The Virtual Stage

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 08, 2005 10 min read
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Jacob Besigel shows off some impressive dance moves—extreme twists, rapid spins, and skybound leaps—all by simply tapping his right index finger. With the click of a computer mouse, the 8th grader straightens the animated dancer he has created on-screen, adjusts his timing, adds a deep lunge to the routine and begins the simulation again. As music echoes through Jacob’s dance class at Moore Square Museums Magnet Middle School here, the teenager continues to choreograph a “virtual” routine that he’ll have to synchronize with a live performance on the dance floor later in the school year.

Eighth graders fine tune a virtual dance they choreographed.

At Moore Square—where educators are blending technology more heavily into the teaching of arts and music than most other schools—even the most inhibited students can “bust” a virtual move with grace and prowess using a software program that allows them to build, pose, and animate a figure—or group of figures—in time.

“You’re almost dancing with the computer,” says teacher Cindy Hoban, a former professional dancer who introduced the students to the computerized dance program, called Poser. Hoban, 52, uses the technology as a supplement in her elective dance classes to familiarize her students with dance concepts and genres, and to help them visualize moves, from basic to extreme.

The computer exercise draws giggles and gasps from students, many of whom have only a casual interest in learning about dance. But even those slouched in their seats begin to limber up and move closer to their screens once they breathe life into the virtual dancer.

Hoban’s technical lesson comes after several weeks of traditional dance instruction, in which students learn the art of movement in a mirrored studio with slick wood floors and a ballet barre. Her 7th graders have already begun to prepare customary dances for the school’s Chinese festival, while 8th graders have been sampling the dance trends for the decades of the 20th century.

The computer-based lesson—which takes place in the school’s technology lab, where each student has a computer and Hoban can demonstrate the application on a large screen at the front of class—is a precursor to the projects the students will undertake this spring. In preparation for a culminating recital, they will learn to integrate a live performance with those of their virtual partners, which will flash on a screen on the stage. Over the next several weeks, they will choreograph for themselves a dance sequence that both complements and contrasts with the one they’ve created for their virtual partners.

“I wanted to find out: Can dancers share the stage with technology?” the petite, sprightly teacher says, explaining why she started using the software in her classes several years ago.

Hoban is among a growing cadre of arts teachers far and wide tapping into technology to bring innovation to their instruction and to spark the interest and imagination of a generation of students drawn to technology. But with budgetary and time constraints that threaten the arts’ place in the school curriculum, experts say, most teachers of dance, music, theater, and visual arts are struggling just to keep their existing programs alive.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find many innovative programs and schools [using art and technology in meaningful ways],” says Craig Roland, a professor of art education at the University of Florida and an expert on the use of digital and information technology in visual-arts instruction. “They’re there, but they’re isolated . . . they are islands of excitement.”

Like their peers in other disciplines, teachers of the arts have generally been slow to adopt new technologies, mostly because of a lack of training and adequate equipment, says Roland.

Cindy Hoban explains how students can mimic a hip movement on their computerized dancers.

But given technology’s long history in transforming the arts—the pottery wheel, the printing press, and the camera were all new technologies that met with reluctance and only slowly became standard tools for artists—Roland predicts that more teachers will eventually embrace the new methods.

There are, however, a number of challenges for doing so effectively, says Roland, whose book, The Art Teachers Guide to the Internet, is set to be published this spring. Art teachers must first have adequate equipment and access to it; they need time to teach students to use the programs; technical support should be available to ensure teachers and students can make the most of their time with the technology; and teachers need professional development to find the best ways to use computers and other equipment in their lessons.

But Roland cautions educators not to become so enamored of the bells and whistles of the technology that the creation of real art or music gets overshadowed.

“For technology to really make a difference requires challenging curriculum goals and really sound practices,” he says.

Arts teachers at Moore Square, which draws some 550 students from downtown Raleigh and around North Carolina’s 108,000-student Wake County school system, have been gradually trying to do just that. The 6th, 7th, and 8th graders cycle through the four areas of dance, music, theater, and visual arts, getting traditional arts instruction supplemented by technology-based lessons.

In drama, for example, teacher Corrie Davis uses a Smart Board, a computerized whiteboard that pulls images and information from the Internet, as well as live video and the school curriculum, to present interactive lessons for her students. Boys and girls in visual-arts classes can use computer-based paint programs to create their own masterpieces or draft three-dimensional drawings or multimedia pieces.

A student listens to a composition during music class.

Meanwhile, in Bob Knight’s music classroom, students practice on electric guitars, drums, and keyboards while classmates across the room arrange their own music on desktop computers.

A software program called ACID Pro allows students to select sound clips from libraries of music that are in the public domain, which can be used without paying royalties. They can arrange sounds from a variety of instruments or human vocals, add elements such as clapping hands or animal noises, stretch the sounds, change the pitch or loudness, and then arrange all the sounds together.

“The students learn a lot about how music is put together,” says Knight. “They are making all the same decisions that an arranger would … and at the same time, they are loving it.”

