Regional feature: How the UW-Madison dance department is preparing for an unprecedented semester

MADISON, WI — As some colleges abruptly shift to remote learning in the wake of coronavirus outbreaks this fall, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) stands poised to reopen, offering a hybrid of remote and face-to-face instruction. The hybrid model would pose a challenge for any dance studio, but the UW Dance Department has created a detailed plan that they hope will be safe and beneficial for returning students.

“We took a poll over the summer asking students if they intended to return to campus and if they wanted studio classes,” says department chair, Andrea Harris, “and most of them did. We then spent a long time waiting for directives from campus and once we knew that, we decided to offer as many face-to-face classes as possible.”  

Streamlining offerings in the country's oldest dance major program (established in 1926 by Margaret H'Doubler) came first. With a goal of offering 50% face-to-face classes, “we chose to focus on our dance majors,” says Harris. Contemporary technique, ballet and composition will be offered in studios as face-to-face classes with reduced enrollment and fewer meeting times. Elective classes—non-requirements for a dance major—such as ballroom dance of beginning ballet and contemporary dance were eliminated. And some dance studies and theory courses had already been offered online, so they will continue in that format.

Some students may opt not to return to campus. Those who stay home can earn credits by focusing on their non-dance academic coursework or taking the remote dance courses, a few of which provide a physical component such as Pilates and Asian American movement classes.

Some UW dance classes won't fit either mold. Dance Repertory will be offered completely online and primarily asynchronous, with the dancers learning choreography from prerecorded video, then later coming together live but remotely with the instructor to put pieces together. Hip-hop was originally planned as a face-to-face studio course, until instructor Duane Holland opted to teach remotely. In this unique case, students will gather in real time to participate in the studio while Holland guides the class from a distance via a TV monitor. Some details are yet to be worked out but the aim is to set up the studio to allow Holland to see his students as well and offer spontaneous feedback.

The UW campus-wide plan follows Wisconsin state protocols requiring face coverings, physical distancing, cleaning, hygiene and symptom self-monitoring. Campus will provide free testing and quarantine areas for students who test positive. All returning students must participate in a COVID-19 training and sign a pledge to follow the public health guidelines.

Protocol specifically for dance further translates into keeping the building spaces as safe as possible. Students will be asked to arrive dressed to dance and locker rooms will remain closed. Each dancer will be given a taped-out area on the floor outside the studio for their belongings. Since class sizes are limited to 10 per class, more sections of each course will be offered and times will be staggered to allow for studio cleaning in between.

Heather Good, UW dance department administrator. Photo by Maureen Janson Heintz Theatre director of the department, Claude Heintz, worked with Heather Good, the department administrator, to create a diagram for the studio usage. “Mainly we were trying to format the floor so that each dancer would have a specific space rather than having them randomly try to stay physically distant,” Heintz says. In the past these classes could accommodate up to 30 students, so the new configuration actually allows dancers much more personal space than they typically would have. Class accompanists have their own area, and the instructor is given roughly a 6-foot corridor around the perimeter of the dance area. In the ballet studio, 16-foot portable double barres will hold three students each.

“We’re ordering lots of disposable masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectant through a centralized campus process,” Good wrote in an email. “Every studio will be stocked with these items.” Students are responsible for sanitizing their floor area both before and after each class. “For time between classes, we’re rearranging, and in many cases removing, furniture in the building to make individual study areas that are spaced at least six feet apart.”

Good says she hired building stewards to maintain the spaces and keep them clean. “More importantly they are going to help establish and reinforce the culture of healthy behavior that we need to make this all work,” she says. Just prior to the start of classes, faculty will go through 'dress rehearsals' with Good, walking through the paces of their days in effort to anticipate any potential gaps in the plan and then make necessary accommodations.

The possibility of performances has been an ever-changing topic. “The main performance opportunity for the students comes in February so because things are in flux, we are anticipating that we'll have to be creative with that,” Harris says. 

All live audience events on campus are on hold for the time being, but Heintz is working to salvage a few concerts that had been canceled last spring. Several recent graduates whose thesis concerts were postponed, may be able to present some form of their work this September instead. According to Heintz, “after talking with the choreographers involved, we decided to present a series of solos that will be performed in the theatre as livestreamed events. We'll be streaming those on consecutive days and we're hoping that it feels like a cohesive thing, almost like a festival.” 

Despite all the preparation, Harris says plans are constantly shifting. “And who knows what will happen once the students arrive?” She emphasizes that until that happens and classes officially begin, the only certainty is that things will change. Harris is looking for a bright side. “I'm trying to embrace 'impermanence' as a motto for 2020!” she says.


As performing artists and arts institutions navigate the coronavirus pandemic, we at See Chicago Dance are curious about what's happening in other parts of the Midwest. This story is part of a fall series of regional features exploring how other dance communities are coping with COVID.

Guest writer Maureen Janson is a choreographer, a former dancer, a photographer and a writer. She has contributed to Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, Dance Teacher, and The Capital Times among other publications. She was the founding editor/publisher of Scoliosis Quarterly magazine, and with her mentor Anna Paskevska, she co-wrote the second edition of Getting Started in Ballet (2016, Oxford University Press). In 2019, Maureen made her playwriting debut with Beautiful View-a collection of monologues that may or may not have something to do with the moon. Details about her work can be found at