Dancers will dance, together in the studio or, these days, together on Zoom
As dance studios start to look towards re-opening—clad in masks and doused in hand sanitizer—ArtsWatch takes a moment to look at what’s been happening at home for the past four months. That involved dancers and instructors re-arranging their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms to create makeshift dance spaces at home. And specifically for dance teachers, it also has meant adapting a new technology for an old form: dance classes on Zoom.
While the rest of us may have been using the video chatting app for tedious work meetings (with your camera off to shield your coworkers from the fact that you’ve been in pajamas since March), dancers (perhaps also in pajamas) have found a different use for the software: joining meetings a few times a week to wiggle and move around in their homes making that 8-count work from their alternative spaces.
I entered the reporting for this story skeptical of dance via Zoom. I was certain that in interviewing kids, teachers, and adult students about their thoughts on Zoom class for this article, I’d be putting a nail in the coffin of online dance. After taking a few classes via Zoom myself, I’d hit about every piece of furniture in my room, knocked over a cactus plant, and reckoned with the fact that I could only hear every 6th beat of the music—not to mention half of the instructor’s words. To put it in a nutshell, I wasn’t satisfied. Thinking everyone felt the same, I was expecting this article to end up being an ode to the beloved practice of dancing together in studios and how much the community is struggling without it.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series Well, I was wrong. Thanks to a dose of creativity, there’s been a lot of progress made in training via Zoom. Those coffin nails are back in their boxes and the dancers are moving about the world just fine.
At Rose City Rhythmics, I slipped into the last 15 minutes or so of the apparatus handling class. It involved about five kids and an instructor who was going over the particulars of hand positioning for catching a baton (the “apparatus”) as it comes down from a toss. The trick is to catch it so you can begin the next move without a repositioning of either hand or baton.
It was clear the kids weren’t beginners. I was having trouble following the hand positioning, but the kids seemed at ease as they questioned the instructor about the particular details and then demonstrated successful tosses and catches. Rose City Rhythmics is a gymnastics school that instructs children in dancing, juggling, apparatus handling, and acrobatics. Since the pandemic shutdown, the Rose City students have actually increased their training over the past few months. Sophie, a 10-year-old student at the school, explained to me over a Zoom chat that she’s dancing an additional 12 hours a week and stretching an additional six. “My back flexibility is getting a lot better,” she said. Her classmate Laura agreed, saying that now she’s dancing 24 hours a week total, and she’s seeing improvements in her flexibility and focus as well. You read that right. While we’ve all been pent up bingeing Tiger King on Netflix, ten year olds are dancing 24 hours a week and becoming more flexible by the hour.
RCR student Yueyue practices her oversplits at home.
One of the teachers, Alicia Cutaia, commented that the additional training has helped the students improve by, well, leaps and bounds, and that it’s been inspiring to watch them progress at home. Cutaia said that’s realized she needs to be more precise with how she describes the correct posture and alignment for her students on Zoom. Since rhythmic gymnastics is an extremely challenging and physically demanding practice, it’s even more important that the students don’t lose focus at home for the sake of their safety.
During the first two weeks of online training, parents were asked to be in the same room to ensure their children were maintaining safe training precautions for some of the more challenging movements and contortions, Cutaia said.
Yueyue, another one of the students in the class, noted that she’s been working on her focus at home. “Sometimes my dog comes running in and I lose focus for a second, but then I let him outside and I refocus,” she says.
Attention. Focus. Concentration. Whatever you want to call it, it’s harder at home. The dog DOES come running in. The audio cuts out or the video feed lags. While observing and participating in classes, I’ve seen that sometimes dancers move out of the frame depending on their space, dance too close to the laptop—which means limbs get cut off and you can’t see the full picture—or totally just walk away to get water or attend to something in another room. At one point I had to stop dancing alongside a group on Zoom to clean up a mess my cat made in the space I was trying to dance in. I’ve found that moving through floorwork combinations in contemporary classes can be really challenging when your only reference, your laptop, is out of your line of sight as you roll around on the floor craning your neck in odd positions for a little guidance.
Maybe that’s why most of the instructors I saw during my survey of dance classes were more positive and encouraging with the students despite the technical challenges—which we can all agree is something we need right now. Teachers are applauding students and giving loads of positive feedback on their performance and hard work. It seems as though some of the regimented nature of a typical class has gone out the window during this switch to virtual learning.
