When Christine Flores resumed in-studio rehearsals with Pam Tanowitz in November 2020, after months of Zoom training inside her apartment, she kept being told to broaden her stance. "During quarantine it was all about how big you could make a movement look in a small space, so that usually meant that my torso was moving bigger, but my legs stayed underneath me because I kept trying to stay in frame onscreen," she says. Back in the studio, she had to be reminded to take up space again.
While most dancers have been able to keep dancing from home through the pandemic, this change in setting has had an impact on their movement quality. As many make their way back to studios, the time spent in their living rooms often shows in their bodies and approach.
While dancing at home, Flores noticed that her effort tended to range between 60 and 100 percent, while in a studio she typically hovers more around 90 to 100 percent. Not having other people around for healthy competition made it harder to push herself for long periods.
She picked up cardio classes to make up for it (and the lack of jumping). But while those workouts helped her build strength, they didn't work her agility. "I've had trouble firing the smaller muscles," she says. "My short-burst stamina is great, but my long-duration stamina is kaput."
During quarantine, as teachers realized they couldn't sustain their students' attention online, many classes shrank to 45 minutes or so. Randi Sloan, director of High School Arts at The Dalton School and adjunct professor at Hunter College and New York University, has seen awkward environments and distractions keep dancers from giving their all. "They are less physically in touch with their strength," she says. "It's been hard for them to break a sweat and extend themselves, and, if they do let go, they might collide with a chair. One student broke her toe." She says that their movements have become more subdued and self-conscious.
She found that certain techniques, like William Forsythe's Improvisation Technologies, or tasks like tracing patterns with their bodies—where the direction and energy are clear—helped them move with emphasis and purpose, even in small spaces.
With teachers delivering classes on small screens, dancers have adjusted their focus downward and at closer range. Back in the studio, Flores found readjusting her gaze was confusing at first. "I'm not used to making eye contact or focusing my direction," she says.
On a positive note, Juilliard student Kailei Sin used the objects around her at home as focal points to improve the consistency of her turns. She maintained that consistency when she returned to the studio, but says she had to get used to having a mask block some of her peripheral vision.
Lost Partnering Coordination
When Lloyd Knight first stepped back into rehearsals with fellow Martha Graham dancer Xin Ying last winter, he hadn't partnered in almost a year. Partnering is not only about strength, but the coordination between dancers. "There were a few lifts that did go awry," he admits.
Knight had to get the sensation back in his body of just how much strength and physicality he would need for the lifts while at the same time making sure his body was safe. "We took every lift super soft the first time around before pumping up the energy the next rehearsals," he says.
Improved Stability and Placement
Early in the pandemic, Alicia Graf Mack, dean and director of The Juilliard School's dance division, realized it would be unrealistic and unsafe to deliver her usual ballet class online. So she adjusted her technique classes to coaching lessons on specific themes, such as the transfer of weight or balance. Like many teachers, instead of jumping, she switched to conditioning work and relevés. When the students returned to the studio in October, Graf Mack was surprised at how strong the dancers looked. She says that focusing on the work they could do in small spaces had prepared them to return with even greater core stability and alignment awareness.
Sin, who'd been struggling with a chronic back problem before quarantine, used the months at home to better understand her arabesque placement. She also set goals to work on her turnout and foot articulation. Now that Juilliard is back in the studio, she has found she can build upon all the slow work she did.
Flores says that she developed improved spatial awareness from dancing in such small, crowded spaces. "I had to dodge a piano, a table and even a Christmas tree at times while dancing," she says with a laugh.
Stronger Sense of Community
As many dancers learned, the catchphrase "Dance like nobody is watching" takes on a less joyful note when it's a reality. "There's nothing better than feeling the energy of people in class again," says Flores. "Feeling the community around you is something you can't really get in training at home, even though we try!"
Knight found it almost overwhelmingly joyous to be back in the studio with other dancers. At the same time, he is keenly aware every dancer has a different level of comfort regarding proximity and touch. "Now when I'm in a situation with other dancers around me, right after saying hello, I ask what they are comfortable with," he says.
When Juilliard students first walked back into the studio they wept, says Graf Mack. They finally found their home again. They were ready to move.
She thinks resilience is the biggest revelation for dancers over this time. "I'm in awe of the dancers making their way in this time," she says. "I'm just cheering everyone on. They are going to blow our minds."
Still Training from Home? Don't Get Injured
A positive of lockdown was the reduction in traumatic injuries amongst dancers working from home. However, physical therapist Andrea Zujko has seen an increase in chronic injuries, including postural stress injuries involving the lower back, neck and hips, thanks to more time seated in front of screens. She has also seen some chronic back, hip and ankle injuries exacerbated, and shin splints, jammed ankles and metatarsal injuries, thanks to moving on hard surfaces.
Zujko has a few recommendations for seeing you safely through your training regimen at home:
- Create a schedule. Go for consistency rather than loading—more is not always better.
- Mentally prepare yourself and your environment just as you would at the studio by minimizing distractions. Turn devices to "Do Not Disturb."
- Try alternate forms of cardio, such as jumping rope (in sneakers) or riding a stationary bike.
- Avoid repetitive jumping if you need to be barefoot or in ballet slippers on hard surfaces. If you can wear sneakers, make sure your shoes allow you to turn and pivot with minimal friction.
- Warm up and cool down to aid recovery and prevent muscle cramping.
- Be conscious of your posture while seated and working at screens. Think earlobes in line with the tips of your shoulders. Avoid slouching to one side or crossing your legs.
- Roll out, stretch, hydrate and rest. Self-care is just as important as active conditioning.