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How Duke arts organizations are recruiting during COVID-19

A year ago today, arts organizations around campus were buzzing with anticipation. They were preparing for all the events they would host over the next couple of days: arts showcases, FWOC performances and auditions. I remember the butterflies in my stomach as I walked to the Arts Annex for my first dance audition of college. My heart pounded in my chest as I stumbled through the choreography, mostly from how nervous I was. It stopped for a few seconds when, to my surprise, the upperclassmen gathered to congratulate me and the other first-years for making it on the team. This year’s first-years won’t get to experience that rollercoaster of emotions.

This semester, of course, looks quite different. The activities fair was completely virtual, and there are fewer opportunities for first-years to interact with upperclassmen involved in the arts. For organizations like Defining Movement (DefMo), online platforms have not been successful recruitment tools. Junior and DefMo captain Catherine Livingston noted the difficulty her group has faced attracting new members through the virtual activities fair. 

“Usually two big ways we find members is through the activities fair and through Fallcase, the showcase for all dance groups, and obviously that was not the case this year," she said. "It was mostly through social media that people found dance groups.”

DefMo is not alone. Duke’s Wind Symphony and Swing, a partner-based dance group on campus, have had similar troubles. Duke Wind Symphony director Dr. Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant explained how the ensemble faced a much lower turnout for virtual interest meetings.

“We usually had around 60 to 70 students attend the in-person meetings. In the virtual ones, we had about 35-40," she said. "I think that was still a really good number, but not as many in comparison.”

Sarah Zimmerman, a member of Swing’s Exec Board seconded this. “It’s definitely been a lot harder to get students because everything is by choice attendance rather than running into people and trying to get them to come join the group,” Zimmerman said.

While recruitment has been difficult, a number of arts organizations have managed to host auditions, both virtually and in-person. Duke’s Bhangra team, Dhamaka, sent interested students a choreography video that they had to learn and then record themselves dancing. DefMo had a similar tryout process, but included a Zoom interview in addition to the videos. For Duke Wind Symphony, Mösenbichler-Bryant  noted that woodwind, brass or percussion players had to submit a prerecorded audition video and fill out an interest form. Students trying out for string instruments attended in-person auditions with the organization’s faculty.

However, not all the arts organizations that regularly hold auditions at the beginning of the fall semester did so this year. Many have either postponed their auditions until the spring or indefinitely. Zimmerman said that Duke Swing decided not to have auditions because it’s impossible to truly have a dance partner on Zoom. Duke University Improv (DUI) also cancelled tryouts, according to DUI Exec member CJ Cruz.

“It’s really important to DUI that our audition process is in-person," Cruz said. "Our group’s bread-and-butter, live improv comedy, hinges on being in the same physical space as each other and our audience. For these reasons, DUI isn’t considering conducting auditions for new members until the spring semester.”

With or without the audition process, almost every arts organization agreed that the most difficult part of this year’s arts recruitment process is the absence of support and a tight-knit community that usually comes with being in-person. Zimmerman echoed this, noting that it has been extremely difficult getting new students excited about remote participation.

“A lot of it is about connection ... which is never the same online,” Zimmerman said.

Dr. Mösenbichler-Bryant said that she and other faculty are missing the first in-person interactions they usually get with first-years. She plans to continue to remind the current members of the Wind Symphony that they will always find community in the organization, even in these difficult times. 

“Community is still there and the friendships are still there and the new students, the [first-years], are such a crucial part to this community,” she said. 

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