When COVID-19 struck the world in early 2020, many dance studios and companies had to cancel their shows or put them on hold. Some shows continued with virtual rehearsals, but to this day have yet to be rescheduled due to obvious circumstances. There have been, however, many dance groups that were able to perform last year despite the challenges they had to overcome. Jessica Ciampo, dance instructor at The Next Stage Dance & Drama Academy in Barrington, New Jersey, shares her experience with using Zoom to teach choreography to her students as they prepared for an outdoor, socially-distanced recital.

Jess leads a busy life - teaching dance at multiple locations near home, while being a first-time mother. She taught two classes at Next Stage for the September 2019 through June 2020 year. One of the classes was a Ballet, Jazz, and Tap Combination class for younger students who were to learn and perform three shorter length dances in the recital. The other was a Jazz and Modern style class for more advanced students who were to perform one dance in the recital. By the time the shut downs occurred in March, Jess had one out of three dances for the younger Combination class completed. The older class had a little less than half of their routine completed.

Next Stage was adaptive and able to switch classes to a virtual format almost immediately. One week everyone was in-studio and in-person as normal. The next week, classes were all held on Zoom and remained that way through the rest of the school year, following their regular schedule. Each class had their final Zoom meeting in June, right before the recital, on the same day that classes would usually end. Though, like many events in 2020, the recital was postponed. “We’ll be in touch” was how the season ended.

Extra verbal communication is key when using Zoom to teach choreography.

Everyone was informed of the show date with only two weeks notice. Teachers were welcome to have a last minute Zoom meeting with their students to review choreography. There was a scheduled in-studio rehearsal week, adhering to strict safety rules, for anyone who felt comfortable joining. Each dance rehearsal was thirty minutes just to go over formations, without a usual dress rehearsal or run-through. The show was held on July 24th and 25th and presented as an informal non-mandatory event. It took place at a nearby park that has an area with a lifted stage and bleachers. Staff members laid Marley flooring over the carpeted stage and set up a speaker system. Performers wore their costumes, since they were already purchased before the shut down, and there was no physical contact in any of the routines. The audience, staff, and dancers wore masks and the recital was broken up into a series of shorter-length shows to keep the amount of audience attendees minimal.

Back when recital rehearsals began in February, Jess and other instructors had choreography in their routines that included physical touch, as well as tighter formations. These elements all had to be changed. For example, if there was a pyramid where everyone was touching each others’ shoulders, that formation needed to be spread further apart. As a choreographer, there were certain things that Jess would normally include in a dance, that now she could not. Jess felt especially limited with the older students, whose skills usually allow for even more creative freedom. At the same time, she says, it pushes you and “forces you to be creative because now you have to think outside of the box,” especially on Zoom where you couldn’t truly see what it all looked like together. One of the hardest aspects of virtually choreographing, Jess said, was when she taught non-unison sections of choreography. Trying to visualize those moments without being in the actual dance formations in-studio was challenging.

To successfully teach a routine via Zoom, Jess found it crucial to be very clear when describing the choreography. All of a sudden in this new virtual world, right and left became a much more difficult concept because everyone was viewing the screen differently. It was extremely pertinent, especially for the younger students, to explain every detail of the movements, for example, “I am using my right arm to reach, I am using my left leg to come up to passé, my right leg is rond de jambe-ing around, my left arm is coming around from the back.” If there is any travelling at all, you need to be clear on which direction you are moving. Even as the teacher, Jess was in a tighter space at home and could not execute all the moves with as much energy as she normally would in-studio. This was the case for the dancers as well, so it was very helpful to talk through the choreography. Jess stressed how extra verbal communication is key when using Zoom to teach choreography: “As far as what you’re looking for, what leg you’re on, the music. As much as you can, be overly descriptive. I think that really helped.”

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Due to the occasional delay on Zoom, musicality was also a challenge to overcome. There were times when the dancers had trouble seeing the exact timing of the moves that Jess was demonstrating. It was difficult to critique as well, sometimes appearing as if the dancers were behind the tempo of the music. Be as clear about the counts as possible, and make sure the dancers are clear on how to count the music. If there aren’t counts, or you are struggling to see them and the dancers are having trouble hearing them, try to pick out specific lyrics.

To teach formations through the computer screen, Jess thoroughly explained to the dancers exactly who would be standing next to who, or explained that it would be the same formation they were taught in-person but more spread apart. This process varied with each age group. There were more complexities with the older girls’ dance formations. For the younger dancers, the spacing was not as complicated and more about who would be standing next to them and in which line.

When it came to cleaning and critiquing the dances, Jess did the best she could. She split the dancers into two groups and had half of them sit and watch while the other half danced, the same way they would if in the studio. Jess has been a dancer for almost her entire life and has been teaching for many years, and therefore, knows which technical mistakes tend to be issues. She made it a point to mention these habits as they are the most common. If they happened often in-studio, they were probably happening on Zoom even if they couldn’t be spotted as easily.

Above all, Jess felt it was really important to let the dancers know that nothing would be perfect, and to set that expectation from the start - that this was going to be a little different, and that was okay.

“Myself and a lot of dancers in general tend to be perfectionists and strive for high standards - and this year was very different. That’s the one thing I honed in with all my dancers and all my classes. It was really coming back to what dance is about - which is: expression, community, relationships, storytelling. There were no competitions. We were dancing at home with not enough space, and your dog running around, and your mom in the background making food, or whatever it was. So we all had to get a little creative. The performance was going to be a continuation of that same kind of vibe - that it was just a celebration of dance.”

As a teacher, you could always be more descriptive and understanding - but the biggest goal this year was finding ways to keep the students excited.

Despite all of the challenges to teach the routines virtually due to a pandemic, the formations, musicality, and overall performance at the show surpassed Jess’s expectations. She had no idea how it would go, but all of the elements came together better than she would have ever thought. She was extremely impressed by the dancers, their intelligence, and how they rose to the occasion and thought on their toes. “The show turned out great, the kids had a blast, and the parents were thrilled to have a show and to see their kids happy.”

Jess expressed that, as a teacher, you could always be more descriptive and understanding - but the biggest goal this year was finding ways to keep the students excited. They weren’t in the studio dancing with their friends, they couldn’t practice their switch leap anymore, they probably knew there wasn’t going to be a show on the big stage with the lights. Jess said there came a point when the life was being sucked out of the students, sharing that it was really hard to watch. She said, “You could feel it energetically, they were struggling mentally, emotionally. You don’t know what’s going on at their home, but you know everyone is struggling to a degree with something. Just keeping them excited whether that’s playing a game, or lightening the mood, or getting them to talk was definitely the most important thing this past year.” This experience taught Jess so much, especially the simple importance of connection, no matter your age.

For any choreographer preparing virtually for an in-person performance, Jess suggests, “Just to be patient. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with the dancers. Know that it’s not going to be perfect and it doesn’t need to be. Remember and go back to the roots of why you love dancing, and just let that fuel you. This is a very different time in life and in the world right now. And we need dance more than ever. … What story do we want to tell? Why do we love to dance? … What joy does this bring us? … Don’t worry if the formations aren’t perfect - if you didn’t get to do the same amount of tricks that you normally would, or the fancy lifts, or anything like that. Just dance. That’s really what it comes down to.”