With the disruption of the COVID crisis, dancers have been out of the studio for up to three months now. As dance schools finally begin to reopen across the country this month, studio owners and teachers are deciding what to do about examination preparation. Should they continue to work toward exams for their students this year considering the lack of in-studio training time? What do students and parents need and expect, and what is actually feasible? To gather some insight and advice on how to navigate exams in the post-COVID environment, Dance Informa spoke with the directors of four of Australia’s leading dance syllabi: Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), ComDance, Australian Teachers of Dancing (ATOD) and Cecchetti Ballet Australia.
“In my other life, I was a school teacher,” says Diane Gepp, President of ComDance. “Kids work best with structure, when they know what they are attaining, and they know what is going to happen. So, it is our job, as parents and teachers, to give it to them.”
As such, it is recommended that teachers make a decision about 2020 exams sooner rather than later and clearly explain their plans to both students and parents.
With such a messy past few months, it is clear that all four associations want to be as flexible as possible, with a myriad of new options on offer to make exams sessions feasible over the last six months of the year.
“Providing an exam opportunity for students is very important to ensure they have something to still be working toward despite the disruption,” explains Rebecca Taylor, National Director of RAD Australia.
“Teachers are the experts in terms of dealing with their studios and their students, and they will make that decision as to whether an exam is appropriate or not for their students with the situation this year,” Taylor adds. “However, from a RAD perspective, we are doing everything we possibly can to make sure that we offer the exams and be flexible in how we offer them. When the COVID crisis hit, our first two major exam sessions in Brisbane and Sydney had already closed and were about to start in May, and we had others ready for closing dates all the way up until September. So, we rescheduled all exams and have offered a direct transfer into a second session in the second half of the year. We know we need to be flexible this year to make it happen.”
ATOD has had a similar thought, with President Leah Belford telling us that “as an organisation, we will definitely be servicing our members right through to the end of the year, even right through the Christmas and summer holiday period for those who want it.”
And ComDance and Cecchetti are singing the same tune, telling us that they are being as elastic as possible with exam session dates. But it’s not just scheduling that’s the issue, with travel restrictions creating difficulty for interstate examiners.
“Normally, Pre-Primarys to Grade 4s are examined by our local examiners,” says Carole Hall, chair of Cecchettti Ballet Australia. “But this year, we will do Pre-Primary to Grade 6 with the local examiners because we do not know how long the boarders will be shut. That way, everybody can plan ahead and set an exam session if they want one. We have also talked about giving an option for the major exams to be done by two local examiners together, co-examining the students, because if it is a small state; we know everyone well. With the two of us together, we just feel it is a little bit more transparent.”
ComDance has adopted a similar model for 2020 also, with Gepp explaining, “Normally, we try to send all our examiners interstate so there is no conflict of interest. But that might not be a possibility this year, which is okay. We have enough examiners based in every state to be able to administer the exams.”
And if a face-to-face exam is not possible, the RAD is now offering video exams “with a set of clear guidelines and directions,” and ComDance is even offering Zoom exams! ATOD is also talking about the possibility of online exam options for their overseas students as well as students in Australia where they might not be able to send an examiner due to travel restrictions.
“For us, the really big thing about exams is the relationship between the examiner and the candidate; it’s a personal experience and we want a relationship,” Gepp says. “We have already used Zoom with our exams in Singapore. We actually had to pull examiners out of Singapore in the middle of our exam session because of COVID, so the candidates were certainly ready and wanting exams there. We have had great feedback both from the examiners and the candidates and teachers, so we know that it can work! And some others are recording their exams and using Dropbox to drop the files in. But our preference is to try to keep it as an interactive experience because that relationship with the examiner is important. I am hoping that students will be able to do live exams later in the year, but we are ready with Zoom, too.”
So, exam sessions will be possible, but will dancers have time to get ready and really feel prepared this year? All syllabi have been assisting their members greatly during this crisis with a mixture of Zoom meetings, masterclasses, calls and emails to answer any questions and offer support to teachers all across the country. And that support won’t end once face-to-face classes recommence.
“If a studio rings and says, ‘Look, I would love to have a workshop in the September holidays, because I have exams in October, and I just want to make sure that my kids are doing the right thing because we have only been back for six weeks,’ ATOD will send an examiner to host a workshop and go through work if they are unsure,” says Belford. “It does not matter where they are; we will send them.”
And this year, there will be many other awards for students to work toward if an exam is a little too overwhelming under the circumstances.
“Cecchetti Australia will be offering an equivalent class exam,” Hall explains. “We are giving teachers the option, particularly with the younger ones, to put in six to eight children, and they can get a Participation Certificate. They do not pass or fail, but it gives them something nice to work toward, with less stress, for this year only. It is still based on syllabus, but it is just a selection.”
RAD also has alternative options. “We are working with teachers one-on-one to find what’s right for them and their students for this year ,” Taylor says. “So, if a teacher does not feel a full exam may be possible, we can discuss our other options. For example, at certain grades, we have always had Class Awards and Solo Performance Awards which are not a full exam. They offer a different level of exam and assessment that still gives them a progression path. It is also a slightly cheaper option and requires less preparation.”
With uncertainty about what concerts may look like this year, all syllabi leaders stress that exams can help students regain focus and give students something to look forward to.
“I always say ballet is not a classroom; rather, it is a performing art and they need to have the opportunity to get on stage,” says Hall. “However good, bad or indifferent they are, they need to get up there and perform. That is what it is all about!” But she concedes that concerts may be smaller this year or look a little different.
So, by still doing exams, Belford says that students will “have still achieved what they set out to achieve at the beginning of the year. It has just been a longer, more drawn out process, but they have still been able to do it.”
“Let us teach our students that no matter what, you can overcome a hurdle or a challenge and still achieve a goal,” inspires Gepp. “You had to do a little detour on the way to achieving that goal, but that happens in life. So, do not waste your year and waste those opportunities to experience; make the most of them.”
Taylor adds, “Sometimes students fast-track their exams anyway because they take multiple exams in a year to qualify for a competition or for other reasons. It is not the norm, but it is also not unusual to sometimes have a condensed training time frame, and I think that our teachers are very skilled at preparing students at all levels and committed to supporting those students who want to take exams.”
And let’s not forget that exam work is pivotal for perfecting technique and for the safe progression of steps, which is even more important this year when dancers have been training themselves at home and learning who knows what from TikTok and YouTube.
“With most kids, they are excited when they are learning new work, but when it comes to actually perfecting it and getting the detail right, they tend to get a little less enthusiastic, unless they have got that goal to work for,” says Hall.
So, no matter where you are at with exam preparation, it seems there are still options for you and your students this year, and that exam work may be just what you need to regain focus and correct those little technique issues that may have crept in over the last few months. Just contact your association to discuss choices and ideas. They are here to support you, your students and your parents.
By Deborah Searle of Dance Informa.