Pia Catton Has Seven Tips for Taking Online Ballet Classes
Pia Catton has written about dance for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Sun. She is a recreational ballet student who recognizes the truth in Clive Barnes' observation: "The scariest three words in the English language are 'adult amateur ballet.'"
The online dance world is enjoying a spectacular boom, with an endless variety of classes streaming daily. But just like that moment when you face an all-you-can-eat buffet, smart choices matter. Realistically, it can't all be good. Or good for you!
That said, I explored the buffet in depth during a week’s vacation: I took seven ballet classes and observed about 10 others in various genres.
Finding the right classes presented new challenges. Online platforms are not equally useful, and the class options are dizzying, especially when the "I don't want to humiliate myself" barrier is gone. (Who's looking?!)
After a week of living-room barre, I discovered a few things. So here are seven keys to navigating online ballet in the age of quarantine.
1. Beware of professionals doing public workouts
Professional ballet dancers are streaming their barre routines regularly. But if you believe the "dancers are athletes" concept, consider this: Would you shadow Serena Williams' workout to improve your weekend tennis? No way! Watching professionals is gorgeous. Often instructive and inspirational. But watching is what we do as audience members. Unless you're equally proficient or a pro is truly teaching class, you're probably better off with a teacher at your level.
2. Know your level.
It's tempting to strive upward. You may be ready. But the risks are bad habits, injury, and frustration. One of my regular teachers, Barry Kerollis, emphasizes strength and maintenance in his online classes. And that message helped me set new personal goals for ballet: Address my weaknesses, unlock something new, and tackle old corrections.
3. Forget your right and left. (You will anyway.)
Center combinations on virtual platforms are a trip through the looking glass. Which is my right or my left? Even the teachers mix it up. Now's when the academic terms for ballet positions, like "croisé devant," make more sense than ever.
4. Use Instagram Live sparingly
Instagram Live classes feel fast and in-the-moment. Teachers give combinations quickly, then run to and from the iPod, eating up the allowable 60 minutes. Use these classes if you love the teacher or the community; The infamous Madame Olga keeps the pace and the laughs going.
5. Zoom classes get a teacher's eyes on you.
Zoom was certainly not designed for dance, but it's a decent solution if you want a teacher's guidance, especially for private lessons. I took Jamie Salmon's ballet class at Broadway Dance Center and a "Chicago" movement class from Pittsburgh's Attack Theatre. If it's a big, open class and you are trying to work on something, send the teacher a note in "chat" at the start to ask for advice. Also, always sign up early: The studios need the time to send the links.
6. Make recorded classes your best friend.
If you believe that the route to improvement is repetition and investigation, trust in recorded classes. On YouTube, you can scroll back and repeat, or skip ahead. Miami City Ballet's Kathryn Morgan had already mastered online teaching and has a strong YouTube library. Ballet Nova's Matthew Powell posts regular classes to FacebookLive that can be repeated later.
7. Just try.
The silver lining of this era is that classes are discounted or donation-based, and you don't have to travel. It's a great time to try something new. I gave Cecchetti a try again after years. (Alexis Branagan of New York Theatre Ballet via Zoom teaches a solid intro class.) Also, don't be put off by written descriptions. Dance Theatre of Harlem posted a "Contemporary Ballet Barre" class by alumna Charmaine Hunter, but I'd call it something like "Invigorated Classical." And New York City Ballet says "Wednesday with Wendy" is "ballet-inspired movement," but when I took it, Wendy Whelan taught a straight-up beginner ballet class. Remember though: gambles don't always pay off. I flaked during some modern classes. And I tried following ballet stars at barre, then I retreated to the couch. Which was a better choice than the emergency room.