UH Hilo educator Kea Kapahua shares how online instruction has transformed teaching the art of dance

Despite dance instructor Kea Kapahua’s years of training and teaching, moving her dance classes online was not something that came naturally. But she’s up for the challenge this fall, fearlessly teaching her students completely through virtual platforms.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Laptop and computer set up on home office desk, grid of student faces on both.
Kea Kapahua’s home office set up with one of several platforms she is using to teach dance online. Courtesy photo, click to enlarge.

With no traveling productions or students to perform due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the Performing Arts Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is experiencing an unprecedented pause. How will actors perform with no stage? How will musicians harmonize with no orchestra? How will dancers train with no studio space? These are all questions that faculty members of the Department of Performing Arts have fearlessly had to take on as they navigate teaching their students completely online this fall.

Hula dancer in long black dress.
Dance instructor Kea Kapahua performs at the opening of a dance exhibit in 2015. Photo credit: UH System News. 

“Moving online has changed my teaching dramatically,” says dance instructor Kristi “Kea” Kapahua. “The preparation time is tremendous. I have to think outside the box in how I can foster community because when we are in person this happens naturally.”

Kapahua is an experienced dance professional who began training at the age of five and grew to work with artists such as Loretta Livingston, Bill Evans, Wade Madsen, and Cleo Parker Robinson. Her performance journey started with Halau Hula ‘o Kahikilaulani under Kumu Ray Fonseca and grew to include ballet and modern dance under the mentorship of UH Hilo’s Celeste Staton, Trina Nahm-Mijo of Hawai‘i Community College, and the late Earnest Morgan, beloved UH Hilo dance instructor. Kapahua believes that her return to UH Hilo is “like a natural extension of this dance journey and like I have come full circle.”

Yet despite Kapahua’s years of training and teaching, moving her dance classes online was not something that came naturally. No longer having access to UH Hilo’s old gym, which has a specially built sprung floor to both enhance and protect students while dancing, Kapahua realized that much of the dance curriculum would have to be modified to allow students taking class from small spaces like dorm rooms to participate comfortably. While a typical in-person dance class will include a barre section, center choreography, and across the floor combinations with jumps, leaps, and large dance movements, Kapahua has opted to focus more on floor stretches, foundational techniques, and strengthening exercises.

Another obstacle that Kapahua has faced is how she will create a sense of community for her dancers.

“Usually when we are meeting for dance in person, the dance space is teeming with life and energy, relationships are made naturally,” she says. “There is a lot more space to dance with full physical expression.”

Though dance is a physical art form using the individual body, the experience has a lot to do with the connection between the performers. They must rehearse together to dance as one, feel as one, breathe as one. To replicate these sentiments, Kapahua has implemented the use of an app called Flipgrid. This popular educational tool allows students to upload videos of themselves sharing their experiences and for their classmates to submit video comments getting to know one another and witness each other’s growth.

Computer screen with main student Holly at the center, and two fellow students shown on either side of her.
Dance student Holly is shown here on the app Flipgrid. On either side of her are two other students. With Flipgrid, the students upload their video assignments and can respond or talk to each other through video on this app. Courtesy photo from Kea Kapahua, click to enlarge.

In addition to Flipgrid, and like many other teachers across the country, Kapahua is also using Zoom, an online video conferencing platform, to teach live classes. Conscious of the slight delay factor when using Zoom, Kapahua says she plans to move, teach, and use music that is a bit slower, so students can actively engage in the planned movements.

She is also providing students with a few prerecorded classes. While this doesn’t allow her to see them training in real time, she believes that this option is helpful because students can rewatch it as many times as they please, practice with it outside designated class time, and view what a movement is supposed to look like without any lagging or out-of-sync music.

Despite the challenges that a semester taught entirely online has given her, Kapahua also sees the value in being able to adapt under these circumstances.

“There are some pros of working online such as learning new skills, developing new ways to communicate and being able to provide access to classes for students who currently are not living in Hawai‘i,” she explains. “We are also learning to create and problem solve within the confines that have been dealt to us in this time.”

The Department of Performing Arts is also still planning to have an end-of-semester performance. While this will not look like the biannual production of Great Leaps (a longtime tradition at UH Hilo with student dancers from the university and Hawai‘i Community College), it will involve the participation of every dance student and give them an opportunity to showcase all they have accomplished this semester. Kapahua indicates this performance will most likely take the form of a video production, and that faculty are still discussing new and innovative ways to approach this project.

Whether online or in-person, a performing arts student or not, the arts are for everyone. Kapahua assures that by saying, “We naturally build a supportive artistic community in the performing arts department. Students have an opportunity to create, problem solve, learn grace and poise, strengthen the mind and body, experience the joy of expression, overcome both physical and mental obstacles, gain discipline, be comfortable in their bodies, have confidence in themselves, learn team building skills, improve memory, stick-to-it-ness, grit, and so much more.”

She adds, “Each semester the performing arts department offers performances in dance, drama and music at the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center. This not only gives our students performance experience on the stage, but gives back to our community. The performing arts department is one of the university’s best means of outreach and connection into our Hilo community.”

Hula dancers on stage.
Dancers perform “Hula Dolls” in the production of The Hawaiian Nutcracker at the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center in November of last year. It was the very last UH Hilo public stage performance before COVID-19; the center was unable to have any productions in spring 2020. About the photo, dance instructor Kea Kapahua says, “In working with my current students right now, it is so important that students still see a vision of the stage. Visually, [the photo] shows the vast contrast between online learning and in-person learning.” Courtesy photo, click to enlarge.
Visit the Department of Performing Arts website for more information on past performances and courses offered.


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo. 

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