April 8, 2020

Youngsters Zoom to extracurricular activities

Dance, drama, voice, music — many local programs have shifted their classes online

Remember when we, as parents, used to curse the tyranny of all those extracurricular activities? It was just a month ago that we were slaves to the over-stuffed weekly calendar that would ping us as much in the evenings as it did all day at work; those family spreadsheets were engineered with military precision.

And now these sobering COVID-19 times are an opportunity to focus on what really matters. Sure, there are those of us juggling the constant demands of little ones with full-time work, who would give anything to get back to those hurly-burly schedules. But there are others, increasingly so, who are actually reporting less anxiety on the home front and are finding fun in the alternative.

From virtual classes in drama, dance, voice and music, we checked in with a few local Calgary instructors who have been as busy learning new skills, maybe more so, than their students. 

In the span of a month, Kelsey Noble, BA’15, a local music teacher for Music and Play (a performing arts school), is now teaching students via conference/video calling software programs such as Zoom, Discord and Skype. Before the bugs were worked out, her students loved it when her “face would stretch and freeze in weird positions,” says Noble, who is also a student at UCalgary in the Werklund School of Education.

“Other things like virtual backgrounds have been fun to incorporate into classes, but still,” she adds, “I really miss the in-person interaction with the students even though we’ve managed to re-work lots of the interactive activities for a digital platform."

Child dances in living room

“I feel a little lost dancing alone,” says Llola Pirrie, a dance student who’s now dancing at home.

Courtesy BR Pirri

Dance carries on

For 33 years, Free House Dance has offered classes to Calgary children and adults in their funky northwest studio. From hip hop and jazz to ballet, tap, flamenco, highland, African dance and more — the only time this studio has ever closed its doors was for a few days during 2018’s “Snowmageddon,” recalls owner Kathie Bernard.

This time, however, more than 450 kids and 250 adults were impacted when the coronavirus crisis forced them to shutter the building. “Intense and busy,” is how most Free House dancers would describe this time of the year as hundreds of students would be frantically training for their final performance (typically held at UCalgary, which recently cancelled all events until June 30).

Although their year-end production has been postponed, Free House has managed to launch a staggering 112 weekly classes out of its usual roster of 125. Using Google Classroom for on-demand components and Google Meet for online streaming, the staff are currently working on a permanent student portal, expected to launch shortly.

Like Noble, Bernard hopes these current online solutions are a stop-gap measure, adding that nothing quite beats the ability to “see and correct a dancer, in person.”

Love of theatre endures

Alhough most of its programming occurs in July and August when its drama camps rule the charming brick building on the Bow River, Pumphouse Theatre did have to cancel its weekly drama classes last month.

Programming director Kelly Malcolm is now busy devising an online drama program for students aged 10 to 17 and “fun resources for parents of children aged five to nine.” She’s been warned that “the pace of online learning will be very different than an in-person class.”

With drama and theatre being such a communal and team-driven art form, not every activity, game and lesson will successfully transfer online, but  “with the amount of technology at our disposal, I think we can still bring the love of theatre to children in Calgary,” says Malcolm, who will teach most of the content herself.

Always the optimist, Malcolm views these times of self-isolation as an opportunity to “learn a lot of new skills that I would never have considered before, including online platforms and teaching techniques and new lesson ideas for theatre.”

Voice coach sees silver linings

The moment the threat of COVID-19 began closing communal spaces, voice coach Rachel Hopp realized she’d have to upgrade her computer and her technical skills, and beef up everyone’s ear training if she were to continue working with her dozens of students, who range from seven to 70 years of age.

There were a couple of bumps along the way, she says:  “Hey, why can’t they hear me? I can hear and see them just fine.” However, there have been silver linings as well. “Singing is such a great emotional release and a welcome antidote in the face of isolation. So many of us want a way to continue what we were doing before COVID-19 changed our lives . . . all these new platforms are letting us do that.”  

Adds Bernard: “These new applications for online learning are giving us a contingency plan for snowy days, when teachers are sick, or when kids are away on holiday. And this crisis is reminding us how important connection and community is.”

Online resources for families

Loaded with resources for families is the digital media company dubbed Family Fun CalgaryEditor-in-chief Voula Martin, BA’98, and her staff rustled up a hit list of other extracurricular digital distractions to help kids (and their parents) survive the COVID-19 lockdown:

UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.