From the Classroom

How local L.A. ballet schools stay “en pointe” during the COVID-19 pandemic

The art of ballet dancing has had to adjust to new forms and techniques as guidelines have shut down schools and studios.

Zooming in from living rooms, kitchens and garages, the next generation of ballet dancers are reevaluating what their craft means to them. The plight of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many dancers mirrorless and short on space, but the resilience of the community has shone through in groundbreaking ways.

Dancers have had to pivot and learn how to apply their rigorous training and artistry to an entirely new form of instruction. While ballet already requires immense dedication, renegotiating the requirements of classes, auditions and performances has provided insights into how dancers and instructors have been able to adapt, while learning something new along the way.

Like gyms and fitness centers throughout California, dance studios were among the earliest closures during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica was forced to close for 13 weeks and hold their classes online. The University of Southern California also closed its campus in the spring, forcing the school’s Kaufman School of Dance to move classes online, as well. The Colburn School’s dance conservatory in downtown Los Angeles had to hold all of their summer classes and auditions online, with their courses carrying on virtually into the fall.

Ballet studios in particular have had to arrive at new techniques to teach this exacting art form in unconventional dance spaces and conditions. Ballet students across Southern California Zoomed into their dance classes from home.

Instructors quickly ran into a number of issues. Where do you put a ballet barre in a house? How do you safely spin in pointe shoes on floors not designed for the dynamics of dance? The Colburn School responded by bulk ordering five-by-five-foot squares of Marley, a roll out vinyl dance flooring. Families then picked up the flooring to use at home for the dancers, according to the Dean of Colburn’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute Jenifer Ringer.

After the dancers had their five-by-five Marley at home, ballet teachers had to adapt floor combinations to fit within the 25 square-foot space.

“As one problem is addressed, there are always new challenges that arise,” Ringer said.

While dance teachers had to adapt to the spatial limitations, they also had to limit jumps.

“They have to be careful on their surfaces, because it’s not a sprung dance floor,” Ringer pointed out. “We don’t really jump that much in class. If we do give jumps, we tell them that they don’t have to do them if they don’t feel like they’re on a safe surface.”

In addition to being mindful about the dancers’ at home set ups, instructors also had to adjust their training techniques with the advent of Zoom classes.

In ballet classes, it is common for instructors to make physical adjustments on dancers to show them how postures and movements should feel, but instructors have had to rely more on their words to get their teaching points across.

“I’ve had to really verbalize more explicitly what I’m wanting them to do,” said Ringer. “If I’m trying to get their foot to do a certain thing I could take their foot and actually move it into the position I was trying to get them to feel.”

At the University level, Zoom is still an obstacle that instructors are battling.

“You can work on placement alignment, turnout rotation, placement of the arms and use of space, but you can’t work on musicality,” said Jackie Kopcsak, Associate Professor of Practice and Assistant Dean of USC’s Kaufman School of Dance. “And that is what’s been so hard for me, because I think that’s one of the things I’d like to focus on the most.”

While some schools are continuing online, others have shifted back to in-person classes with modifications to fight the economic hardships stemming from the pandemic.

Santa Monica’s Westside School of Ballet shifted to a hybrid model over the summer, including a socially-distanced summer session. The reopening began on June 15 with strict protocols in place that aligned with government guidelines for fitness centers. There was then a second shutdown announced on July 13. At that time, Westside received approval from the county to have an exclusive day camp that followed the safety protocols.

This model continued into the fall, where online classes are offered alongside some in-person classes. There are limited class sizes that keep students socially distanced. In-person classes take place in a studio with a garage door wall, creating an indoor-outdoor studio. The outdoor studio is equipped with elevated floors, ballet barres and a pop-up tent for coverage from the sun.

Notably absent — the mirrors. Dancers are often training without having access to immediate reflections of their postures and movements.

Another change to the standard ballet uniform: face masks. Dancers attending in-person classes can expect to train in their masks.

“While it is kind of sad to not be able to show off your facial expressions and to be able to breathe smoothly, dancing with the mask has been kind of a blessing in disguise as far as just pushing myself and training,” said Zane Tahvildaran Jesswein, a senior at Santa Monica High School, who trains full-time at Westside School of Ballet.

Jesswein said that training with a mask requires more stamina.

“I have a little more respect for [dancing with a mask on] after having to do months and months of it, and I’ve been more appreciative of the struggle, because you’ve got to focus your breathing,” Jesswein said. ”I’m, overall, not a fan.”

While the masks can be a bit of a nuisance for some dancers, the absence of the standard floor-length mirrors has helped Westside’s dancers progress in new ways.

“Ballet is a visual artform, so the tendency is to try to make it look a particular way, but it must come from how it feels inside to create how it will look,” said Francine Kessler Lavac, artistic director at Westside School of Ballet. “When you were in a class and you had mirrors, the tendency is to move in a superficial way to create what you hope it’ll look like. All of the students were able to find the internal place where it comes from internal to external.”

The mirrorless new circumstances have encouraged dancers to redirect their focus.

Dancer Renée Spaltenstein, 17, has shifted her focal point to the feel of her movements and alignment. Spaltenstein is an alumna from Westside School of Ballet and now trains at the School of American Ballet.

“Instead of looking in the mirror like, ‘Oh, I don’t look good,’ it’s just so nice to focus on how it feels and how to find the muscles without actually searching for them on the outside,” shared Spaltenstein.

Spaltenstein has used this time to work toward her individual goals.

“I’m surprised how I personally feel I’ve progressed,” she added, beaming. “My number one thing was always to gain strength and to not fall into my hyperextensions or let my core go, so working at home has really made me focus on feeling my muscles and made me focus on working on the smallest things that are important.”

