We Continue to Zoom…and Sometimes We Fail

We have now been quarantined for two months. Our lives and our careers have taken on a new form and have evolved into something different; something we never could have predicted. For the most part, my classes transferred to a virtual platform. I was resistant at first. I was challenged at first. I was miserable at first. I struggled with the technology, class content and my teaching methods. But I adjusted relatively quickly; I figured out Zoom, made syllabus adjustments and found a teaching style that seemed to broadcast well enough. I was calmer, and I was working. Then the affirmations started rolling in. I received numerous messages and emails from students that what I was doing was working. Everyone seemed to be loving the classes (as much as can be expected under these circumstances). I was feeling pretty fantastic about how I made this transition to virtual classrooms.

Everything was great; until it wasn’t.

I never want my blog or my social media feed to be an endless fount of everything that is perfect in my life. Quite frankly, my life and my career are far from perfect. And nobody is really interested in reading a self glorifying stream of consciousness that is calculated to have the rest of the dance industry envy my superior dance existence. What I’m trying to do is to simply share my experiences and share what I take away from them.

This past week I had an epic fail.

 

It was suggested to me that I “Zoom” from my iPad rather than my laptop. Since I’ve been teaching from an empty studio to which I have safe access, it would be MUCH easier to carry an iPad. So on Tuesday, I popped my iPad into my bag and I went to the studio to teach. It was an open class for Joffrey, a class that students had paid for. And the Zoom stream was terrible. I don’t know if the issue was the WiFi, the iPad or the gods conspiring against me, but I was getting constant interruptions, both voice and text, telling me that there were technical problems: “I can’t hear”, “ “The picture keeps freezing”, “The sound is out of sync”. When I teach in the classroom, regardless of what goes wrong, I am usually pretty adept at controlling the situation. This, apparently, is not the case when I teach on Zoom. With each interruption, with each complaint, I became more and more rattled. I became increasingly concerned that I was disappointing the students and that they were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the class. And as the problems mounted, my confidence crumbled. I started forgetting my own choreography; a new combination that I had been looking forward to sharing. Then THOSE thoughts started creeping into my consciousness. I started wondering why on earth these dancers would want to pay for a disastrous class with me when they could find a a better class, from a much more prominent teacher, and probably get it for free, somewhere else on the internet. (I don’t want to turn this article into a discussion on whether we should be giving our content away for free during this pandemic; but these are the thoughts that crept into my head as I was trying to maintain my composure in front of the camera.)

I felt like my career was dissolving in front of me; in 90 minutes.

 

I finished the class as best I could, apologizing every step of the way. I shut down the iPad and I went home.

 

The next day I got a few messages from students telling me that despite the technical mess, they enjoyed the class. Several of my regular students expressed that they needed  the connection with their teacher and that need outweighed the technical problems or the content of any one particular class.  Maintaining a connection was crucial to them during this time of crisis. And my heart melted. And then I read some very wise words from a dancer who has become a treasured regular in my open classes over the last several months:

 

“Your problems and your mistakes don’t define you.“

 

This one sentence from Martin Vincent Bonventre, these eight simple words, brought me back to my senses. And I am so grateful to him; for his dancing, his support, and his wisdom when I most needed it.

 

My next class on Zoom was smooth as silk. The technology ran perfectly and my confidence was renewed. I’m still working as hard as I can to reach into the camera; to send my teaching out through this technical stream and touch my students. But I’m definitely still learning. And as we, in New York City, have no clear end in sight to classes on Zoom, I will certainly face more technical problems. Hopefully I will handle them more skillfully because we all aim to learn from our mistakes. But if I let the technology rattle me again (because I am not perfect), I hope I will be able to remember that  “Maintaining a connection is crucial during this time of crisis” and that “My problems and my mistakes don’t define me”.

