By Vincenzo James Harty
Dancing has kept me sane my whole life. Through my childhood, through applying to colleges, through the stress of freshman year classes, and adjusting to real school for the first time in my life (since I was homeschooled until college), ballet has been there.
That’s something you learn from ballet, from the ever-the-same order of exercises in class: plié, tendu, dégagé, ronde de jambe, fondu, frappé, développé, grand battement, stretch. And that’s also something ballet has given me — a consistent presence in my life, supporting me.
As the pandemic started last year, I was so thankful for the speed with which my local company made classes available on Zoom, and grateful to the director as well for letting me use one of the empty studio rooms not just to take my Fordham classes but also to take ballet. Every day throughout all of March and April — alone by myself in a large empty mirrored studio– I listened to scratchy piano music as my teacher’s voice yelled through the far reaches of cyberspace.
As I started working with the Hampton Ballet Theatre School last May, I was excited not just for learning more about the ins and outs of running a school, but also for the opportunity to engage in more teaching . I had been teaching classes on and off for several years at the company, but I was eager to be working more consistently. Teaching a ballet class requires so much preparation. Even those teachers who don’t write out every single exercise in longhand before class (and I was one of those in the beginning) still need to know their planned music inside and out. It can take so little for a class to go awry, so I spent time preparing to teach the best class possible.
But what I certainly wasn’t prepared for was having to teach classes over Zoom. The first month or so was horrible, filled with computer shut-offs (who knew Zoom drained so much battery?), unmuted snippets of twenty different kid’s noisy home lives, weird camera angles that either showed me just feet or just head but never a whole body, or even better, an off-camera and no interaction whatsoever. And although things got better as we all became adapted to the medium, there was definitely something missing, a personal connection that is such an important part of dance.
As classes were slowly allowed to restart in-person meetings in August, I saw the lingering after-effects of all those hours of zooming. Kids were shyer, had picked up so many bad habits from being by themselves instead of with a teacher for months. The process over the past six months of slowly becoming reacquainted with how to dance together, how to live in real time and not on the artificial reality of Zoom, has certainly been one of my favorite parts of teaching. Talking with these kids, you realize how vital in-person instruction really is for children and young adults, how important social interaction in general is. The few children who are still entirely on Zoom I have such difficulty in connecting with: A— who always keeps her camera off, G— who listens but seems so disinterested, so disconnected from class, V— who has lost any attention span and just stares into space for most of the class.
But I love teaching all of these kids, even the ones on Zoom. Watching them progress daily, watching first this one then that one successfully learn a new step, is all incredibly fulfilling.
I haven’t only been teaching dance. In December, realizing my family’s difficult financial situation, I put an advertisement in the paper offering piano lessons. I now have twelve piano students, all under eleven, who I see half an hour each every week. This has been another joy, if also for some reason ten times more stressful than teaching ballet classes. Being solely responsible for these children’s musical education gives me more anxiety than the more collaborative atmosphere of the dance studio. Still, teaching these children, really learning with them, as I learn each week how one actually teaches piano (spending time studying online, creating games, making lesson plans) has been such a joy.