Gathering Online for Dance at New Haven’s Neighborhood Music School


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With a click, you put yourself on-screen. There you are, in a square in your home.

The squares begin to multiply. One by one, people enter, two or five or a dozen squares. Each person springs up in a basement, living room, dining room, bedroom…

You greet each other from your boxes, a little shyly, you’re still getting used to this private-public fishbowl. The teacher greets everyone. She waits a few minutes for stragglers, then begins.

You stand with a hand on a makeshift barre. Feet in rotated first position, arms rounded in low fifth position. The accompanist’s keyboard tinkles hazily through the internet audio.

Wait… this is a ballet class?

Isn’t ballet (really a lot of dance) about bodies moving together through time and space? And isn’t it usually done in a spacious room, with no furniture, dedicated to dance?

So how do these classes feel when your point of contact is a 2 x 5-inch screen?

Well, I’ll be square with you. It’s just okay.

Trying to execute a développé a la seconde — a leg extension — while partially suspended over a couch, is a limited venture.  

Swinging your leg into a grand battement derrière, while not crashing a foot into the table behind you, is mildly dangerous.

But it’s also incredible that you are ‘there’ and it’s happening.

There is a suspension of disbelief, a generous spirit of making do.

I’ve been taking and accompanying ballet classes via Zoom at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, a community arts organization that offers classes in music, dance, and drama. The non-profit has been an institution since it opened in 1911 as part of settlement housing serving immigrant populations. More than 3,000 students, children and adults, who usually stream in and out of a thirty-three-studio building on Audubon Street, are now streaming into virtual studios.

Sixteen teachers and three accompanists are now working fifty-two dance classes online. Tracey Albert, who runs the dance program at NMS, said she’s grateful to be able to use the technology, but that it is actually exhausting to teach virtual classes. “I guess I didn’t realize how much energy is exchanged between students and myself in a physical class.”

A dance class in a ‘real’ room is a 360-degree physical immersion.

What is strange about taking a dance class via Zoom is a sort of sensory confusion… where to direct sensory attention, where to feel things — the cues and instructions are coming through the screen – but you have to stay focused on your own body.

It’s an odd coordination.

Albert remarked how frustrating it is to only be able to help students through verbal dialogue, rather than the sort of hands-on physical demonstrations that are a usual part of technique classes. Overall, however, Albert sees virtual classes highlighting a sense of trust and connection for students with her and each other.

After a rigorous barre, she focuses on one combination for the center exercises. In last week’s class it was a simple adagio — a slow, sustained sequence with leg-extended balances and promenades. The class performed this several times as an entire group. Then Albert divided the class into two groups so we could perform and watch each other, via screen. It was a satisfactory nod, in this new online realm, to tradition.

Danielle Rathey, who teaches a teen ballet class on Thursday evenings, invites all her students to her 7:30am hardcore ballet “cardio-point” warmup/barre that she does for herself – and any other takers – every morning. For weekly class, she takes stretching requests from her students, and often focuses on core training, floor barre, and relaxation exercises. Last Thursday, she reminded her students that it is sometimes surprisingly emotional to stay for an extended time in a stretch position.

The simple matter of attending to a ritual, going through familiar exercises in a dance class, is moving and soothing.

Martha Fiellin, who teaches adult ballet classes at NMS, gives a focusing exercise to start the class, facing the barre, a very slow rise to the balls of both feet in parallel relevè, then slowly lowering the heels back to the ground.

She says that teaching virtually is a somewhat lonely experience for her because students are “on mute” during the exercises. Getting no immediate feedback or response is difficult.

But Fiellin also said that she was surprised, when everyone “showed up” for the first virtual class, how affecting it was. Tears came to her eyes, totally unexpected.

We are all moving through a transformative time, alone and yet together.

Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.

Note: Byrne is affiliated with the Neighborhood Music School