“If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”, Oscar Hammerstein II

Technology and Teaching

I am someone who is always been very resistant to change; and technology has always been a big challenge for me. I remember, a number of years ago, receiving a phone call from my sister that went something like this: “There’s this thing on the internet called Facebook. You have to join!“ So I investigated this thing called Facebook, and I thought to myself: “This is not for me.”. As Facebook grew in popularity, I eventually, but reluctantly joined. I opened up a Facebook account, and within five minutes I had a friend request from somebody with whom I had lost touch, and for whom I had been searching for years. And I thought to myself “well maybe it’s not so bad.” It never occurred to me that professional connections could be made through Facebook. I was chatting with friends from elementary school. I was looking at photos of summer camp buddies. It was a pleasant diversion from the stresses of life.

Then one day I got a Facebook friend request from someone named Austin Eyer. I had never heard of him, and up until this point I had never received a friend request from someone that I didn’t actually know. I suspiciously accepted the friend request. He immediately sent me a message offering me a teaching job at CAP21. He had gotten my name from Lisa Gajda (the legendary Broadway dancer), but didn’t know how else to get in touch with me. And so began my teaching career.

After a number of years of using Facebook to reconnect with friends from the past, and share photos with with family, I received an invitation to join a “private group“. There are private groups? Well apparently, there are private groups for everything; and there are private groups for dance teachers. A lot of them. I joined a number of these private groups for dance teachers. I followed the threads. I read the posts. I never really participated. One day I read a post by a ballet teacher who is having a particular problem. I read all of the responses that people made; I disagreed with all of their suggestions. So I decided to offer an opinion. I made my comment; a very long comment. And several people commented on my comment. Two of those comments were: “You should really start a blog“ and “Would you come to Michigan to guest teach at my studio?“. And so my career grew.

At an age when I should have been earning as much money as I could, to save for my retirement, I took what was for me, a very uncharacteristic risk: I left a very lucrative career to become a freelance dance instructor in New York City. Through hard work, determination and an enormous amount of luck, it worked out just fine.

And then came this pandemic. And my teaching career seemed to be crumbling as studios and schools were telling me to stay home; classes were cancelled. Within a week, however, each of the five schools at which I regularly teach had transitioned to virtual teaching. I was now expected to teach on something called Zoom. I hate change. Technology is challenging.

I would like to think that life experience teaches us lessons that stay with us; lessons that revise the way we think. Joining Facebook and starting a blog were ideas to which I was resistant. They represented “change”. I was now responding to Zoom in exactly the same way. But I had no choice and so I reluctantly started teaching on Zoom. Right from the start I made some discoveries about how Zoom would change the way I teach and how Zoom would change the way my students learn. (This is the topic of another article: https://classicalballetandallthatjazz.com/2020/04/22/challenge-teaching-in-the-face-of-a-pandemic/ ). And although I was grateful that nearly my entire teaching schedule had transitioned to Zoom, grateful that my income was still in place during these very unstable times, I felt like “something” was missing. I felt that what I bring to the studio, the quality that makes me “Me”, was not translating to the virtual platform. I just felt like it wasn’t really working.

But then the messages started coming in; message from across the country, and messages from around the globe. Messages telling me that “It’s quite an opportunity to take class in NYC from the comfort of my home in Dallas”. Messages telling me that “You have taken the bull by the horns and are giving your students a full experience”. Messages telling me that “I don’t care how scratchy the connection is, it’s still a connection and still gives me the same feelings that dancing in a studio does. In some ways it’s actually better.” And messages telling me that “You are a beautiful example of everything Arpino, Joffrey and D’Addario aspired the company and training program to be. Thank you!“.

Then the virtual guest-teaching offers started coming in. Guest-teaching has been part of what I do for the last several years. It is something that I love to do, but because of how it can disrupt the training of my regular students, it is something that I do have to limit. Guest teaching can also be very expensive for the schools that invite me, as they incur the costs of travel and accommodations in addition to my fee. But now, thanks to Zoom, I am guest teaching across the country and in Europe as well, with no disruption to my regular schedule and at a much reduced cost to the host studios.

I think that one of the things that I bring to the classroom is an atmosphere in which dancers can learn how to learn. That is clearly still in place. The way I structure a class and the way I choreograph is still in place. How I explain my personal take on technique and artistry is still in place. Obviously teaching virtually will never fully recreate the experience of being in the studio. But I am coming to realize that virtual teaching does many positive facets.

