Backview of a large group of students in a class at the Martha Graham School

For a dancer, summer often has a very particular focus: extra training. Summer dance programs can shape young artists, build friendships, and open up a broader world outside of a dancer’s own city. For many, a typical summer is full of dance intensives, workshops, and nationals. So what is a dancer to do in the age of the coronavirus pandemic? Luckily for the dance community, it is full of brilliant innovators who have a solution. Online classes and summer training experiences are popping up across the country, each with their own unique approach.

"It is worth the challenge knowing the responsibility we have in guiding young artists toward their dreams.' - Angelica Stiskin, Joffrey Ballet School

Jennifer Patten, Head of School, The Martha Graham School, New York City, NY

After a spring of online classes at The Martha Graham School, Head of School, Jennifer Patten, had no worries about the benefits of their online summer intensive stating that “virtual training – while not ideal – can still be very effective and sought after, and we have a means by which to meet dancers’ interest through our programming.” The Martha Graham School’s strong lineage – that flows directly from Martha Graham herself – has always shone through in its faculty, and not even the coronavirus pandemic can slow that legacy down. 

Patten notes, “People still seek artistic outlets, and our intensive is designed to be adapted for any space – from tiny apartments to open fields – so that no matter what stage of reopening dancers are in, they can participate.” The beauty of a codified technical offering like the Graham Technique, is that the movement can be tailored to fit any space while still instilling the correct training. Patten mentions focusing on the plentiful seated floorwork, standing in place progressions, and other adaptations that can be made to serve a small space. 

The Martha Graham School has survived as long as it has due to brilliant artistry and innovation. This era in time is no exception for Patten and the School. Live classes will be recorded and saved, to accommodate different time zones and life schedules. Thanks to the Internet, and Patten’s willingness to adapt to it, students all over the world will have incredible accessibility to one of America’s foremost dance training programs.

Dance students in a class room, crouching and holding their face with their left hand.
BODYTRAFFIC Summer Intensive 2019
photo by Guzman Rosado, courtesy of BODYTRAFFIC
"We can make all that happen, it just takes adapting, and some determination to make it happen…" - Lillian Rose Barbeito

Lillian Rose Barbeito, Artistic Director of BODYTRAFFIC, Los Angeles, CA

BODYTRAFFIC’s Lillian Barbeito is no stranger to online dance classes. As a professor at Loyola Marymount University’s dance program, Barbeito pivoted to the online format with her college students back in March. Since one of her classes was on contact improvisation, she had to quickly adjust to teaching in our now contact-less dance world. “It took a lot of brainstorming and thinking outside the box,” she notes. “But if you can teach contact improv online, you can teach anything!” With an innovative and top-tier faculty, BODYTRAFFIC’s Teen Intensive promises to be a one-of-a-kind experience that fosters individual artistic growth.

BODYTRAFFIC has a unique perspective when it comes to its students, with Barbeito noting that the company’s dance education centers on helping students flourish as the whole and complete artists that they already are. “The approach…permeates through our education about acceptance, self-care and love. Our intensives really encompass all of that, whether they are in person or online.” Barbeito has also woven in classes that explore the creative process and designed space for a free-flowing exchange of ideas between teachers and students. Considering that, the lack of front and back rows in an online format seems made for an equitable mind like Barbeito’s. She looks forward to getting to know each dancer on an individual level as well as having the privilege of seeing them in their own space. It can add a layer of vulnerability that would otherwise be absent.

Barbeito’s hopeful and ambitious spirit shone out through the discussion, and her final statement was inspiring:  “Even in these tumultuous times, art and dance, more than ever can bring people together, and even if it’s via Zoom, we can conjure up joy, playfulness, consideration for others, equality, inclusion, and a deep reverence for dance. We can make all that happen, it just takes adapting, and some determination to make it happen… There is magic that takes place and that’s what I’m hoping for.”

Angelica Stiskin, Artistic Director, Joffrey Ballet School, New York City, New York

By curating a compelling combination of concert and commercial dance, Joffrey Ballet School’s SPECTRUM online intensive promises to meet the varied needs of today’s dancers in one program. Angelica Stiskin, Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet School, emphasizes versatility as one of the most valuable skills that will be honed in their online offerings.

Often, when Joffrey is mentioned, ballet is the first dance discipline that comes to mind. Stiskin’s program turns that stereotype upside down. Hip-hop, theater dance, jazz, floor-work, improvisation, social dance, acting, and lyrical will all be covered with the same attention to detail and technical prowess that Joffrey’s ballet studies are known for. This will go far in creating a new generation of well-rounded dancers. As Stiskin states, “Art is meant to help us swallow reality. SPECTRUM will provide the hope for how we deal with our lives following these moments of adversity. Then, they [the students] can take on the complexities of the dance world with confidence.” 

While Joffrey’s acclaimed faculty will certainly be able to bring “NYC expertise to homes all over the world,” it is also worth noting that the online format will allow the participants to gain the knowledge without the hassle and cost of traveling and temporarily residing in New York City. Small, home spaces and remote online learning may have their drawbacks, but Stiskin says it best: “It is worth the challenge knowing the responsibility we have in guiding young artists toward their dreams.”