Kayla Banks, a dancer, instructor, and choreographer who recently relocated from Portland to Colorado, has been instructing Zoom dance classes for some of her students back here in Portland. “I’ve learned to go with the flow,” she says, “Some kids just can’t handle the re-adjusting to online classes and they just drop off the Zoom calls. Some of the older kids I teach are easily frustrated with technical issues.”
Banks has adapted, though, creating hand motions for kids to signal that they need attention or are having a technical issue. In most classes participants mute their microphones to allow the instructor’s mic to take the lead on the chat. The uncharted territory of virtual classes has led Banks and others into some hilarious scenarios, though. “One student of mine, who’s four years old, decided that she wanted to take her hiphop ballet fusion class from the bathroom and carried her device into the bathtub,” Banks said. “I just improvised class so that she could do her dance moves in the tub and on top of the toilet.” Set designers in 2040, take note. ***** Bharatanatyam instructor and dancer Sweta Ravisankar says that she and her students have found creative ways to combat the distractions. Her adult class meets at 6 am on Saturdays via Zoom. “It’s our sacred practice,” she says. “It’s done early in the morning before the day starts. That way, we give ourselves an hour to ourselves to dance.” But for Ravisankar, virtual class isn’t new. She used to live in San Jose, where she taught classes regularly. After moving to Portland in 2015 to pursue her Ph.D., (for which she defended her thesis via Zoom this spring), she moved her classes to a virtual setting and has been conducting her instruction online for a handful of students since.
A screenshot from Sweta Ravisankar’s Pass the Brush collaboration with students and fellow dancers. Watch the video here.
For her Portland students the online format she has adopted has allowed her to focus more on the grammar, theory and writing that accompanies Bharatanatyam training. One student wrote a poem and asked Ravisankar to demonstrate dance steps to do in conjunction with the poem, so Ravisankar made the task a homework assignment for the whole class. It’s creative projects like these that have kept the virtual format relevant and fresh. And so has the commitment of the teacher. “I send them videos of me dancing to show them I’m actually practicing, too,” Ravisankar says. “If I’m able to motivate them in any way, I think it’s worth continuing.”
Over at Columbia Dance, where I taught Modern classes before the shutdown, artistic director Becky Moore notes that the school’s dance and ballet instructors have implemented similar creative approaches to virtual training, and the kids are loving it. “One of our teachers came up with a scavenger hunt game to play while they did ballet barre. The students would start with Plies, as usual, and at the end of the combination, they would have a minute or so to go find something in their house that began with ‘P’ for Plie. Next comes ‘T’ for Tendu, ‘D’ for Degage, etc,” Moore says. Zoom classes are running up to two hours long now for students at Columbia Dance, simply because the kids are so engaged and don’t even notice when the teacher goes overtime.
Students at Columbia Dance practice their arabesques during a Zoom dance class led by director Becky Moore.
Of course, the ballet classes have been adapted to fit into kitchen-sized spaces. Many students are using counters and chairs for the barre and entire parts of ballet class that require more space like big leaps and jumps have been eliminated for the time being due to lack of space. To make up for the changes to their normal training, Moore has included a few sweet treats for her students: inviting live accompanist Michael McCart, who plays at Marin Ballet in San Rafael, California, to play for some of the Zoom classes.
“I’ve been completely pleasantly surprised,” she says. The students are “fixing habits that they have been trying for years to break.” For most students, that means the smaller detail work that comes along with ballet. Since their space is limited, Moore and her staff have turned focus to some of the nitty gritty details in the posture and alignment of the technique.
What that looks like within the Zoom format is pretty similar to the in-person practices that Columbia Dance students were used to. The instructor demonstrates an exercise to the students. The class will then do it at the same time to music. The instructor will sometimes break free from movement herself to look at the screen (during in-person classes, it’s normal for a ballet instructor to leave the barre mid-combination while the class continues on without visual demonstration) and observe the students as they move.
Since teaching in class allows for a fluid relationship between dancing as the teacher and watching the students move at the same time, Zoom dancing has presented a small change since visibility of the students is much more limited. Like Cutaia said, the new format is requiring teachers to use more descriptive language for postural adjustments due to the fact that hands-on adjustments are not an option.