Whenever I face a new group of students I expect them to approach the work with an open mind. I expect them to take the ideas and techniques that I present, and to work on them to their fullest; regardless of what their previous teachers may have taught. Shouldn’t I expect the same from myself? So the next time life presents me with a challenge, presents me with a hurdle to which I am resistant, I hope that I will remember to approach it with an open mind. Because how else can I grow? I have always tried to help my students learn how to learn. This horrible pandemic and the transition to Zoom, to which I was so resistant, have helped ME learn how to learn. And hopefully I will come out of this period of quarantine having made new connections, having reached new students in new places and having grown as an educator.

Challenge: Teaching in the Face of a Pandemic

We are now living in a new world; a world of solitude and isolation. The pandemic which we are now facing has changed the way we live and it has changed the way we work, putting us each into our private box; both figuratively and literally. For most of us who are dance educators we have been charged with passing on our art form through a virtual platform. Our beautiful work, which lives in our bodies, minds and hearts, which has been lovingly handed down in the studio for generations, from teacher to student; has been exiled to a tiny box on “Zoom”.

I have been hearing from readers, colleagues and internet acquaintances about their frustrations surrounding teaching in this manner. Many teachers are finding that they can’t see their students well enough to give effective corrections. Those who are accustomed to giving “hands on” corrections (foundational to Russian methodology) are completely at a loss. I have shared many of the same frustrations and have spent many hours discussing, whining and complaining (I do love to complain) about teaching dance on “Zoom”. And then, during one of these discussions, I came to a realization: Teaching dance on “Zoom” is completely different than teaching in the studio and therefore, we need to become different teachers. And learning dance on line is completely different than learning in the studio and therefore, our students need to become different learners. It clearly can’t replace teaching and learning in the studio, but perhaps we can make it as valuable as we can.

As many of my readers know I still take class regularly, every day when possible. And has hard as I work, and as diligent and devoted I am, with each passing year my body continues to betray me. And as I get ever closer to 60, I have realized that if I am going to be able to continue to teach, and continue to grow, I must become an ever more skillful explainer. Russian pedagogy involves almost no demonstrating at all; all teaching is done through vivid, careful, brilliant explanation. And look at the result! So with the advent of virtual teaching we must, each of us, explore the richness of our language, the depths of our imagination, the vastness of our pedagogical knowledge to bring the verbal aspect of our teaching to the forefront of our work. 
I have also spent many hours reflecting on my own training, and consequently in my own learning. I trained completely in open classes, primarily with Gabriella Taub-Darvash and Luigi. At the time that I studied with Madame Darvash her classes tended to be enormous. It would have been impossible for her to correct everyone; in fact she hardly gave any individual corrections at all. The corrections that she did give, although often directed at one student, were judiciously selected to be of benefit to the whole room and were meant to be applied by everyone. Luigi gave no individual corrections. None. He believed that students should be exploring the technique, mining the work for what it “felt like”. His concept of “Dancing from the inside” applied to both the technical and artistic aspects of the work. He carefully EXPLAINED what everything felt like to him, what he felt when he danced, and urged us and guided us to search for those feelings. He did demonstrate, but it was his brilliant explaining that made him the masterful teacher that he was. And again, look at the result. 

This kind of training, this manner of learning, makes the student responsible for acquiring the education. I believe that taking responsibility for my own training was integral to making me the dancer that I was and the teacher that I am. Virtual teaching  is clearly not going to be as beneficial to our younger students (perhaps virtual learning may not work with our younger students at all) but it may, in our older students, awaken a whole new way of learning. In fact, they may find a whole new way of dancing.
Life is filled with challenges, nothing has ever come easily for me and I fought for everything that I received. Each time I found my way around yet another roadblock (and there are some that I never conquered) I came away a wiser, richer and ultimately happier person. Transitioning our teaching to a virtual classroom out of necessity in this very troubling time is a challenge to which we must rise if what we do is going to survive. We, all of us, have a responsibility to our students, to our art form and to ourselves find a way. And as each of us blazes a new teaching trail through this foreign jungle of virtual learning perhaps our work will grow deeper, enriched with with what we find on this exploration. Who knows? Perhaps sharing what we find will help us all grow a little, teach us all something and begin to combat the solitude and isolation that we are all experiencing. 