Advanced students in Knight’s classes can compose music on a keyboard while a computer records the notations on-screen. That work can then be printed as real sheet music.

Through technology, Knight says, students learn how to apply music theory, and even a novice can make music before he or she learns how to play an instrument.

Listen to music created by Moore Square students:

MP3 | Windows Media

“With the traditional way of learning an instrument, students study for years and years to master the instrument, and then they are reproducing someone else’s music,” Knight says. “With this approach…the creative side of music is something they don’t have to wait for.”

But while similar technology has become commonplace in the arts industry, its growing use has sparked controversy among professional musicians, many of whom have lost their jobs as theaters phase out big orchestral productions in favor of electronic presentations. And Knight agrees that the ease and accessibility of computerized music can also be cause for caution in using technology with students who have not learned the basics of playing an instrument.

“I’m a big proponent for not losing the artistry of playing the traditional instrument,” he says. Most of his students at Moore Square, which does not have a band or orchestra program, have had limited exposure to music until now. “But I do see where the technology will extend out to more people the opportunity to create music on their own.”

For 6th grader Josh Ray, piecing together his own musical composition has changed the way he hears music, whether he’s learning the piano or listening to the radio.

“You can add different layers of sound, adjust the volume, remix the elements,” Josh says as he works with classmate Alex Dancer. The two search the ACID Pro libraries for music from different cultures, then add an Indian beat that appears as a blue strip on the computer screen. Next, they find the high-pitched croak of a tree frog. That sound, represented by a green strip, is added to the next sequence. When finished, the pair has arranged an eclectic array of rhythms and beats over a series of musical selections.

Dance students at Moore Square rehearse a routine as teacher Cindy Hoban works in the background to synchronize a computerized pattern with the movements.

“It really adds texture to the music and makes you aware of the different sounds,” Alex says.

Technology has drawn more students into music education, suggests Tom Rudolph, the president of the Technology Institute for Music Educators, a Wyncote, Pa.-based organization that provides professional development for teachers. In Pennsylvania’s Haverford Township School District, where Rudolph is the director of music and a middle school teacher, the addition of secondary school music-technology courses over the past few years has boosted enrollment in music courses from 300 students to over 1,400.

“When technology comes in, kids get more involved in the music program, especially kids who elected not to play a band instrument,” says Rudolph, who leads workshops on music technology for teachers around the country. “The key to using technology is offering yet another experience to the majority of kids who don’t take band, orchestra, or chorus.”

For the upcoming dance recital, Knight is planning to have his students arrange music timed precisely to the animated dances created by their peers in Hoban’s class. At least one show will be presented in the school lobby, where four large screens hang in a recess in the ceiling. The Poser animation will be projected on the screens, the music aired over the school sound system, with the dancers performing underneath.

In Hoban’s class, students are experimenting with the editing tools that allow them to shift and swivel body parts one at a time and record them on an animation program to play back later in smooth motions. They can change the standard male figure into a woman or a child, various animals, skeletons, or box or wire shapes. Assorted features can be added to give the figure personality, including facial expressions, hair, clothing, shadows, and shading. Students can manipulate each body part, string several moves together, and run the sequence as a video clip.

In one of Hoban’s classes here in late January, 8th grader Christina Boddie strikes a graceful pose, with toe pointed and outstretched arms, while a classmate, Taylor Temple, maneuvers the Poser figure to mimic the stance. Students around the room continue with similar exercises, which help Hoban demonstrate the source of various dance movements.

The virtual dancer that will share the stage with the students during their performance this spring.

“Do you see how when you extend your arm up like this,” Hoban instructs Christina and Taylor, as the teacher raises a straight arm toward the ceiling, “the movement comes from the shoulder?”

Students practice moving their computerized dancer into a plié, a basic ballet move in which the knees are bent while the back is held up straight. A click on the hips of the virtual dancer and a downward drag of the mouse turns his legs in perfect ballet form. The savvy students quickly progress to an arabesque, a pirouette, and eventually a floor-sliding break dance.

Later in the day, one group of 8th graders is already working on its spring project, which features several clips they’ve made on Poser and half a dozen live dancers in the foreground. Blaire Zachary and Hannah Bowen remind their partners, Samantha Pernell and Clayton Ortiz, of the sequence of moves they’ve designed to complement the figure on screen. Trey Motley stands at the laptop computer, carefully timing the Poser animation and changing the sequence for best effect for the group’s piece, which the students have called Zero Gravity.

After experimenting with some contortions of the virtual dancer’s torso and abnormal turns of his legs,the students eventually settle on more natural moves—a shuffle of the feet, a deep bend of the knee, and a modest angled jump. But the “dude,” as they call the computerized dancer, morphs throughout the animation program, growing out of proportion, his coat swallowing his upper body, before being transformed into an animated skeleton.

“With Poser, you can see the comparison between when we do a dance and what you see on the screen,” says Trey.

He has been rushing through his lunch some afternoons to spend time working with the group. His initial passing interest in dance has become a growing passion. “With Poser, it’s more than a dance,” Trey says. “It’s a major creation.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as TheVirtual Stage


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