***** For families, Zoom dance classes mean a peek into their children’s dance classes—and even some instruction for the parents at times. For Sarah Powers Posada, whose two children Eli and Sylvie take Bharatanatyam class from Subashini Ganesan at New Expressive Works, the classes have been an “interesting window” into their weekly class. Eli, who just finished third grade, says that “dancing is different at home, but the class is in the evening, so I’m usually out of pajamas and in clothes by then!”
While at home, Eli’s been getting creative with his dancing. He practices his footwork and rhythms but likes to improvise his upper body’s motions while he does so. He’ll often dictate one of the stories from Hindu mythology he’s learned in class while he does so, all while casually moving around the house. “My hands are doing whatever they want, while my legs follow a pattern Suba taught me in class,” Eli says.
For Sylvie, who just finished first grade, dancing at home comes with a convenient plus: one of her classmates, Anju, lives across the street. Sylvie explained that she and Anju have been taking class outside together—at least six feet apart.
Uma Borate, whose daughter Aarna also takes Suba’s class, noted that she does worry about the kids spending too much time online. With classes from school having switched to the online format as well, screen time is up by a lot. Other parents I spoke with voiced similar concerns. For Kara Girod Shuster, whose children Sai and Seraphina have been taking dance classes online through Floor Center for Dance, managing screen time has been tricky.
“We had to establish new boundaries as a family because now the kids see my work laptop as something they can do fun activities like dancing on,” Kara says. The balancing act is worth the bargain though—time spent on Zoom dance class is for the most part time that parents can catch a break from juggling working from home and parenting at the same time.
Sai and Seraphina taking creative dance class from home on their mom’s ipad.
Zoom classes have also helped in coping with major changes to daily schedules for Kara’s family. As a real estate agent, her kids were used to coming along with her throughout the day to work meetings and showings. “Zoom has helped with the boredom. My kids are so used to coming with me everywhere. Being home all day is a lot,” Kara explained. “Getting their minds off the home is helpful. We tried a Zoom music class first and the kids were glued the whole time. Because they knew the people they saw, they wanted to participate.”
It’s been easier for Kara to help her kids engage as well—she’s a dancer herself, which is a major plus for aiding the Zoom dance teacher from home with her kids. For other parents, like Sarah, leading her children alongside the teacher has been less successful. “Lesson plans for parents to assist teaching in the class from home were less successful for us,” Sarah said.
Many parents report struggles to become temporary school teachers on top of everything else they do. Helping instruct kids in their online dance classes is equally challenging.
At the end of the day, it seems that dancers have continued to do what they do best despite the circumstances. And it hasn’t mattered much what the space is that they are doing it in. Sure, some things have changed, but the commitment to the art form has not. And in some cases, like Kara’s, access to class has become easier.
Before the shutdown, the family’s recent relocation to Hillsboro had made getting to class at Floor in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland a challenge for the mother of two. Since classes have gone online, that extra commute time is gone. “A lot of the barriers I put up myself are not there anymore, Kara says. “I used to take ballet a lot, but after having kids I am less confident going to a class in person. Now, I’m more comfortable since I’m taking class at home. I might even go in person again once things open up!” ***** Maybe it’s all just a matter of “dridh nischay.”
That’s the Hindi phrase that Sweta Ravisankar uses with her students: It means to “have steady determination and never give up,” she says. It’s apparent that dancers have done just that over the past four months, though that’s not to say that they aren’t looking forward to dancing together in person again.
I asked almost everyone I spoke with about what they are most excited to do when things return to normal. “High fives and hearing the spontaneous stories my students tell me,” Ravisankar says. Aarna says she can’t wait to give everyone hugs and perform her favorite routine: “Conference of the Birds.” The girls at Rose City Gymnastics are excited to have the gym space to throw their batons higher without hitting their living room ceilings. I think everyone can agree, having the space to stretch out back into our “regular” lives sounds quite enticing right about now, but the shutdown hasn’t stopped people from doing what they love, even though it has demanded a bit of compromise along the way.
In his children’s book A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein says, “Do a loony-goony dance, ‘Cross the kitchen floor, Put something silly in the world, That ain’t been there before.” Amidst one of the most trying times that most of us have lived through, there ought to be some good things that can come of it…a light in the attic. So let’s add dancing to that list of simple pleasures we can revel in while we’re all bunkered down—even if it means the occasional plant getting knocked over while we do a loony-goony dance from home.