And when this over, when we return to our lives in the studio, and find our new normal (because I don’t see how we will ever be the same), and when our lives, our bodies and our art are released from their little boxes, who knows what we may find? This is how discovery is made. This is how change is made. This is how art is made. And I want to be a part of it.

Possibilities Amidst a Pandemic

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic I have been conspicuously missing from social media. As I hunker down in my personal cave, with much more free time on my hands than usual, for some reason I am not feeling motivated to reach out. As many in my world seem to be posting their dance classes, posting their recipes, posting their craft projects; introspection seems, for me, to be somehow more relevant and appropriate.

I recently read an article by Robin Conrad Sturm, a ballet teacher, writer and blogger for whom I have the utmost respect. The jumping off point of this article was the quote “Life is all about how you handle ‘Plan B’”. This article explored the different ways in which artists cope with the disappointment inherent in their “fall back plan”; their “Plan B”. (Find her on Facebook, read her articles, they are wonderful.) I usually find that I identify quite deeply with Ms. Sturm’s writing. However my path, as my regular readers know, has been so strange, that I found little with which to identify. The article did, however, provide me with much to ponder.

As I grew up, my “Plan A” just sort of fell into place. My world, my family and the culture in which I was immersed laid out my “Plan A” for me and it never occurred to me to even raise a question. I would work very hard in school. I would get excellent grades. I would go to a prestigious college, graduate school and post graduate program. What would then follow, of course, would be an extremely lucrative career and HAPPINESS. As I started on this path, I thought I was happy. I was a successful student and I was accepted into the graduate programs and post graduate programs of my choice. I was “living the dream” of many aspiring professionals. Well, just like the hopeful ballerina who never could secure a company contract, my “Plan A” didn’t exactly work out; but for a whole different set of reasons.

Real “success” in any career is impossible if one doesn’t love what one is doing; and I was miserable. But being a person who is terrified of change, I was resistant and so I stayed in that career for 30 years. Eventually I would have to make a change; I wasn’t happy, my finances were suffering and I ultimately had to face my crippling fear of change and DO something. And so I set out to cultivate a career as a dance teacher; at 49 years old. Coming from where I was coming, this is perhaps the strangest of all possible choices. But the “conventional” certainly did not work for me, so why not try the “strange”? And as you know, it has worked out better than I ever could have ever expected.

Now we are in the midst of a pandemic. We are staying home, social distancing, living a totally different existence. Ballet classes, as we all know them, are not part of this existence. But each of the schools for which I teach has, one by one, transitioned to teaching over the internet.

AND I AM TERRIFIED OF CHANGE.

I am not a fan of technology. I was the last person I knew to buy a computer. I was the last person I knew to join social media. And now I have to learn how to teach through something called Zoom! Now I will be uploading videos to Something called Cyanna! Now I will be setting up an account on something called Dropbox! Now once again, I am terrified. Now, once again, I am resistant. But I am always someone who has done what needed to be done. So I set out to learn to use these programs (and that would have been impossible without the help that I received from the BRILLIANT Tiffany Patrick at the Joffrey Ballet School). And as I learned to use these programs, I reflected back on that terrifying transition that I made into my seemingly preposterous “Plan B”. That transition provided me with a life that I still find surprising. Every day seems to present yet another adventure (I was teaching in Dublin, Ireland, just before this pandemic started). So how can I tell where this transition to virtual teaching may lead?

Facing our fears is a part of life. My history has taught me that weathering the storm of fear that comes with change, can open the door to a whole new life. So perhaps learning to teach online can give me some insight into a whole new way to teach. Only time will tell. But the one thing I DO know, is that I still have POSSIBILITIES because of the miracle that is my “Plan B”. And I can’t imagine a life without those possibilities.

Where is the Magic?

