If you would have told me that come the year 2020 I would find myself in my home office teaching dance remotely, from a strange platform called ‘Zoom’, with tiny rectangular images of students on my MacBook, I would have told you there is no way that I would ever be a able to do this. I am a master dance teacher of Martha Graham’s technique at the foremost performing arts schools in the world, The Juilliard School, and here I am in 2020 with no other choice but to teach dance remotely.
My background in this most primitive of art forms, dance, began when I was quite young and in musical theater. As we all know, having these kinds of experiences as young people form our relationships to each other and to space in ways that form a tactile bond with our friends and later in life, our colleagues. Twenty-six years of living as a dancer in the incredible opus of work of choreographer Martha Graham and later as an artistic director of the Company, I cannot imagine what it would have been like should that information only be available to me online at any point in my childhood or my career, as the arts were and still are where my passion lies.
The dance classroom studio is rich in threads that bind the students with the teacher, the teacher with their students and the accompanist adding to the beautiful triangular energy in the room. Rehearsals in preparation for performance or choreographic study involve touching, lifting and moving through space, into space, pushing the boundaries of any studio in all directions possible. Our performances bring this work from the dance studio into spaces and theaters to be shared by others…to be touched by others. We are now in a position as dance artist that this kind of interaction is not possible.
As with all artists, we have vast imaginations and many of our young have grown up on social media, but none-the-less, there is no one that can say that our lives can be the same as they were before Covid-19 forced us into the safety of our homes where each and every one of us have had to navigate emotionally what this actually means for us in whatever profession we are in. The arts in particular will suffer in ways that other professions will not and in other ways it will grow. With integrity in the emotional search comes the perseverance and creative necessity to investigate how to teach remotely and make this meaningful for our students.
From my point of view, I have first had to help my students emotionally handle the situation they are in and then to inspire them to the possibilities that lie within each of them…to tap into the imagination and look beyond the walls that are inhibiting their desire to move. Images that I use whenever I teach must be illuminated in the way that I speak to them. If one wants to, you can see yourself a top a high mountain alone with the vastness of space in all directions. This sensory work has always been important to me, but it becomes critical in the remote situation we are in now.
Martha Graham’s expressive technique is a physical language in itself and the beginning of the class starts with a Floor-work series that is exceptionally beautiful and fulfilling to execute. It warms the body up from the core of the dancer’s being and requires a great deal of visceral physicality to bring it to its most depth. When I start my class, I always read my students something beautiful to bring all those little rectangular images of people into a ‘place of belonging’ and to gather all those hearts into one by somehow symbolically penetrating the computer screen. I may also show them a beautiful image of a work of art (ie. Rodin, Blake) that can inspire them to a feeling that can be brought into the body and investigated physically. Graham’s Floor-work can be done in a small space which is all most of us have. I have also been able to give some standing center work by investigating what my space will allow and have given my students the opportunity to make decisions on their own about their own space confines. In this way, they can move in a stationary place or travel a combination, and jump or not jump, by using their space creatively.
The practicality of teaching dance online..that is..the learning curve with the platform you choose, takes a lot of patience. I have been using Zoom and have insisted from the beginning the necessity to include a live accompanist. This has proven to be very beautiful an experience for all, but requires trial and error meetings with your accompanist beforehand. There is a slight delay with my verbal tempo into and the downbeat of the musician so I have remedied this by having the musician (piano) repeat my intro exactly. We worked together to create the feeling of a real classroom.
At all costs, we must make our students feel that we are still a community and that they are not alone. In this way, threads that bind are illuminated and we will al be better for it.