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How COVID-19 Forced Me to Adapt to Online Teaching

Photo courtesy of Kerollis

I remember it like yesterday. Those days, when I could step to the front of my classroom and guide students through enchaînement—demonstrate the combination, offer tidbits of advice, cue my accompanist and walk around offering detailed corrections.

If you told me a month ago I would be forcibly holed up in my apartment as I led my first classes as a master teacher with Youth America Grand Prix, I might have looked at you like you had several heads. But when New York City began shutting down at breakneck speed, I knew I had to do something to protect my income. I dug deep into my toolbox and began developing online classes.


My first consideration was my prospective audience.

I teach ballet to a range of students at Broadway Dance Center and contemporary master classes as a guest artist for pre-professional ballet students across the country. I noted that a majority of the free livestreams were being taught at a company-class level. This meant my community of professionals were mostly taken care of at no cost to them. Many tuition-based programs also quickly rallied to continue training their pupils via applications like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype. Yet students without full-time studio affiliations and those who might want some flexibility from scheduled livestreams had not yet been taken into account. That group is who I decided to address.

Next up, it was time to build class content.

I decided to build classes for others like me living in small spaces. I focused on developing home barre and conditioning classes and decided to make them available online for longer than the 24-hour expiration of most livestreams. I also added stationary center exercises for those with more space.

From there, I pulled out my trusty Canon 70D (though an iPhone camera also suffices), set up a tripod in my sixth-floor apartment entryway and began filming myself executing combinations holding onto a doorknob.

Each segment starts with a verbal and visual explanation of the exercise followed by nuggets of guidance. Then, I turn on music using the Anytune app on my iPad and record myself performing the exercise.

While I am proud to say I have kept up taking class with Nancy Bielski at Steps on Broadway since retiring from performing in 2016, it has been a humbling experience dusting off my own technique to perform for an audience again. There is a certain comfort in studio teaching, where one gets to pick and choose when they show steps versus conveying information through marking or hand gestures.

I filmed all of the exercises in mini-segments to streamline the editing process.

The next step was to splice the clips together into a cohesive hour-long video. I have significant experience with Final Cut Pro, but got my start using the free iMovie app that comes on most Apple products. This time-consuming task involved cutting out extraneous footage and bloopers, adding titles and transitions and preparing a master file to upload to YouTube. YouTube tutorials are very helpful with this step.

It took me about two to three hours to edit and a little over an hour to upload to the site. It is important to note that I had to verify my account to upload lengthier content, a simple task requiring my phone number for a verification code. Altogether, it took about six hours for content to go live from concept to upload.

The response has been overwhelming.

I used social media and my mailing list to let people in my personal dance community know about my new content. Current offerings consist of classes in Basic Ballet (two series), Intermediate/Advanced Ballet (two series), and Basic Contemporary. To date, I have received more than 100 requests from dancers living as far away as Japan and Italy. I have received many generous donations, including one from a school that requested a link to share with their entire student body. I am so grateful for this generosity, because it will help me get through this period.

I feel lucky to live in a time where we can be physically distant, yet so connected. Of course, nothing can replace in-studio instruction. But I have a strong feeling the dance world is embarking upon a new era of learning.

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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