How Quarantine Healed Me—and Made Me a Better Teacher

Photo courtesy of Kerollis

Every dance educator owns some version of this story.

In the first two months of 2020, I managed to create and stage 80 minutes of choreography for the debut of my new troupe, Movement Headquarters Ballet Company. I also traveled to Colorado and Mississippi to judge for Youth America Grand Prix and Dance Teachers United. I did this all while maintaining a rigorous weekly schedule teaching at Broadway Dance Center and a tuition-based program in Connecticut.

Over the past five years as I transitioned from performing to education and choreography, there have been many months like these. So, it should come as no surprise that I frequently find myself worn down both physically and emotionally.

I often joke that I am a burnout expert, because I have been known to push myself to the limit time and time again. At this point, I can feel it coming on like a cold. As March began, I noted another bout coming forth. I found myself lacking motivation prior to classes and questioning certain employment situations.

I was also having chronic pain in my shoulder, lower back and knee that went unaddressed due to my rigorous schedule.

In my experience, there are three telltale signs that reveal I've burned the candle at both ends, and I was checking each box.

First, a wave of foreboding comes over me when I consider addressing issues that affect me negatively. I start to feel so overwhelmed that simple conversations appear to be minefields. This often causes me to delay speaking up, which opens the door for negativity and unnecessary emotion to manifest.

The second cautionary signal is a feeling of complacency, interrupted by sharp bouts of frustration aimed at people or organizations I feel are taking more from me than they are giving. Sometimes, this frustration is founded. Yet, at other times, it is merely a projection of my oncoming burnout. The complacency often leaves me underprepared to teach classes. I'm either taking too much on without enough time to prep or too overwhelmed to think about teaching before I am actually in the studio. In these times, I may teach off-the-cuff, which requires more energy in the moment and often makes teaching more stressful and less enjoyable.

The final symptom is the slow deterioration of my physical form. When I am more concerned about pleasing employers or procuring enough work to make ends meet, I am unlikely to open space on my schedule for healthcare appointments. The affordability of these sessions play into this conversation, as well.

As burnout crept up on me, I also felt stressed by the specter of COVID-19.

But while listening to the endless wail of sirens and watching civil unrest bubble to the surface of society has been horribly challenging, it has also allotted me unexpected breathing room to focus on myself.

As New York shut down and educators committed to regular schedules of virtual classes, I kept mostly to myself. I created a handful of at-home barre and conditioning classes on YouTube to ensure I had food on my table. But I didn't express any outward interest in teaching virtually.

Being stuck in my one-bedroom apartment for 100 days, I suddenly had the time and energy to actively heal. With nowhere to be, no students to focus on and no employers to hold me accountable, I could finally take care of me, myself and I. Prior to quarantine, I would take Nancy Bielski's class at Steps on Broadway twice weekly and go to the gym to lift weights. But without distractions, I found I could give myself class four to five days each week, while also reviving my yoga practice. I even found time to roll out my muscles regularly and strengthen to fend off injury.

It is incredible how your mood is affected when you are in pain. As educators, we often ignore aches brought on by teaching until we are immobilized. I finally had the time to listen to my body, and it is feeling better than it has in years.

As time has passed, I have taken on teaching a handful of classes for Broadway Dance Center, virtual intensives, dance studios and individual students. My motivation is returning, and my creativity is coming back stronger than before. I have found myself building more creative material for ballet classes and breaking old choreography habits for contemporary classes. Without a regular teaching schedule these past few months, I'm approaching each class with a fresh perspective.

While this pandemic has cost me more than $20,000 in income, I have also regained much during this time. Today, I'm feeling more positive about returning to a full schedule of teaching when it is safe. And I am really looking forward to seeing my students again and sharing my passion for dance with a revitalized energy and outlook. Perhaps this is the gift of COVID-19.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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