While training is evolving, so are auditions. This summer, Trudl Zipper Dance Institute at Colburn held all their auditions online for the first time ever. The institute pre-screened applicant videos and then held a small class over Zoom for dancers in consideration. Ringer said the process worked well and she is confident about the dancers chosen.

Dancers have been courageous in their approach to the new format of classes and auditions, Ringer said enthusiastically. She does worry about the immediate job prospects of ballet students trying to get jobs straight from high school at ages 17, 18 or 19, because of the uncertainty surrounding the return of live performances due to the pandemic.

“I’m not sure if I need to start advising them to look for a good college program,” Ringer said. “There’s such great college dance programs out there that they could do for a few years, maybe to continue being productive and to be working on their degree while the dance world kind of figures out how to return from all of this.”

At the Kaufman School, graduating college seniors had to look for audition opportunities with companies abroad.

“Some recent alumni found jobs in Canada because they’re doing so much better with COVID-19 that they’re able to open up the theaters a little bit,” said Kopcsak. “Perhaps Canada and Europe may be options, but as far as the United States — we’re a long way out from returning to performances as normal.”

While live dance performance opportunities in the United States remain uncertain and limited, there are still plenty of auditions taking place for summer ballet programs and dance schools. With the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s likely that Zoom and video auditions will be the norm for the foreseeable future. Each audition has different requirements, which can be overwhelming, according to L.A. dancer Theresa Farrell.

“Different schools all want you to send something else,” Farrell said. “More and more of this is going to be happening on video submission and virtual live audition.”

Farrell, who recently left American Contemporary Ballet where she was an executive director, co-founder and dancer, has recently developed her own online ballet workshop with a focus on auditioning for camera. It launched in December.

Her online workshop is geared toward young dancers auditioning for summer programs and pre-professional schools, and prepares dancers for Zoom auditions. The workshop includes two mock interviews, memorization techniques and training on camera-placement and lighting.

Farrell begins by helping dancers identify all the schools and programs to which they’d like to audition. She has one-on-one sessions with individual students and tailors the program to suit them. For example, if a student has a goal of strengthening her ankles, Farrell will assign daily homework focusing on balancing exercises that focus on the ankles. She identifies the “three biggest challenges,” with her clients and works with them to create goals that “are achievable in three months.”

“I’m working with a girl right now, and by Halloween, her arabesque needs to be at 90 [degrees]. And that is a powerful tool in lockdown: setting deadlines,” said Farrell in October. “I’m creating deadlines for myself as well with my own dancing.”

Farrell helps students track their progress by having them create before and after albums. She said it is important to help her dancers see that arc of progress.

This is an important time to refocus not only on the technical aspects of ballet, but also the creative ones, Farrell emphasized, citing her own battle with COVID-19 and her creative metamorphosis around that experience.

While ill with COVID-19, Farrell created the choreography for the YouTube performance “Dust to Dust.” In the video, she performed a dance in a large field with Los Angeles buildings tucked away in the background.

“The whole piece starts lying down. I slowly start lifting my wrist, because that’s how I would check how I was feeling each morning,” Farrell said, recalling her perseverance.

Farrell said that being sick from COVID-19 and having to take time off from her everyday routines affected her approach to dance in a significant way.

“I feel like that’s really part of what saved me in that time,” Farrell said honestly. “What I really think has been powerful in this time is the power of creativity.”

With many productions cancelled or reworked, there is inevitable anxiety about the future of ballet.

With the precariousness around theater operations and career prospects, dancers have been forced to refocus their attention on their craft.

“I think it’s valuable for ballet dancers, especially, to really connect with what it is they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” said Kessler Lavac.

She emphasized the importance of dancers’ processes. “Are you waiting for those few moments to get the applause or are you really doing it from an open heart to truly experience the movement wherever you are?”

Lavac reported students are now encouraged to connect with the integrity of their purpose, given the unforeseen challenges they must overcome.

While training from home and performing virtually has presented countless challenges, there are also invaluable opportunities dancers and instructors are embracing.

“Take everything as an opportunity. If there’s a global pandemic and it’s forced you to stay home and work on your technique, then work with what you have and see what that can teach you,” Renée Spaltenstein said hopefully.

Dancers’ homes have provided domains, opening doors to new possibilities.

“We know now that you can take a class in your kitchen or from any time anywhere,” Kopcsak said with optimism.

It is often important to reframe perspectives in times of flux, in order to stay adaptable.

“I think all of these dancers should just give themselves grace and keep working on their art form, and remember that it’s an art form and not just technique. Hang in there,” said Ringer.

Although there is no promise of stability in the future job market for professional dancers, the humanity of the art remains resilient. Sometimes, what is left is self-fulfillment and the happiness people are able to create within their lives.

“If there’s no jobs, if we don’t know the future of the form, it’s like so many other hobbies that can bring you joy,” Kopcsak said. “It doesn’t really matter if there’s a financial reward at the end.”

“If it fulfills you and it’s something that’s soulful, then it’s worthwhile because it’s touching you,” she noted sincerely. “Because if you find that joy, you’re able to pass it along to somebody else.”

In the meantime, dancers can expect to adjust to the new virtual landscape.

Navigating Zoom auditions is an artform in itself, and must be approached with patience and unwavering dedication.

Despite the uncertainty clouding the near future, ballet dancers are honing in on what the art means to them. They are dedicating their everyday training to honor their personal goals, and with that they are progressing in exciting ways. The ballet world is pulling together in ways that prove just how strong the community really is.

“Now I can really find myself. I’m dancing at the beach and am back with the elements and am really grateful for every little thing,” said Spaltenstein with a huge smile. “As soon as going into a studio can be our everyday life, I think it’s just going to be amazing from what I’ve learned by not having it.”