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  • Writer's pictureJ&J

Circle Up: 11 Findings from Teaching Dance In-Person

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

When I found out that the dance intensive I was hired to teach at this summer was forging ahead, in-person, as initially planned, I was stunned.

Based on all of the conversations I was having with friends and peers at the time, dance facilities were trending towards hibernation and summer programming in Massachusetts had, nearly across the board, been moved online.

Momentarily, I was hesitant; the only dance space I had set foot in for the entirety of spring and into the first week of summer was my bedroom, and the daily litany of:

“Sanitize your hands - This mask is better than that mask - Wait, can I touch the doorknob? - Stay away from people - Remember to put on clean clothes today - Nothing is safe enough- What day is it?”,

did little to convince me otherwise.

Then, the students came into the picture and I knew I was in the right place.

We rocked out for two AWESOME weeks of conversation, improvisation, pathway blazing, and material overload.

For your reading pleasure, here are 11 things I learned along the way:

  1. Many of the skills necessary for teaching online classes translate well into the current studio environment.

I fully acknowledge that many educators detest teaching on Zoom. I don’t blame you. There’s no love lost between a teacher and a computer screen separating you from your students. This, however, is prime time for practicing the art of clarifying language. Stating the obvious, when you teach on Zoom, you can not physically adjust your students so giving feedback becomes a matter of clear, direct, verbiage. Coming back into the studio, that same physical boundary remains in play.

In general, I don’t enjoy the 2D flattening that occurs with teaching online, but it did prove useful in one important aspect - being able to view more dancers at one time. When teaching online, with the gallery view feature, I found it much easier to give broad corrections because my field of view was less spread out and all of the dancers were approximately the same distance away from me depth wise. This was an important piece of information going back into the studio and realizing that I had deeply fallen into the habit of mainly seeing the 5ish dancers who were closest to me. As depth perception came back into play, I was able to take note of this learning and train my eye to better hone in on more of the room at once.

2. Speaking of Zoom, I don’t know about you but I danced A LOT while teaching

online. That habit stuck around.

My first online class was pre recorded. It was an hour long and probably the most energetically taxing class I have ever taught to older students because there was no human feedback and none of the usual pauses (go grab a drink, asking questions, first group second group, random distractions) that typically occur in a classroom setting. As a result, I was either talking, moving, or both, the entire time. Somehow, it was still great. I’m a sucker for getting to dance while I teach, but I know that isn’t every educator’s preferred way of doing things. Online teaching made teachers dancers again. Coming into the new environment of the post-outbreak studio, this camaraderie is a game changer in building trusting relationships with the students. “You’re in this class to dance?”, “Me too! I’m right here with you! We’ll work through this thing together.”

3. The kids will wear the masks:

I will shout this until I’m blue in the face. The students WILL wear the masks. They have no interest in getting sick. They also want to dance. Kids and teens are highly adaptable. They will transform to ride the wave of current circumstance, probably better than you or I.

4. That being said, they also miss each other, A LOT.

The magnetism of human connection is insatiable. Imagine being a teenager and having missed out on your last three months of school, all of your extracurriculars, and being holed up at home with your family unit for that entire time. I love my family, but I think that during my teendom, I would have been far beyond the end of my tolerance rope. Coming back to dance for these students was the first full scale social interaction that they had been able to enjoy in three months. It was likely also one of the first occasions for them to have time away from family members. They wanted to hug each other, pretty much all the time. Gentle reminders about maintaining distance while expressing empathy and understanding for the plight of keeping distance from friends was a regular necessity.

5. Limited capacity, limited drama:

As I move farther into my teaching/ coaching work with young dancers, one thing that I have noticed is an uptick in parental misunderstanding of how the studio environment works. Anyone who teaches in a studio setting probably has a tale of a parent bursting into the room during class for a non-emergency, leaving a sibling in your care, or else engaging in other behavior that, whether intentional or unintentional, disrupts their child’s learning time. With strict regulations on the number of people in the building, the only people allowed in the school during intensive hours were the students, studio owners, and faculty. For me, this was a huge blessing that created a container for the students that maximized their ability to fully engage with the dance experience without distraction.

6. Facilitating dialogue promotes an immersive classroom environment. Now is the time to give it a try.

Discussion is an aspect of teaching that I think goes sorely underappreciated in many dance classrooms, yet it is a vital way to help students a) learn more about the dances they are studying b) provide a platform for opinions of the dancers who may be less “physically vocal” during a class that is wholly movement based c) gives the educator a chance to move into the role of facilitator, helping guide the dancers but enabling them to take the lead on the conversation. The first time I had a discussion based part of class (over Zoom) one of the dancers vocalized how great it was to actually get to know her peers through their opinions. Questions can be a great way to continue forging connections between dancers who may not necessarily feel an immediate pull towards one another. This is a prime opportunity for educators to use conversation as a platform for working towards more equitable and just learning environments, giving vocal agency to the dancers and providing them guidance in tackling broader topics

For reference, some starting questions I asked my younger students (ages 7-12) included:

“What is your name? Does it have a story?”

“What is culture? What are some important values/traditions of a culture you are a part of?

“What is teamwork? How do we show teamwork in the studio?”

“What is a community? Do you think of yourself as a member of any communities? What is one concrete action you can take to improve that community?”

7. Circles solve problems.

COVID or not, circles are great learning tools. They destabilize the hierarchy inherently present in the teacher/student relationship, enable the dancers to all see each other, eliminates or at least minimizes the habit of looking in the mirror, and challenges dancers’ notions of Left and Right. Additionally, it is an easy way to keep movers spaced out from one another and places the educator in a position where her voice projects in towards the center of the circle, making instructions easier to hear with a mask on.

8. Masks muffle. Speak louder.

This goes along with linguistic clarity - face coverings make vocal projection a necessity. Simply put, if there’s material in front of your face, it stifles the sounds that come out of your mouth. Talking at a normal “non masked volume” makes it significantly harder to hear directions and feedback. Speaking up is essential. I haven’t tried a face covering with a clear window, but I know that can be helpful for dancers with hearing challenges.

9. Regarding the mask/ face shield debate. . .

For me, there is no question: mask 100% trumps face shield. I understand that there are pros and cons to different face coverings and that factors ranging from studio policies to personal preference may dictate which protective measures an individual educator uses. I question to what extent a face shield impacts the integrity of the physical skills we are trying to teach. It may be fine for tendus, but definitely won’t cut it for dive rolls.

10. Extra water bottle + Candy bar = GAME CHANGER

By no means am I a medical professional, so take this as you will, but for the first two or three days of teaching, I had terrible headaches in the evenings after I got home. While my activity level, physical exertion, and sweat output increased, my water and sugar intake went down. In case it wasn’t immediately apparent, that equation leads nowhere good. I started making sure to drink half a bottle of water before teaching and eating a mini Snickers bar immediately after my second class. That helped tremendously.

11. The pull of environment is irresistible:

10 days of teaching, and I was covered in bruises. Being back in a room that I have come to associate with the lineage of my dance practice put a spell on me. I danced hard and was perhaps even more giddy than the students. It felt quite nearly manic. It was awesome.

Celebrating the end of week two alongside the 2020 Koltun Ballet Boston Pre-Professional Intensive dancers.

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