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The rise of the online dance class in lockdown

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The offer, the reach and the uses of online dance classes are expanding during lockdown – and beyond?

As the coronavirus crisis has forced many of us into our homes, we’ve had to find new, inventive ways to engage with our passions. The internet, unsurprisingly, has been the primary tool for connecting arts lovers with cultural content to see them through self-isolation: operas and theatre productions are being live streamed, art exhibitions are being digitised, and endless articles recommending podcasts, films, and reading material are being written. But some artforms are easier to translate online than others. Dance classes, for example, centre around physicality. Taking place in wide open studios free from obstacles, traditional dance classes rely on the physical presence of students, enabling partnerwork and allowing teachers to impart corrections through verbal and sensory feedback. All that is impossible to translate into the virtual realm. Or is it?

Ever since the start of the pandemic, dancers from every discipline have been migrating away from the studio back into their homes to take part in digital dance classes. Conducted over a variety of online platforms – notably Instagram Live and Zoom – many of these offerings have been set up by high-profile dance organisations from across the world, including Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, the Royal Academy of Dance and Gaga People to name a few.

Many have also been instigated by individual professional dancers themselves, such as by a number of performers from the Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC) in New York. ‘Some of our company members, such as Lloyd Knight and Charlotte Landreau, just took it upon themselves, I don’t think they even coordinated it in the beginning,’ says artistic director Janet Eilber. ‘We [MGDC] immediately embraced it. It’s really a leading light towards what we want to do digitally in the future. We really want to build on what the dancers have started.’ Eilber’s biggest takeaway from the Instagram Live classes is the ability for interaction: ‘Dancers can actually type comments and ask questions as if they were actually learning in the studio. It’s quite different to just following a YouTube video by yourself.’ And it’s not just about learning steps and mastering choreography. ‘Graham is based on self-expression and bringing yourself to the movement,’ she says. ‘It has an additional level of reflection and expression that I think people need right now.’

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Charlotte Landreau teaches a Graham class from home on Instagram Live
Charlotte Landreau teaches a Graham class from home on Instagram Live

Classes are not only drawing professionals though. Take London-based art writer, curator, and self-confessed dance fanatic Francesca Gavin, who started taking dance classes around five years ago, attending hip hop and heels classes at studios including At Your Beat, Heels and Feels UK, and Base. Now, during lockdown, she is actually dancing even more than usual. ‘I’m doing around three classes a day – anything less than one and I think I’d go crazy,’ she says. ‘I shared a video of the first class I did on my own Instagram. The minute I posted it everyone reacted to how joyous it was. Seeing people commenting, reacting with heart emojis, or the teacher giving you a shoutout [during the class] makes you feel like you are not alone. Dance is how I am getting through corona, without a doubt.’

There are challenging aspects to the format, however. ‘Floorwork is really hard at home. I haven’t got enough space. I’m worried I’m wearing out my carpet!’ Gavin jokes. She’s also terrified to look at her next phone bill. ‘I don’t have a very good internet connection, so when it comes to live classes I have to turn off my wifi and do it through data.’

Aside from wifi and data costs, online dance classes during the corona crisis are predominantly free or, like the Graham classes, operated on a donation basis. Gavin hopes that many will stay this way, noting that ‘a lot of people have lost their jobs and have no income. But, of course, dancers also need to get paid for what they do. For me, anything spent on this feels worthwhile,’ she adds, noting how online dance classes – and the sense of community they create in particular – have improved her mental wellbeing during this testing time.

Using dance as a tool to aid mental health has been the mission of Berlin-based community Therapy of Dance (TOD) since before the coronavirus crisis. TOD was founded as a weekly dance class in 2017 by New Zealand-born dancer Elise Mirielle Coates-Chitty when she decided to use hip hop to help her own battle with depression. ‘Hip hop is very therapeutic,’ says Coates-Chitty, who also finds its music particularly empowering. ‘Coming to sessions, getting used to putting yourself out there and moving your body in front of the mirror to music instills you with a sense of confidence,’ she adds. TOD has also grown to encompass other facets including a podcast series and live panel discussions with psychologists. ‘I wanted the classes and the community to be a gateway for people who are interested in dance to explore therapy.’

The moment Berlin was placed into lockdown, students asked Coates-Chitty to put TOD online. Through Instagram Live classes, in which participants can only see the teacher on screen and interact through text, she soon realised it was most important that everyone could hear and see eachother so that they could be in conversation. ‘It’s one thing to stay connected to people over social media, but it’s another thing to offer them a service that makes them move and feel connected to their bodies and to a community, albeit online,’ she says. Coates-Chitty now conducts the sessions via Zoom, with nine students at a time, which she finds more representative of TOD’s in-person classes. ‘We usually do these group circles at the beginning of class,’ she explains. ’We were already really used to actively listening to each other and talking one by one. When that transitioned to video, everyone was very used to it and respectful.’

Coates-Chitty does admit that it is impossible to be as present and connected with other people online as they can be in real life. ’Social media isn’t usually our focus. We’re more about being in-person and getting people connected,’ she says. However, the internet has helped TOD to expand their community beyond the confines of the German capital. Having travelled back to New Zealand before the coronavirus crisis, Coates-Chitty discovered a bunch of students who had been following TOD online, two of whom have now enlisted to start online sessions in the New Zealand time zone.

People at home take an online class with Berlin’s Therapy of Dance

An online class with Berlin-based Therapy of Dance

Instigated in response to the lockdown, digital classes look set to outlast it: many dancers are keen to continue training online. ‘That way I can never talk myself out of going to class because it’s an hour away!’ says Gavin enthusiastically. True, the intricate nuances of the art of movement may get lost in translation – or in cyberspace – and it’s hard to imagine an Instagram Live stream recreating the joy of jumping on a sprung studio floor or gliding through space with your classmates. Yet if intimate connections are lost in the virtual realm, international ones are gained. By connecting dancers all over the world through choreography learnt in their bedrooms, digital classes give a sense of community. That will be important to remember in a post-lockdown world. ‘At times like these, you can either focus on the fact we’re apart and that we want to get back to the way things were,’ says Eilber. ‘Or you can celebrate the fact we’re inventing new ways to be together that will make us even stronger in the future.’ 

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