What These 5 Pros Learned From Teaching Virtually During COVID-19
November 10, 2020

In March, most professional dancers suddenly lost the vast majority of their work. Left with lots of newfound free time—and, in many cases, a hole in their budgets—many took to Instagram, Zoom and other platforms to share their knowledge with summer intensive students, adult beginners, preschoolers and everyone in between.

For some, it was a chance to continue flexing teaching muscles they’d been developing over years. But for others, it was an unusual first-time teaching experience.

Dance Teacher talked to five pros about what it was like to go from dancing full-time to teaching virtually—and what they learned along the way.

Tiler Peck, New York City Ballet

Teaching has always been in NYCB principal Tiler Peck’s blood—her mother put her to work at her dance studio when she was just 12.

But with her full NYCB schedule and her many guesting gigs and entrepreneurial projects, Peck typically doesn’t have time to fit teaching into her professional life.

When the pandemic hit, though, Peck realized that she’d need to take class six days a week to stay in shape while quarantining in California. Since she was giving herself class anyway, it just made sense to start an Instagram Live series. “I also feel that exercise and movement are so important to our mental and physical well-being, so I wanted to help people feel connected in such a scary time, and motivate others to move,” she says. Turn Out With Tiler was born, and soon Peck found herself teaching nearly every day on her Instagram, often bringing in guest stars like Josh Groban and Debbie Allen, in addition to giving private lessons and classes with CLI Studios, New York City Dance Alliance and more.

Thousands of people from dozens of countries tuned in to Turn Out With Tiler, and, suddenly, the starry dancer known for her clever musicality and sprightly footwork was becoming known on the internet as “Ms. Tiler.”

“I get so many messages calling me ‘Ms. Tiler,'” she says. “I feel like now most people know me as a teacher and not as a dancer, which is so funny to me because I’m definitely a dancer first. I’m happy that maybe it’ll bring a new audience to watch NYCB.”

Though Turn Out With Tiler is now just twice weekly, Peck says she wants to find a way to continue teaching, even once in-person performances begin again. “I would feel like if I just stopped it completely, so many of the people who have been so loyal and so touched by these classes would be left in the dust,” she says.

Leslie Andrea Williams, Martha Graham Dance Company

Though Leslie Andrea Williams has been a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company for five years, she never felt comfortable teaching Graham because of the hyper-specificity of the technique.

But teaching virtually for the Graham summer intensive and to raise money for the company’s GoFundMe gave Williams a teaching crash-course that she says will pay off in her dancing.

“The Graham technique is so specific, and going back to basics is always a great thing to do,” she says. “You’re thinking more anatomically, more simply about executing the technique. It’s so easy to go into survival mode with Graham, but you don’t necessarily have to do that. When you have the tools, you can actually do less, so that’s something I’ll incorporate into my performing.”

Williams, who did hours of prep for each of her classes, also learned just how exhausting teaching—especially Graham—can be.

“I remember posting on my Instagram like, ‘Hey, I’ll be teaching for these dates,’ and [master Graham teacher] Miki Orihara was like, ‘That’s a lot of classes!,'” says Williams. “I didn’t realize how much it was until I was in it—I bow down to all the teachers who teach multiple Graham classes a day in person!”

Alexandra Hutchinson, Dance Theatre of Harlem

Before the pandemic, Dance Theatre of Harlem company member Alexandra Hutchinson had taught a few classes as part of her curriculum at Indiana University, as well as during DTH tours.

But in March, her teaching career exploded: Hutchinson found herself teaching for DTH, Brown Girls Do Ballet, Dance Dynamics, ARC Dance, City Dance and more, for students ages 4 to 18.

To boost her confidence, Hutchinson channeled her own favorite teachers—Robert Garland at DTH, Kee Juan Han at the Washington School of Ballet, Michael Vernon at IU. “All of my experiences come into this pot, and I choose what I want to share,” she says.

Teaching so many students who looked like her was exciting for Hutchinson, who didn’t have the same experience growing up. It also gave her a sense of her responsibility as a teacher. “You don’t know who is going to actually make it,” she says. “It could be the girl who is more shy in the back. So making sure you give everyone your attention, and making sure everything I say I really mean, because you never know what’s going to stick with people, and what will influence them and motivate them.”

Hutchinson feels a responsibility to be the best dancer she can be for her students, too. “In case they see me dance, I don’t want them to be like, ‘Hey, I thought she was good at this!'” she says with a laugh. “I want to dance like they’re watching me, and apply my own corrections that I’ve been giving in class. I told them they have to do it, so I should probably do it, too.”

Frances Samson, Limón Dance Company

Limón technique is known for being highly locomotive. So when the pandemic arrived, Limón company member Frances Samson was skeptical that it was even possible to teach it virtually.

But when Samson was encouraged to teach on the Limón Dance Foundation’s Instagram page, she dove into research and preparation to ensure she could give a class she was proud of. “I was taking every virtual Limón class, taking notes of how they were managing this new platform, taking video tutorials,” she says. “I videoed myself four times before I went online, I had discussions with former company members, and got feedback from my parents.”

For Samson, who had only been teaching for around a year, this preparatory time gave her an opportunity to anticipate the needs of her students (whose identities were largely a mystery to her, being on Instagram). “I didn’t know who my audience was, so I had to think of the corrections and feedback prior to class,” she says. “I had to use different sources of inspiration and imagery because what resonates with certain people may not resonate with others.”

Teaching virtually gave Samson new confidence as a teacher—and a desire to dive further into teaching once she can be in the studio again. “There’s so many challenges you face online that you don’t face in person,” she says. “I’m excited to get back to the studio with that newfound knowledge and be inspired by the energy of the room. I don’t think I realized how much we absorb from just being in the room with each other.”

Luciana Paris, American Ballet Theatre

Over the years, ABT soloist Luciana Paris has developed a reputation for being an unofficial coach within the company.

“Sometimes, when I know the person isn’t going to take it badly, I will go and be like, ‘Try this!'” she says. “And most of the time, it will work!”

In recent years, Paris’ keen eye has translated into success as an occasional teacher at summer intensives and as a private coach. But this past spring, with performances canceled for both herself and her freelance-dancer husband, Jonatan Luján, Paris found herself teaching more than ever, taking on a host of virtual coaching clients from her friend Amanda Cobb, a former ABT dancer and a faculty member at ABT William J. Gillespie School.

Soon, after seeing how the pandemic was negatively impacting so many students’ training, an idea was born: This summer, Paris, Luján and Cobb launched Dance Compañía, a virtual intensive featuring star faculty like Isabella Boylston, Sascha Radetsky and James Whiteside.

For Paris, teaching virtually during the pandemic has taught her to be a better communicator—whether talking about technique or just life. “When you are not in the studio, you have to try so much harder,” she says. “And also just to bring them hope, and to remind them that this is something that is going to pass. I always tell my students that we are so lucky that we can do what we love in these difficult times, even if it’s in the kitchen. And as soon as I say that, they g ‘Yeah…she’s right…'”

And though Dance Compañía may have been a product of the pandemic, Paris plans for it to last far beyond—hopefully as an in-person intensive sooner rather than later.

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