phase of life day-by-day. Like many of the dancers who graduate Loyola with dual degrees, Bandouil hopes to combine their interests in dance and biology to enhance science education through incorporating an artistic approach to learning material. Jaffar also remains uncertain as to where she will end up next with interests in teaching dance or assisting choreographers, as well as potentially pursuing a job in psychology.

“I’m leaving with this confidence that I can do anything if I want to. Loyola taught us that we have the knowledge and the power to make our dreams come true, whatever they may be.” said Jaffar.

Ultimately the “Dance Senior Showcase” is an opportunity to support an emerging group of artists who have been working every day to continue dancing through the pandemic—along with the chance to be restored, if only for an hour, by this group of positive, hardworking and giving human beings.

“I think the audience will see a really cool trajectory of growth from everyone. They don’t even have to know these people, and they’re going to see some kind of spark within everyone that symbolizes renewed energy,” said Bandouil. “I just know that the experience us seniors had was so powerful this year because it gave us all the chance to be seen by another person. And now everyone in the audience will be able to see that, too.”


Loyola University Chicago's “Dance Senior Showcase” takes place Friday, April 30 at 7:00p.m. CST over Zoom. Tickets are priced at a pay-what-you-can scale and are available at the event link below.

Disclosure: SCD senior editor Lauren Warnecke is a part-time faculty member at Loyola Univerisity Chicago