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Student clubs improvise and adapt in pandemic

Aerial Dance Club president Kate Dotson (Educ ’23) trains in a dance studio. Andrew Shurtleff

On a Friday afternoon in early December, at a dance studio off Route 29 north of Grounds, Savannah Long (Col ’21, Grad ’26) shimmies up strands of silk fabric dangling from the ceiling and hangs upside down, 20 feet above the floor.

Long spreads her arms, releases hold of the fabric with her foot, and plunges, before the silks wrapped around her legs and torso go taut, catching her several feet above a padded black mat.

For Long, a graduate student in philosophy, tumbling from the sky with UVA’s Aerial Dance Club is all about release.

“It lets me push myself when I can’t do any more papers for the day,” she says. “I’m here putting off seven papers right now, but it feels perfect. It’s a perfect outlet.”

Student organizations such as the Aerial Dance Club have long provided such an outlet. They offer a break from the academic grind and a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose.

From blacksmithing to ballroom dance, improv to a cappella, hacking to humanoid robotics, there’s something for just about everyone—some 700 CIOs, or contracted independent organizations. They receive about $800,000 in funding from the Student Council, says Ryan Cieslukowski (Col ’23), vice president for student organizations.

Pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings during the 2020-21 academic year hit student groups hard. Some curtailed or suspended activities. Others improvised.

With many restrictions lifted, this vibrant part of student life rebounded during the fall 2021 semester. But as COVID-19 cases rose again with  the omicron variant, the reprieve threatened to be temporary.

Here’s a look at three groups as they navigated the semester:

The Virginia Glee Club: Upholding tradition

“This semester has kind of allowed us to do what we normally do,” says Noah McIntire (Col ’23), president of the Virginia Glee Club, which is in its 151st season.

Its 150th was unlike any other. In fall 2020, the club took to Zoom, a platform not conducive to vocal harmonizing, McIntire says.

Membership dwindled. The usual roster of 40 to 50 singers fell to 16.

“It was hard to recruit guys and show them what the Glee Club was all about over Zoom,” McIntire says.

By spring 2021, with vaccines available and restrictions on outdoor gatherings loosened, the club found a rehearsal home in an unlikely space: the parking garage at John Paul Jones Arena.

The acoustics were good and, just as importantly, “Cars weren’t going through all the time,” McIntire says.

Good acoustics and few cars make the parking garage at JPJ a good rehearsal spot for the Virginia Glee Club. Courtesy Virginia Glee Club

“It was crazy to hear in-person singing again.”

Rehearsals continued throughout the semester, albeit with masks, which can muffle consonants, making proper diction a challenge. Then there’s the issue of breathing. Depending on the material, inhaling quickly can result in a mouthful of mask, McIntire says.

Still, “It’s doable,” he says.

And better than the previous year. By semester’s end, the club, up to 20 members, was able to make the rounds singing carols and delivering poinsettias across Grounds, as well as perform its Christmas concerts, which had been done over Zoom in 2020.

Roller Derby Club: A hard sport gets harder

At the start of the pandemic, “Our club fizzled out and died,” says Montana Showalter (Col ’24), president of the Roller Derby Club. “All those restrictions made it hard. Roller derby is so full-contact. You’re supposed to be hitting people. You’re supposed to be on this rink together.”

Founded seven years ago, the club had dwindled to just a few members, before rebounding in the fall 2021 semester. More than 100 women expressed interest at the student activity fair. About 30 came to the first meeting. Roughly half stuck it out through the semester.

That rate of attrition is normal, says team coach Whitney Richardson, a fiscal administrator in the Department of Astronomy and a former skater for the local team, the Charlottesville Derby Dames.

“People realize: It’s not as easy as it looks,” she says.

Skating is hard enough without being bumped, blocked and jostled, in a sport where the objective includes lapping opposing players. It takes balance and endurance, whether on a track or, in the case of UVA’s team, in a parking lot.

With no indoor venue available for practice, the club went through its paces in the large, smooth-surfaced lot behind the Astronomy building, near the facilities management building.

The club members also skated at a local rec center. Showalter was hopeful that the club would be able to rent the center for practices in the spring.

“I did crew and ice skating before, so I kind of like the odd sports,” she says. “Our club has a lot of girls who weren’t that athletic, who weren’t into more traditional sports. It’s a very diverse group of people.”

Aerial Dance Club: Getting back in the swing

A virtual show was better than nothing, but for the members of the Aerial Dance Club, it couldn’t compare to performing their November 2021 showcase for spectators on the Lawn.

“I had never performed in person,” club president Kate Dotson (Educ ’23) says.

The club had made the best of things in 2020-21, putting on its fall and spring shows on YouTube. It practiced outdoors, using a portable rig Dotson keeps in pieces in the basement of her Charlottesville home.

In fall 2021, the club moved indoors to a dance studio that could accommodate about half of its 17 members at a given time. It’s a collaborative environment, well suited to the peer-to-peer teaching that is part of the club’s mission.

“We’ll really take anybody and teach you, and I think there’s something empowering in that,” Dotson says.

It’s a process. Newcomers to the club begin on the ground, where they learn to tie knots and to execute a few simple poses.

“Once they’ve proved they can hold their own weight, we let them climb one body length up from the ground,” Dotson says. And so on, up to about 24 feet—the height of the rafters at the studio.

The fall semester saw a surge in interest in the group. Its members were chosen by lottery from 70 applicants. While some, like Dotson, a former gymnast, have athletic backgrounds, it’s not a prerequisite.

For all, the payoff is that rush of pure release.

“In the moment when you let go and do a drop and fall, it’s the most amazing feeling,” Dotson says.