David Mead muses with other dancers and teachers about taking class via the internet
As most of the world finds itself in some sort of lockdown with theatres, studios and schools closed, dance has been taking to the internet like never before. Apart from the incredible number of complete works being streamed, giving people to chance to watch companies that they otherwise would not see, the web is awash with classes, for everyone from children to professionals.
Those classes present many opportunities. Not least, it’s a chance to experience new teachers and new styles without the pressure of going along to a class in person. If the class is recorded or remains available after a live streaming, you can also dance along at a time that suits you, or maybe rewind and take second look at an exercise if you didn’t pick it up the first time.
Bridget Lappin both attends and teaches class with Towards Vivencia, a specialist in online training and which right now is offering through-the-day drop in ballet, contemporary, yoga and more. As for most artists, online classes are helping her keep her fitness and artistry up during these times but she has found another unexpected plus too. “They have provided me with the space to be really introspective about my dancing, to deeply focus on my technique without feeling the pressure of ‘performing’, like I would in a normal class. Although I cannot wait to be in the studio again, with these classes, I have more freedom to be myself and focus on what I am doing as I am no longer expending precious energy as I interact with others in the space. This method of training has served me and my dancing way more than I was initially expecting.”
Towards Vivencia have a wide range of classes
Dancer Sofia Casprini highlights another important point: that it adds an element of routine to our disrupted lives. “A dance schedule I can follow helps me so much as it gives a rhythm to my days and helps my mind to keep going strong! If I didn’t have such routine, I would find myself facing the empty moments much more and also would have struggled to train by myself.”
Let’s not pretend about this, though. It isn’t the same. It can’t be. The most challenging things are the obvious: flooring, the size of the room, distractions. However much we might be able to push furniture back, we do not have the space. However much we might improvise with yoga mats for petit allegro or even semi-permanently (I experimented with slotting a couple under an old section of lino that now sits on the lounge carpet), we do not have the sprung flooring. You have to be very careful in all sorts of ways. But as Bridget adds, “It has taught me to adapt, to make my training my own, to get out of it what I want to, regardless of the situation.”
What’s missing for me goes beyond the physicality, however. I miss the ritual of class, and before and after. I miss the walk from Euston to Danceworks that sets the morning up (and the excellent coffee en-route!). I miss chatting with reception and with other dancers in the changing room and as we wait outside the studio. I miss being with other people, in the same space; being with friends; really being with friends.
That, in part at least, is where Zoom wins out over Instagram and YouTube. Bridget and Sofia allude to this too. “What is great about Zoom is that it feels like the people are actually there, taking or giving class with you. Instagram Live kind of has a similar feeling, but as a student, I feel more alone,” says Bridget. “With Zoom, you really get the sense that everyone is together, taking class, sweating and struggling and you do really feel like a community.” Sofia says, “It does give the idea that you are taking a real class. Also, teachers can see you and correct you, while in recorded videos you keep on going without knowing if you’re doing well or not.” But you do have to be focused and disciplined and ignore the many home distractions.
Ballet teacher Raymond Chai explains that the need for this communal experience was exactly why Jorge Crecis, founder of Towards Vivencia, was keen on people doing class together live. “With the lockdown, we are really cut off from each other. Doing class like we do means we can at least see each other. That’s really important. And it’s live. We are doing it in the moment, together. People have messaged me afterwards to say just how important this aspect is. And I’ve realised how important simply saying hello is.”
I would add to that the ‘goodbyes’ too. Those brief chats are so much better than a recording or streaming just ending dead. They make you feel good. And right now, we need that.
Different classes and teachers will suit different people but among my other favourites, also on Zoom, are those by Vaganova School-trained, former Mikhailovsky and Eifman Ballet dancer, Isabella McGuire-Mayes, who combines barre and what is manageable in the centre (no grand allegro or travelling pirouettes, of course) with mat-work conditioning in classes that still run the traditional 90 minutes. Trust me, it’s good to still come out of a class feeling you have really worked, even in the confines of your lounge or wherever.
And as Raymond says, that is important. “Dancers want to come out feeling like they’ve done a full class. They want to be sweating.” That’s why he still gives jumps. “If you don’t give jumps, even just small, through the foot jumps, lower body strength and stamina will start to go.”
Zoom is not without its difficulties, though. It does seem to need a strong internet connection at both ends. If not, sound and picture sometimes seem to get out of sync. I’ve also had the music go silent and the screen freeze; and, of course, always when you have your back to the laptop!
Coming at it from a teacher’s perspective, Raymond welcomes the increased accessibility but feels that, after five weeks, the novelty has gone. “Issues are starting to appear and bug us. The biggest problem is that I can’t see properly, so I can’t correct properly. I certainly can’t do detailed, personal corrections.” The small screen, even if you are watching on a laptop, can be a problem at the dancer end too, although it’s much better than Instagram on a phone.
There are other potential issues too. If their camera is on, which is necessary for any sort of correction or comment, Zoom does mean a dancer’s private space is visible to all. Online classes also put a lot of responsibility on the participant to look after their own health and safety, although we must never forget the teacher still has a duty of care, just as they do when in the same room.
Even if you don’t want to join in, all these online classes do provide a window into what for many is the hidden world of the studio, or in Tamara Rojo’s case, her kitchen, from where she teaches and streams English National Ballet company class via YouTube. Sometimes you can even watch company dancers too, as with some of Ernst Meisner’s company classes for Dutch National Ballet.
Looking ahead, and for those of us who dance, I tend to agree with Raymond when he says, “We need to remember this is not the new normal.” He stresses that he’s not saying that we should put aside all we are learning about the possibilities that technology offers but we do have to think how best to use it for our benefit. And we mustn’t forget what we have with live class: other people, live music, atmosphere and that all-important teacher’s watchful eye.
Bridget says she is really enjoying teaching online classes. She explains that she primarily teaches a dance/fitness class designed for 50+. “Most of my students do not speak English as a first language, and I only know a little Spanish and French, but we’ve managed to find a way of sharing movement together. The class is immensely gratifying and seeing my students move, committed to the practice, is incredibly touching. But without the present circumstances, I doubt I would have met these people, let alone created the special bond we have.”
She believes digital classes will live on past the crisis. “Of course, we will get back in the studio eventually but there are so many positives that have come out of these online platforms. We get to meet people from all over the world, train with people we never thought we would get the chance to meet, train in ways we never thought might impact us as much as they do, and offer dance to those who might not otherwise have access to it. Of course, there are practical challenges but these online classes have broken down a lot of barriers that have been in place in dance for a long time. I really hope that they continue and that we continue to evolve in our delivery of them. They have potential to benefit everyone.”
Whatever the future, for now, online classes it is. As Sofia says, you may not be able to play with space and dynamics as much as you would like, but they are the best way to keep your body and mind engaged and committed to whatever your goals are. They also lift the gloom and, “You do need an everyday SMILE!”
For details of Towards Vivencia’s classes, visit Jorge Crecis Company’s Facebook page.
Raymond Chai teaches ballet with Towards Vivencia on Tuesday morning and Friday evening. He also has his own class on Saturday at 3pm, with pointework afterwards. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Isabella McGuire-Mayes has advanced ballet and matwork Monday to Friday, 9.30-11am, plus classes for other levels and some that focus on specific areas of technique. Visit www.russianballetworkshops.com , her Facebook page or e-mail email@example.com for details.
Tamara Rojo’s company class is streamed at 11am, Monday to Friday, on English National Ballet’s YouTube channel.