Bridging Isolation: Reflections on virtual movement workshops for older adults during COVID
On a recent Tuesday morning, older adults from across Southcentral Alaska danced to feel-good songs, including Bobby Darin’s 'Splish Splash’ and Carole King’s ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ from the comfort of their homes and an assisted living center.
The Anchorage Museum’s series of four, one-week classes called Vital & Creative: Movement at Home for Ages 55+ was inspired by a similarly named in-person program launched in late 2019, a program made possible by the generous support of Aroha Philanthropies. The goal of the subsequent series was to adapt in-person arts classes to virtual workshops.
I share my experience as a museum educator creating and supporting these classes while reflecting on the positive outcomes achieved by participants and my own professional development running virtual classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope these reflections may inspire others as they develop virtual programming.
Building on Previous Work
We considered a variety of factors specific to virtual arts classes as we began planning. These included encouraging artists to be comfortable with virtual platforms, material delivery and camera placement. The choice to adapt our in-person Vital & Creative: Expressive Movement for Ages 55+ workshop series was made for several reasons. First, we wanted to build on an established and successful in-person museum program. Second, we didn’t want to have to work out the logistics of getting materials to participants. Movement classes, which do not require physical materials, met both criteria. Additionally, we wanted to provide older adults with an opportunity to do physical activity at a time when many may be unable to leave their homes or attend group fitness classes.
The virtual series was publicized through social media, the museum’s e-newsletter and emails to older adult mailing list compiled from past Vital & Creative classes and waitlists. We also notified partner assisted living facilities.
Unsurprisingly, the largest difference between our in-person and virtual movement classes was technology. We anticipated minimal need for special technology since, unlike visual arts classes, close-up camera shots would not be necessary. We did discover that we needed special audio equipment.
Our preparations fell into two main categories: supporting the teaching artist and supporting the participants.
We worked with teaching artist Stephanie Wonchala, an Anchorage dance educator and director of Pulse Dance Company, to identify technology needs. We were eager to work with Stephanie for our first
foray into digital movement learning since she already used Zoom to deliver virtual youth dance classes. She shared with us how challenging it is for dancers to hear both her directions and the music at the same time. This presented an unexpected opportunity for museum interdepartmental collaboration. Both Exhibitions and Information Technology staff collaborated on creating an audio-set up with a new mixer for Stephanie. Preparing for virtual delivery allowed departments to work together in new ways and increased the internal visibility of these classes, two things we want to continue.
Once trained, Stephanie was able to operate the audio equipment independently and teach from her dance studio. Museum staff provided all other technology support so Stephanie could focus on teaching.
Participants needed support to access and participate in these virtual classes. We created a “Participating in a Zoom Meeting” quick-start guide and emailed it to registrants before each class and followed up with a basic Zoom tutorial at the beginning of each class. We dedicated one museum staff member in each the Zoom meeting to tech support and provided a phone number for participants to phone in questions that could not be easily addressed through Zoom’s chat feature.
Surprisingly, we did not field many tech questions from participants. Although, I hope our advance preparations helped mitigate questions, I think the lack of questions may actually suggest our participants had a basic level of digital literacy and previous Zoom experience. As virtual learning expands, I hope to reach older adults who may be less comfortable in digital spaces. This could be done by publicizing classes to younger individuals who could help their older family members and friends connect to virtual learning opportunities.
To further support participants, we experimented with different closed-captioning and transcript services, a process that fostered further museum interdepartmental collaboration. However, the delay between the real-time instruction and the captioning was particularly challenging for a movement class: the teacher was often demonstrating different movement than what the captions described.
Participants were gracious about snafus like this, and some shared they still appreciated the captions. This response encouraged me to continue experimenting with closed-captioning and other capabilities of online programming, especially because our experience exposed gaps in the accessibility of digital programs.
We also used Zoom’s recording feature to film only Stephanie and provided participants with links to these recordings so they could repeat these classes on their own time.
Each class followed the same structure. Museum staff led introductions, a land acknowledgement, basic Zoom tutorial and information on how to access the closed captions. Stephanie then took the lead and guided participants through a movement class that was bookended with seated exercises. I did the entire class while seated to give examples of how to adapt movements for participants with limited
mobility. We paused for a short break in the middle and reflected on how everyone felt at the end of the class.
Participant survey feedback was very positive. Participants appreciated Stephanie’s energy and upbeat playlist. One commenter stated: “I loved Stephanie’s cheerful and encouraging presentation. After just the first class, I felt happy, which is a good thing to be feeling these days.”
An unexpected and powerful story emerged from a participant who had COVID earlier this year. She explained “this class has been perfect to gradually regain strength and confidence in my body… I am healing and getting my body back…”
Positive responses extended beyond participants to our teaching artist. Stephanie appreciated the opportunity to lead classes for a new audience. She also was glad for the logistical and financial support from the museum. She is considering continuing virtual classes for seniors as part of her dance studio offerings. We are happy to support a local artist by providing meaningful work opportunities during this time, especially since many artists are experiencing economic and psychological hardships during the pandemic.
The virtual class format allowed us to reach more people per class than the physical classroom at the museum could comfortably accommodate. We also reached individuals who had not previously participated in the Vital & Creative series. This could be because different people felt more comfortable doing movement in their own homes or because the barrier of traveling to the museum was removed. We know the latter is why residents from a local assisted living facility were able to participate.
As we consider future virtual programming for this audience, I want to include local assisted living facilities earlier in the planning process to better understand their unique participation barriers. We know that one facility participated but another did not because of internet connectivity issues. I also hope to expand opportunities for participants to get to know each other and engage in deeper conversations in virtual settings. This might be accomplished by using Zoom break-out rooms for small group conversations or by using an online platform where participants can communicate with each other outside of classes.
This pilot series demonstrated the value of virtual classes for all involved: participants, the teaching artist, and museum staff. The shared experience of moving together – even while apart – helped bridge the isolation so many may feel right now.
The Anchorage Museum is part of Aroha Philanthropies Seeding Vitality Arts in Museums national cohort, and our Vital & Creative classes are made possible through Aroha’s generous support. Aroha’s Seeding Vitality Arts in Museums initiative addresses the urgent need to change the narrative about what it means to grow old in America, combat ageism, and promote a healthy change in attitudes toward aging as senior populations grow.
Molissa Udevitz is an Educator at the Anchorage Museum where she develops and leads a variety of interdisciplinary programs for youth and the general public. She actively works to make the museum more inclusive and accessible for people who typically may not visit museums. Molissa is also a dancer and choreographer who enjoys sharing her love of movement with others.