Little did I know, at the start of 2020, that in a few months' time, dance training and performing would be among the many things restricted by the pandemic. In March, as the theatre doors were closed and the arts took an almighty hit, dance professionals and students across the globe were forced to take their training home. Adapting with the likes of YouTube and Zoom, we transferred our lessons from studio to living room.
I’ve been going to dance lessons since I was 7 years old so dancing for me – albeit in the space of my own home – provided a much-needed sense of routine, comfort and a social aspect during the lockdowns – and kept me active too!
There were unavoidable challenges that home learning brought on – from having an unreliable internet connection to not being able to fully understand direction and spacing virtually. Doing tap lessons around the house also proved difficult as I had to resort to socks on carpet which, believe it or not, does not have quite the same effect.
However, there have definitely been advantages to teaching dance online. A friend told me she enjoyed dancing at home more as it cut out a long commute for her, to and from the studio space.
I asked my dance teacher, Gemma Pender (or as her students call her Miss Gemma), what her experience of organising and teaching dance in a new virtual way to her students of The Academy for Performing Arts (TAFPA) has been like.
Miss Gemma’s model in the first lockdown was for pupils of TAFPA to be sent pre-recorded lessons on YouTube ‘to fit in with their lockdown routine.’ It ‘meant that students could revisit the class as many times as they wished, and press pause and rewind as often as they liked to help them to understand the material as well as possible.’ Although it came with its advantages, Miss Gemma admitted this model was ‘intensely time consuming’ for the teachers to put together.
‘During the most recent lockdown [TAFPA] tried a whole new approach and went live online on Zoom with our complete weekly class schedule. Teachers and students were able to connect in real time and…offer immediate guidance and feedback. Having a regular weekly schedule also provided staff and students with much needed structure and routine.’
As well as providing the regular lessons, TAFPA hosted charity Zoom quiz nights, created dance films, broadcasted Facebook and Instagram lives, ran an audition challenge event and so much more to ‘add a little sparkle and excitement and, crucially, to contribute a social element.’
“All of this represented a completely new and very alien way of working and interacting with our community.”
Working online posed many challenges for the TAFPA teachers, Miss Gemma saying ‘The pressure was intense and innovating an online learning and teaching model and running online events required the employment of a highly underdeveloped set of skills that I, personally, felt really quite out of touch with. Effectively connecting with staff and motivating students from a distance was also a significant challenge when you are relying exclusively on cyber communications.’
Miss Gemma also said when creating Zoom schedules, ensuring ‘that all classes were accommodated and there were no class clashes was quite an undertaking.’
'Learning online can feel really quite lonely.’
‘The main challenge with teaching online was not being able to directly interact with the students.’ Miss Gemma described how ‘you do not get the same buzz from learning online as you do in the studio, where everyone’s energies combine to create an exciting and highly motivational dynamic. Learning online can feel really quite lonely.’
I was thankful to have my sister doing the classes with me online as I didn’t feel the loneliness and awkwardness I think others felt doing the lockdown lessons. I still had someone to enjoy dancing with, even though we inevitably found ourselves competing for room sometimes and bashing into one another without the wide studio space!
“Teaching an entire class to the camera to realise you’d never pressed record”
During online lessons, many technical problems occurred. For Miss Gemma, she said, “The technological struggles were significant. During the first lockdown, when we created pre-recorded class videos, there were many trials and tribulations; among them, teaching an entire class to the camera to realise you’d never pressed record is one of them; another was running out of storage space on the recording device part way through a class; then there were problems with uploading an hour’s class to the internet with insufficient broadband speed and bandwidth, meaning it could take a whole night to upload just one class video!” On Zoom, Miss Gemma faced issues that included “teaching tap and everyone’s taps would be entirely out of time.”
As well as the technological issues, Miss Gemma said “Government guidelines have, at times, been very confusing and not at all clear for dance/performing arts schools.” I think this is something a lot of us can relate to as, at times, the rules have been somewhat unclear for us all.
A lot of dancers during the pandemic found it hard to have as much motivation to dance online as opposed to in-person. What with juggling homeschooling and everything else during the lockdowns, dancing for some fell on the back-burner. The challenges of lockdown and their circumstances were more extreme for some people than others as well. One of my friends said she felt less inclined to join the lessons because she would be on her own, and she didn’t like the idea of that.
Miss Gemma reflected on there being some struggles with student participation over the virtual lessons. ‘A lot of students struggled with the complete collapse of reliable structure and routine, which meant that students struggled to create time and find motivation for learning dance and performing arts.’ In particular, younger students were less likely to enrol in online learning partly due to the pressure and busyness with homeschooling for parents.
As we near the end of April and restrictions have eased to accommodate face-to face-dance lessons, I was thrilled to have gone back to TAFPA this last week. It has been amazing to see people and dance again properly in the studio. As we slowly progress out of lockdown, I’m sure lots of other dancers like myself are happy to be going back to their schools and looking forward to what classes, shows and performances the future will bring.