The more time that I spend sitting in a theater, the more I worry. I worry that we, the current crop of teachers, are training the “special” right out of our students. I recently sat in my seat of a Broadway theater, eagerly awaiting THAT moment. I’ve experienced it countless times; that moment when the performance in front of me would reach out, get inside me, and move me and change me in a way that nothing else could. I sat there for two hours and forty minutes. I heard excellent singing. I saw excellent dancing. I saw excellent acting. I heard excellent musicians. But THAT moment never came; I simply felt nothing. And this has happened over and over again for the last several years. It has happened at the theater, at the ballet, at the opera, at concert dance performances and at the concert hall.

I remember my youth. I remember sitting in theaters and being thrilled by the performers that I saw: dancers like Baryshnikov, Kirkland, Gregory and Bujones; broadway stars like Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, Carol Channing and Angela Lansbury; musicians like Horowitz, Heifetz, Argerich and Rubinstein. Rarely am I seeing these kind of performances any more. And the more I talk to my colleagues, the more I feel like we might be part of the problem.

Dance teachers (especially in the competition world) are training their dancers to perform with stunning uniformity. Voice teachers with whom I speak are trying to groom their students to produce a specific, particular “sound”. Acting teachers are cultivating students that give performances with a chilling naturalism.

But where is the magic?

I think to a degree these teachers feel that they are producing what casting directors are looking for. But sometimes casting directors don’t know what they are looking for until it walks into the room.

Now I’m not saying that those special, moving, captivating moments are completely gone. Katrina Lenk certainly created a world that transported and thrilled me in her brilliant performance in The Band’s Visit. But those performances are becoming less and less frequent.

I recently stumbled on this video of a little boy dancing:

I think we can all agree that this child has something very special and he feels what he does from a very deep place. He clearly has a long road to the professional stage (if that is indeed his path) and there will be many teachers who will have a hand in helping him build a technique. It is my hope that the process of building the technique that he will need will not squash the gifts that he has.

I remember my training with Luigi, Gabriella Darvash and Frank Hatchett. I remember them talking of astonishing dancers; dancers like Maya Pliesetskaya, Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson. I remember them encouraging us to find what made each of us special, unique and astonishing. I remember Luigi saying so often “I don’t train chorus dancers, I make stars”. Yet today, as I still take class regularly, it is rare that I hear teachers discussing anything other than technique (save a few who touch on musicality).

I have always believed that every teacher has something unique that they bring to the table; every teacher has something that they bring their students that nobody else and bring. I have certainly had a unique path; I started dancing at 26 and I cobbled together my training by studying exclusively in open classes with world class teachers. This required a lot of “putting it together on my own” and this has provided me with a unique perspective on how a dancer is built. I have always made this perspective the foundation of my teaching. But now I am examining my work more closely. The Joffrey Ballet School has placed their trust in me, and obviously my students will need high extensions, dizzying turns and soaring jumps to be employable today. But I am mining the memories of how Luigi, Madame Darvash and Frank Hatchett nurtured us to be WHO we were, not the technicians they wanted us to be. And I am allowing those memories to come flooding back and to flood my classroom. I clearly can’t BE Luigi, or Madame Darvash or Frank Hatchett. They were unique talents and brilliant master teachers. And I certainly don’t want to parrot what they said to me; because it won’t be MY perspective. But I am determined to find the SPECIAL in my students. Not every student will have the potential to be another Margot Fonteyn, Gwen Verdon or Fred Astaire. But someday a student may walk into my classroom with that magic laying dormant inside. And I am, more and more, feeling the responsibility to find that magic and let it shine. I am striving to be part of the solution; to do my tiny bit to help bring that magic back to the stage. And maybe some of my colleagues will agree with me; and maybe they won’t. But I have always been determined to do things MY way. Clearly what we are currently doing is producing a result; but is it really the result that WE want?

I want to see the magic.

A New Year Brings Refections on the Last Decade

Each time we roll into a new decade I tend to reflect back on the previous 10 years. Each decade has always brought change; some good and some bad. But the 2010’s have brought more new beginnings and more career growth than I could have ever thought possible. When 2010 started, I never could have imagined that I would return to the dance industry, but return I did. It was during this decade that I had the opportunity to teach at:

Hamilton Dance
Cora Dance
Alden Moves
The Manhattan Ballet School
Broadway Donation Dance Classes
New Rising Sun Dance Project
Hunter College
CAP21
New York Film Academy
New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts
Molloy College
Marymount Manhattan College
Broadway Dance Center
and of course, The Joffrey Ballet School

It was also during this decade that I started traveling the country to guest teach at countless schools, studios, conservatories and conventions.

