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Letter From a Ballet Teacher: How My Own Home Isolation as a Teenager Deepened My Love for Dance

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As a ballet teacher adjusting to the startling new world we are living in with Covid-19, I keep thinking of my dance students and the worry they must feel adapting to this stressful situation. Being stuck at home can be frustrating and scary, particularly when your ballet studio feels like a second home. I wanted to share my own experience dancing in isolation as a teenager, and what I learned from it. Hopefully my story will help buoy your spirits for the better days ahead.

When I was a senior in high school, a professional ballet career was all I wanted in my life. While training at an intensive ballet program in Virginia, I was so focused on getting a job that when I came down with an illness (chronic mononucleosis), I refused to stop dancing. Unfortunately, this caused me to become even sicker. I eventually had to fly home to Florida, where I was required to rest for several weeks. This period of home isolation felt torturous at the time, but I learned important lessons that later made my professional career much more rewarding.


A young female dancer wearing a copper-colored leotard, pink tights and pointe shoes stretches over her right leg, which is propped on a barre.

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A New Appreciation for Barre Work

During my first few weeks of recovery I was too weak to dance. Once my health started to improve, I started to give myself barre. Incorporating dancing at home lifted my spirits and gave me hope, and I began to appreciate ballet in a new way. As a young dancer, I loved center and tended to feel barre was tedious. During recovery, I became so grateful for the ritual of barre, and how it can be done almost anywhere under nearly any circumstance. Simply giving myself barre and following the series of prescribed exercises that have been performed for centuries gave me purpose as a dancer. Although I was alone, it felt as if I was part of something bigger than myself. I know of dancers who have given themselves barre outdoors or even in hospital rooms. During home isolation, barre remains a meaningful way to stay connected to ballet.

Watching More Ballet 

During my isolation, I regularly watched videos of ballet performances; it was frequently the high point of my day. Escaping into another world became so therapeutic. It hit me that getting to dance for other people through ballet performances was such an honor and privilege. I realized how amazing it was to work in a field that allowed me to transport people away from their troubles. When I returned to performing, I felt a new sense of purpose. Keep in mind, my only access to ballet performances was through the VHS videos I owned—students today have a wealth of performances to choose from online!

A young ballerina, wearing a white romantic tutu and veil, stands in tendu derri\u00e9re with her arms crossed in front of her, palms up. A row of similarly costumed women stand directly behind her in the same pose.

The author as a wili in Orlando Ballet's production of Giselle

Tanya Schmidt, Courtesy Katie Slattery

Gratitude for the Corps de Ballet

After recovering, I developed a new appreciation for corps work and found group pieces to be so energizing! Students tend to crave solo opportunities, but when I was finally able to return to a group, I realized how amazing the camaraderie and vitality of corps work could be. I took that heightened appreciation and sensitivity into my professional career and it made such a difference. Some of my most nostalgic moments onstage are actually corps de ballet roles—I still recall how alive and connected I felt dancing as a wili in Act II of Giselle.

Healing Time for My Body

Finally, home isolation forced me to take the necessary time to recover and patiently listen to my body. Dancers frequently push through injuries and illness because of their strong desire to dance. Take advantage of the time at home to check in with your body—let your sore knee recover, perform therapeutic exercises to strengthen a weak ankle, or practice performance visualization. Taking time to recover is essential, yet it's somehow a hard lesson for dancers to learn. But upon returning to the studio, you will be a stronger and wiser dancer for it.

In the end, my period of home isolation helped me appreciate dancing far more than I would have otherwise. It strengthened my love for performance, for team work and for ballet itself. I became a more joyful dancer. Although it was a difficult time I wouldn't choose to repeat, it taught me valuable lessons that I carried into my professional career. We will get through this time together and arrive on the other side with a deeper appreciation and sensitivity to the art we love. Please keep on dancing!

Katie Slattery is a teacher and outreach/artistic assistant at Orlando Ballet School.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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