How This Teacher and Broadway Performer Helped Students Rediscover Their "Lost Love" of Dance Online
September 11, 2020

As a performing artist, I have lost two gigs due to the pandemic. Both would have started just weeks after New York City’s shutdown. The first was the leading role in one of my favorite musicals, playing opposite my significant other, and the second was an iconic featured role in a workshop for an upcoming Broadway show.

Dancing, acting, singing—they are not just a part of me, they are me. Because of the pandemic, however, my role as an artist is in question. Broadway is officially shut down until at least 2021, and regional theaters are struggling to stay afloat financially.

Lucky for me, I’ve always had a second passion, something that keeps me both inspired between gigs and grounded while in performances.

The daughter of a dance studio owner, I’ve taught dance since I was 14. I’ve always loved it. The problem solving, the planning, the excitement on my students’ faces when they finally understand how to do a tour jeté—I enjoy teaching as much as I do performing, especially my adult basic ballet class at Broadway Dance Center.

Deanna Doyle, wearing a microphone and a light blue tank top, demonstrates second position arms in an empty classroom

JayPlayImagery, courtesy Broadway Dance Center

On March 12, I didn’t realize that in-person classes would be put to a halt for months. I didn’t realize that my huge studio of dancers would be replaced by Zoom, or that artists would soon be rolling up rugs and moving tables to create their own makeshift studios. Roaming dogs would become a staple, as would the occasional cameos from roommates or family members. Wi-Fi problems would temporarily kick people out of class, sending everyone’s boxes to a different position on the grid. Holding my foot up to the screen would become the norm, as would tilting my laptop up and down to give better views of my shoulders or knees or hips.

Teaching from home was something I’d coveted in the past, envious of my voice teachers who could avoid the subway and spend more time with their puppy and cook dried chickpeas on the stove while at work. But dance is a horse of a different color. I was one of those weirdos who installed a ballet barre in my apartment years before COVID-19, so I didn’t have to creatively search for a stepladder or kitchen counter or oven door. (I did, however, have to reconfigure lamps and a desk and a few armloads of distracting knickknacks for a tidier background, as well as rig an unwieldy tower of wicker baskets atop my repositioned coffee table to become the podium for my Mac.)

Deanna Doyle stands behind a barre and demonstrates passe

JayPlayImagery, courtesy Broadway Dance Center

As early as June, BDC began filming some of its Zoom classes from the actual studios in midtown Manhattan, investing in large screens, lighting and cameras. I jumped at the chance to teach in the studio; I wanted to do anything to feel “normal” again.

But normal it is not. On teaching days, I arrive at BDC and get my temperature checked. I have quick and brief encounters with a staff member (maybe two, on a busy day)—six feet apart, of course. With the devastating exceptions of a wedding cancellation and a cat passing away, there is little news to discuss, other than what seems to be the impending doom of civilization. But, eager to have some bit of normalcy in our lives, we all have a smile on. At least I think we do. It’s hard to tell because we’re wearing masks.

My spirits are lifted higher when class starts, and I wave at what has become a group of recognizable bodies and backgrounds—Samantha H., disciplined in her pink tights and leotard, her feet blocked by a bed; Filip M., holding the bannister of his backyard deck, the top of his head usually cut off; and Otis Y., who has shown me more backgrounds and rooms than I can remember, but whose ankles and black canvas ballet shoes I’d now know anywhere.

These are just a sample of the die-hards, people I’ve never taught in person but who have become my new cluster of dancers.

Then there’s another cluster of people who take class with their video screens off—blank squares I try to ignore but can’t help but wonder about. Are they picking this up like everyone else? Are they struggling? Are they just sipping wine on their porch, watching us dance, like a new docuseries on Netflix?

After class I come back to my apartment. “It’s so hard,” I think. “I can’t hear them pant after petit allégro. I can’t smell their sweat.” (The latter of which is arguably a good problem to have, but at this point, aren’t we all craving things that were once less than optimal?)

My students have always told me that they attend my classes because I explain things so clearly and cheer them on with enthusiasm. I now wonder if I’m achieving any of this. Maybe it is all getting lost in space, somewhere between my end of the studio and the speakers and cables and cameras and microphones that connect me to their end of the world, wherever that may be.

Deanna Doyle, seen from the side, stands behind a ballet barre and demonstrates passe

JayPlayImagery, courtesy Broadway Dance Center

Am I helping them? Do they understand what I’m saying? Can they see my feet? These are the questions that keep me up at night. In fact, two weeks ago, these thoughts kept me up for so long that I almost flung my legs out of bed, threw on my legwarmers and started the walk to BDC right then and there at 2 am for my 4 pm class. Instead, I lulled myself to sleep, praying that I was helping them. That they did see my feet. That I still had a place in this world. It was the next day, after I got home from teaching and slumped into my chair, that I opened an email from Karole C., who had just taken my class.

I was so excited to have an interaction with one of my students outside of the small square on my screen that I nearly scooted my table out of the way to do a pirouette. Karole C. was no longer a woman who rond de jambed in her kitchen for an hour and then disappeared into thin air until the following week. She was now a woman who, according to her email, was a living, breathing human in Sacramento, California. She introduced herself and thanked me for all that she was learning. She explained that, nearing her 70th birthday, she had certain limitations and wondered if it was alright to continue taking my class, despite her inability to do everything.

She explained that the pandemic had led her to this new world of Zoom dance classes, a world that had breathed new life into hers. After 40 years away from dance, she—thanks to Zoom—had returned to the barre (or rather, the kitchen island).

Taking dance class again is like finding a lost love, she wrote. Maybe better! I cried when I read this. I’ve since learned that I have students taking my class from all over. From Sweden, Italy and Greece, they stay up at odd hours to roll up their rugs and dance with me.

Perhaps other teachers wonder the same things I wonder. Am I helping? Do they understand what I’m saying? Can they see my feet? Yes. I believe the answer is yes. If there is just one Karole C. out there whose world has changed in the slightest, who’s found her lost love, then isn’t that what dances classes are for?

I pray that theaters come back after the shutdown is over, that Broadway will come back with even more zest, and that its artists, like me, will have a home again. I pray that all the dance studios out there stay alive. I pray that the arts survive, and that we hold a space in our lives—and, more importantly, in our souls—for art.

After all, we are all artists, whether we know it or not. Some of us are lucky to have found our inner artist early in life; some of us spend a lifetime searching. And some, like Karole C., just needed the stillness of a pandemic to be reacquainted with her inner artist. Like a lost love. Maybe better.

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