Dance is a physical artform, traditionally passed down from teacher to student in the shared space of a dance studio. So how can teachers and studio owners adapt to the rapid changes forced upon them by COVID-19? Geraldine Higginson spoke with two dance school owners to find out how they are making the switch and what they’ve learned so far.
Miss Fishers Ballet Academy – Bexley (Sydney) NSW
(Currently teaching online: ballet from 18 months – 12 years)
“It’s been exhausting but I am loving the online experience," says Amy Fisher of her online teaching experience. "I love seeing the students through the screen and checking in how their week is going. I was nervous and stressed during my first week, mainly due to the overload in organising and emailing - but nerves are good. It means you care. You can share the joy of dance anywhere and I am so proud of how my students and parents have embraced these new challenges. Am I excited to get back in the studio and actually move across the floor? Yes! But this has been a great experience, learning new skills."
Amy decided to use Skype as her online teaching platform because she was already familiar with it. Having used Skype regularly for video calls to family back home in Australia while living and dancing overseas some years ago. She did some practice runs connecting with family members (pretending to be students) prior to teaching her first class online.
“I didn't want to pick a program I had no experience with, as I didn't want to add any unnecessary stress. A business advisor told me a while ago, 'work smarter'. I was teaching live classes only one day after the announcements and this made the process smooth for everyone. If any parents had issues navigating Skype, I could tell them how they could rectify these quickly and we had very limited disruption in our classes. Doing the practice runs, because I was prepared I luckily didn't have sound, volume, video issues or screen sharing. Preparation is key.”
Potential security concerns with Zoom were also a deciding factor. “It was paramount to me that we had to be safe from potential hackers. Our classes are live and for enrolled students only, so that everyone feels comfortable and safe sharing their living rooms with each other.” Teaching from her own lounge room, Amy cleared the furniture from one corner and surrounded it with photography lights to create a small open space for her classes.
She is embracing the changes inherent in changing from studio to home. “I use household items for props and a chair as my ballet barre. Pot and wooden spoon for instruments, tea towels for scarfs or ribbons, etc. I believe it's important to demonstrate with things you can find in your home as not every child is able to have a barre or dance floor at their home. Everything can be modified.” Nevertheless, she still expects students to wear their correct uniform and to have their hair in a bun for discipline and normalcy.
In addition, Amy does one-on-one personal Skype calls at the end of every class to check in with the students and parents and see how they are going. “It's a really nice way to stay connected and have a chat, as there is no talking during our classes. Students mic's are on mute, so that everyone can hear me clearly. It’s an opportunity for them to ask any questions about certain exercises, as in a normal class there would be more interaction back and forth.”
- Have fun with it! Try not to get too stressed about constantly finding new material or things to do online. Repetition is key to children’s development.
- Check the volume and make sure you can be heard. There’s nothing worse than not being able to hear what the teacher is saying.
- Too much mess in the background is distracting for everyone.
- And for students - don't be late! Once class starts, it rolls ahead. Be standing by your device, no one is happy when someone is late and holding up the class or struggling to get into the video call once it's begun.
GC DANCE and Balanced Ballerinas – Arundel (Gold Coast), Qld
(Currently teaching online: adult ballerinas and Ballet/Body Conditioning for school-aged students)
Following the shutdown, Georgia initially took a week off to think about how she might offer online classes in a way she was comfortable with. To start with, she began offering private lessons online – learning how to make it work as she went. At this time Georgia also sought advice from more experienced mentors and teachers (Marie Walton-Mahon and dance-physio Debra Crookshanks) about how to adapt classes to the online arena. As the owner of a school offering a range of styles, ultimately Georgia decided that not all classes would transition well online.
“Yes to ballet (with an emphasis on barre work, and the basics), body conditioning and musical theatre (with a focus on acting, dialogue and song) and no to jazz, contemporary and acrobatics. Bigger, athletic movements were out. We did rises to work through the intrinsic muscles of the feet but no releves or grand battements.”
On the back to basics approach Georgia says: “Initially I was worried students might get bored, but they actually just really love it. By keeping it simple and focussing on the basics I have the opportunity to stop and explain things in more detail. And they are happy to have that bit of normality – class with Miss Georgia – from their pre-pandemic life."
Georgia describes the transition to teaching online as one of the hardest things she’s ever done. “I'm going to be a professional when it comes to technology at the end of this!” She considers Zoom to be the best option because it allows feedback for students during class, unlike Youtube. Her key tips are to remember to mute all your students, and to give corrections between exercises and not during them (as your voice will make the music cut out if you try and give corrections mid-exercise). She aims to give each student at least one correction per class, acknowledging that many corrections do apply to everyone anyway.
Knowing that her students are working in much smaller then usual spaces, "it was only fair that I should, too", she says. Teaching from the lounge room, rather than her studio, gave her a much better sense of what was, and was not, realistic to be doing at home.
Where possible, Georgia recommends both teachers and students use an HDMI cable to connect their personal device (laptop or phone) to a larger flatscreen. This makes it easier for both teacher and student to see clearly what the other is doing. She also notes that for young children, missing that personal connection with their teacher and classmates, it can be beneficial to unmute them all at the end of class and take some time to share and ask something simple, such as "What’s one good thing that’s happened to you today?" This enables them to hear each other’s answers and to capture, albeit briefly, that shared experience of being together.
How will she feel about getting back to the studio?
“I really miss teaching in the studio. Walking around the room and quietly giving someone a correction (just for them) mid-exercise or just checking in to see if someone’s okay. As a dance-studio owner you always dream of having time off. But when something is taken away from you, well . . . I guess you don’t always appreciate what you’ve got 'til it’s gone.”
Read Georgia Canning's blog about her experience: