GMU Develops Virtual Tool to Make Distanced Performing Arts Classes Possible

While many in higher education are focused on remote and hybrid learning for the more mainstream majors, a dance professor at George Mason University (GMU) developed a new virtual tool to make remote dance, and other performing arts classes, possible.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Heritage Professor of Dance Christopher d’Amboise said he saw a need for a video conferencing system that would allow for life-size, full-body interaction that would allow him to teach dance to students anywhere in the world.

Seeing nothing already on the market, d’Amboise developed his own tool that allows him to project dancers from a remote location directly on to the wall of the GMU studio. The new virtual teaching system is called the Moving Story Window Wall and enables GMU to offer hybrid dance classes to keep dancers and faculty safe.

“The system is particularly helpful in today’s world,” said d’Amboise, “because it allows the professors to teach live and online at the same time. It also gives the students who are studying remotely a sense of community with their on-campus classmates.”

At the start of the fall semester, small groups of socially distanced dancers in separate studios and students taking the class remotely were brought together using Window Wall’s large-scale video display.

“The technology and Window Wall in our four studios have allowed us to come back to campus, provide in-person classes and connect with the students who are attending class remotely,” said Karen Reedy, director of the School of Dance.

While students and faculty are enjoying the new technology, its deployment has not hit some speedbumps, mainly having to deal with needed technology equipment that has been on backorder.

That said, d’Amboise and Reedy have already seen the potential for the technology even post-pandemic. In September, GMU was able to host a guest artist residency, during which Mason dancers worked with the acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin.

“We were able to project her – life-size – into all four studios simultaneously, and she was choreographing and teaching as if she was standing in the room with all our students,” said d’Amboise.

Looking to the future, d’Amboise explained that “professors are no longer bound by geography and can share curriculum with universities and arts organizations worldwide.”

Outside of dance instruction, d’Amboise sees other applications for the technology, including showing classroom activities on exterior campus walls so students passing by can see what’s going on inside the studios, as well as projecting multidisciplinary performances in unique public spaces. He also sees potential for other art disciplines, including theater, music, and the visual arts.

“The Window Wall is both evolutionary and revolutionary,” said Rick Davis, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “Teleconferencing has been around a long time – and is now, for better or worse, part of our daily reality. But Christopher’s insight was to realize that, with just the right ingredients, the idea could scale up, creating true three-dimensional, life-size interactions across unlimited distances for groups of people in motion.”

Kate Polit
About Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs