For most of the 2019-2020 school year, the members of Dance and Step at Amherst College (DASAC) performed their trademark, well-choreographed mixture of hip-hop, step and street jazz-influenced dances to live audiences. Their fall 2019 showcase, “DASAC: End of a Decade,” moved fluidly between 14 songs, from Beyoncé’s “Best That You Never Had” to Iggy Pop’s “I’m Bored” to Twice’s “Fancy.” Each piece was entirely choreographed and performed by students (and each can still be seen on DASAC’s YouTube channel). However, the chance to organize another major performance in the spring was snatched away by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“That email [announcing students would have to leave campus in March 2020] really threw us,” recalled artistic director Shikha Jha ’22. “In that short time, I don’t think we were able to plan … a final production, which, looking back, is definitely a regret.” Still, DASAC managed to organize a suitable sendoff for its graduating members, gathering in the Greenway Dormitory plaza for a final informal performance.
While this quick response gave DASAC seniors an important goodbye, it was still unclear what the club would look like during the 2020-2021 school year. One of the E-Board’s first priorities was making sure that recruitment continued despite the obstacles Covid-19 had created. As artistic director Michael Gibson ’21 explained, “We found it really important to continue having auditions and bringing in new dancers … so that we have a consistent pool of leadership to pull from” and to avoid “not having [enough] people to actually offer material for the group.”
Jha described the actual audition process, which involved “choreographers or E-Board members record[ing] a video of them[selves] teaching the choreo … so that incoming students could learn [the pieces] and submit the videos to us. And then we just converted our entire selection process over Zoom.” While this system worked effectively, the obvious differences between performing face-to-face and computer-to-computer created challenges. Gibson observed that “you can’t always tell if someone can dance over video … you just miss a lot of those micro-movements that you get in person...As far as giving performance energy, giving quality, extending your movements beyond your immediate bubble: All of that gets lost over video.” Obstacles and all, the audition process successfully kick-started the year for DASAC, with turnout and acceptances comparable to a normal year.
The fall semester was further complicated by the divide between on and off-campus students. As a result, rehearsals had to be organized in a hybrid format, with some students practicing in the tents by LeFrak Gym and other students coming in over Zoom. Gibson described this division as creating a “cutscene” effect, jumping back and forth between various parts instead of being able to “compile everybody onto one screen.”
Understandably, given the number of difficulties facing rehearsals, DASAC’s initial goals for the fall semester were minimal. Gibson recalled the mindset at the start of the fall as “we’re not going to do anything. We don’t have a lot of dancers on campus; we’ll just maybe get together for some more casual rehearsals. We’ll still have choreographers teach just so we can keep things going.”
It didn’t take long before the idea of having a laid-back semester started to change. Even though there were fewer dancers on campus than in previous semesters, it was still important for the group to preserve the material they created. Increasingly, it looked like the best way to do so would be through a filmed digital performance. Once that idea had been pitched, DASAC started to make more and more ambitious plans. In Gibson’s words, “Then it was like, well, we don’t want it to look bad. And okay, let’s tap into the resources. We’ve got the Powerhouse, and we’ve got lights … And then Michael wants a fog machine. And so it really took a life of its own.”
The digital show that resulted, debuting in December 2020, opened a wide variety of new opportunities for DASAC. While previous filmings of shows had relied on straight tripod shots, the digital show experimented with a variety of angles, while also splicing together shots of dancers performing both on and off-campus. Additionally, the recorded format allowed for a number of creative editing choices and transitions between pieces. The performance “Overdrive,” for example, is introduced with a retro racing game loading screen and noises from “Mario Kart.” Beyond all of these features, Jha said that another benefit of the digital show was that “if you go with the statistics, in terms of having our show published like this, it did get a pretty good reach.” In fact, the video of the performance on DASAC’s YouTube channel now has over 1,600 views, significantly more than the total number of students on Amherst campus in the fall.
DASAC’s digital show is an excellent example of how — even amid many obstacles and restrictions for student groups — the last two semesters have offered a number of opportunities for student groups creative enough to take advantage of them. DASAC took the momentum they built up in the fall and ran with it. They now have the majority of their members on campus and are planning two major shows for the end of the semester. One will be another digital showcase and the other a live performance outside the Greenway amphitheater. Looking back at their achievements over the last year, the artistic directors of DASAC feel rightfully positive. At the close of our interview, Jha summed up the major lessons of the last semesters: “There’s definitely an upward trend, and I think [these new digital techniques] will be another element that we continue to add going forward.”