DJ Smart teaching a class with two assistants.
DJ Smart teaching - photo by Joe Duarte, courtesy of ASH Productions
"We can do the same thing that we’re doing with a wider reach and a larger net" - Braham Logan Crane

Braham Logan Crane, Executive Director, Artists Simply Human Productions

Braham Logan Crane, Founder and Executive Director of Artists Simply Human (ASH), is taking on the impressive task of hosting a Virtual Nationals. Although a virtual dance experience may not have the same physical human interactions, Braham has worked tirelessly to create a sense of connection and community for ASH’s online Nationals. Through a combination of prerecorded and livestream interactive experiences, Crane seeks to give dancers those missing pieces. Events like the Virtual Dance Party, hosted by ASH Faculty, will certainly help to recreate the live convention atmosphere.

“A nationals event for me is its own standalone event,” says Crane. He has ensured that dancers are still able to compete, audition to receive scholarships, join the ASH Company, or be an ASH Assistant. “There are a large number of dancers and studios who never even got to the stage this year,” Crane laments. “We’re giving away free photos and videos from the past two seasons, so anybody who wants to register for nationals can. They can even submit a number from last year.” To further the experience, ASH is sending all registrants a swag box, with their wristband, an audition number, and even light up glasses for the Virtual Dance Party.

Crane looks forward to expanding ASH’s excellent dance education into parts of the world that would normally never get the chance. As he puts it, “We can do the same thing that we’re doing with a wider reach and a larger net.” It takes a bold person to move a massive Nationals experience into a dancer’s living room, but Crane is an innovator. He is determined to do it, and do it well. 

Mike Esperanza, Artistic Director, BARE Dance Company, New York City, NY

Mike Esperanza’s BARE Dance Company was not even going to hold an intensive this year, until he realized that he had developed an important skill set during the quarantine that he wanted to share. In the Virtual Experience, Esperanza will offer not only technique classes, but also a Digital Lab to instruct dancers on how to use their devices for dance film and video production. He hopes to get his students to utilize their new dance partner -- their webcams -- much in the same way a videographer might shoot a dance film. The result will be a livestream performance via YouTube at the end. Esperanza put a lot of research into how to produce a live dance show in multiple spaces at once. “We wanted to give dancers a chance to learn not just this kind of work, but to learn the behind the scenes of it too. We have a lot of knowledge to offer,” he states.

His awareness of the newfound importance of the camera angles in daily quarantine dance life continued when noting the challenges of learning digitally. It is no secret that learning off of a screen can definitely slow down the absorption rate of material, so in order to give his students the best possible information in real time, Esperanza utilizes two cameras to provide an upstage and a downstage view. He even created a YouTube tutorial to teach other educators how to best imitate his two-camera set up. “When you’re taking class, what is it that makes you feel the most comfortable? It's because you’re standing behind somebody and learning in that way!” he points out.

Armed with strong technical and logistical knowledge that he is ready to give to his students, Esperanza is taking a deliberate and intelligent angle on a summer dance intensive that might not even have existed if it were not for the coronavirus pandemic. He is a shining example of constant ingenuity in the face of adversity. 

Young dance students in a class room, center student is wearing a red long sleeve t-shirt with Backhausdance written on.
Backhausdance students
photo by Emily Duncan, courtesy of Backhausdance
"There is something about exploring dancing on a vulnerability level in your own space" - Jennifer Backhaus, photo by Emily Duncan

Jennifer Backhaus, Artistic Director of Backhausdance, Orange County, CA

Similar to many directors this past spring, Jennifer Backhaus of Backhausdance, was faced with a decision when her university venue closed its doors in March. She created a virtual intensive because she believes there is still so much to be learned. By keeping her class sizes small, and developing one-on-one mentorships with the students and the faculty, she hopes to emphasize safe dance practices and tailored, personal feedback. Each week involves a project that culminates with a virtual watch party. 

She looks at the loss of the social component of a summer intensive as a positive, rather than allowing it to sadden her. “There is something about exploring dancing on a vulnerability level in your own space,” she muses, hopeful that this will encourage her students to take greater risks since the pressure of the mirror is off. 

Backhaus has an impressive and thoughtful mindset. Her consideration for her students comes out clearly, and she has gone above and beyond to ensure that they are being cared for artistically as well as physically. I appreciated her attention to safe dance practices for non-dance spaces, and her willingness to have a Physical Therapist involved. Backhaus’ deeply personal touch is evident. “We really want a meaningful connection with people. We want to help them open possibilities for themselves in different ways. We do it really well in person, and we’re looking to do it really well virtually.”

In Conclusion…

Dancers are natural problem solvers, whether on the stage or in the studio, and it was truly a gift to listen to these dancer-directors share their unique perspectives and programs. The global reach of an online dance intensive is one of the greatest things to come out of this dreary spell in quarantine, giving dancers the opportunity to connect with organizations and teachers that were previously inaccessible due to geographic boundaries. Thanks to artists and directors like Jennifer Patten, Lillian Barbeito, Angelica Stiskin, Braham Logan Crane, Mike Esperanza, and Jennifer Backhaus, no one has to take the summer off if they don’t want to. 

Join one or several of these amazing programs this summer:

top image: Martha Graham School Students - photo by Elisabeth Ajtay, courtesy of Martha Graham School

About the author

Caitlin, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, holds a BFA in Dance Performance and a BA in Economics from Southern Methodist University. After graduation, she performed and taught in and around the Chicagoland area before the windchill drove her west. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California, where she is a company member with Seda Aybay’s Kybele Dance Theater. When not rehearsing, touring, and performing with Kybele, you can find her either teaching ballet and modern dance at several local studios, or battling traffic on the 405. She is deeply passionate about all facets of the art form of dance.