I would be remiss if I did not thank the people who were responsible for making this transition possible. So on this New Year’s Eve I want to extend a huge THANK YOU (in no special order) to (I hope I’m not forgetting anyone…apologies to anyone left off the list):

Lisa Gajda Maiolo
Beth Goheen
Richard Pierlon
Lisa Lockwood
Era Jouravlev
Elizaabeth D’anna
Stephanie Godino
Angelica Lynn Stiskin
Jo Matos
Michael Blake
Colleen Barnes Merwin
Austin Eyer
Jeanne Dybdahl Chelsen
Rita Hamilton
Shannon Hummel
Alden LaPaglia
Nick Rice
Jennifer Groenke
Elfriede Merman
Janna Feinman
Nancy Saylor
Madame Gabriella Darvash
Luigi

Without each of you, I would be living a very different life. THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart.

In 2020 I will be traveling over seas to teach for the first time. THANK YOU to Therese Rooney for opening that door for me! Because of you I will be starting a new decade with a new adventure!

Here’s to new beginnings! Happy 2020.

The Nature of Dance

This weekend shed new light for me on the nature of dance.

I spent Sunday afternoon  the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I walked through the galleries, viewing the art, I had a sudden realization: These great artists worked endless hours studying, training, honing their art to create these masterpieces. And here are these great works, hundreds (in some cases thousands) of years later, still reaching, touching, moving their audience.

I reflected back on the previous day. I began my Saturday (as I always do when I’m not teaching) by taking class with the legendary Zvi Gotheiner. Although most certainly a ballet class and clearly grounded in the work of his mentor, the great Maggie Black, the class is not a “typical” ballet class. The barre is nearly an hour long, slow, methodical and thorough. The centre combinations are more like inspired choreography and less like classroom exercises and most definitely reflect the modern dance vocabulary displayed in the works performed by his brilliant company. And then there is the music. The highly original, unique and brilliant Scott Killian is at the piano. He can make that instrument sing like a choir, pound like a bass drum, swell like a string section, blare like a brass band and percolate like a gamelan. The varied, surprising, mesmerizing sounds fill the room, fill my body, and push the movements out from the inside. The music is one with my dancing, it hangs in the air; and then it is gone. I always try to bring a performance to the classroom. I have long believe that HOW we take class will affect how we dance on the stage and that technique and artistry are inextricably linked. But in this class I don’t just dance; I live.

There was a rather inspired combination that swirled across the floor, changing directions in surprising ways, with pirouettes and arabesque turns growing out of the choreography and growing out of the music. I felt my body fill with the sounds emanating from the piano. I felt my entire being explode across the floor. I felt every ounce of my energy flow out into the room.

And then it was gone.

I see so many young dancers capturing these moments on their phones and posting them on the internet. But our technology can only capture so much. We can record a dancer and we can enjoy the video. But the real depth of beauty; the deeply expressive, highly detailed nuance of our art form can often elude the lens. There is a performance of Swan Lake danced by Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones that will forever be seared into my memory. No video of these two dancers that I have ever seen does this performance justice.

We work a lifetime to build a technique. We work a lifetime to develop an artist’s soul. We work a lifetime to dance. And in a moment, what we produce is gone. And I found a beautiful, profound sadness in the ephemeral nature of what we do.

The great art in this museum, these masterpieces that will last centuries to move and delight a limitless number of viewers, reminded me of this profound sadness.

And then I remembered that Swan Lake. I remembered that rainy evening when I sat in the dark and I watched, for the first time, two truly great artists take the stage and captivate an audience. And I realized that their performance isn’t gone. It lives in my memory, it lives in my heart and it is the reason that I do what I do. So now I am looking for ways to communicate this to my students; to help them reach their audience in a profound way. I want to them plant memories, perhaps in the heart of only one audience member, so that their work can live on to inspire someone sitting out there, in the dark.