Posted on December 8, 2020
There is a moment in every ballet class when your serotonin levels hit a peak. You’ve survived the prolonged ache of adagio, managed to not fall out of your pirouettes and somehow your calves are still functional after petit allegro. Finally, it’s time for grand allegro. You feel buoyant as you waltz across the room in a series of balancés, before a quick enchaînement gives you the momentum to soar across the studio in a jeté. For us, the grand allegro section of class is akin to flying – it is the most exhilarating feeling.
A pre-requisite of dancing is the space for grand allegro. With the lockdown last month, dance studios across the country closed once again, and recreational ballet classes moved online. Adult ballet enthusiasts have had no choice but to make do, dancing in small rooms, obstructed by furniture. This can be very confining in comparison to a ballet studio, which is typically about half the size of a small tennis court.
Ballet is challenging enough, without having to worry about kicking the kitchen counter or slipping as you pirouette. For freelance dancer Monique Williams, who has tried to maintain her schedule of five classes a week, lockdown ballet can be exasperating. “Having to move things around can sometimes make dancing in small spaces feel more stressful than not doing it; there are so many considerations,” she says. On hearing the news that studios were closing in early November, she burst into tears, experiencing a sense of panic “knowing ballet classes were not going to be there”.
Another dancer, Yvonne de Camp, who has a background in dance science, relates that she immediately felt like she was being forced back into prison. She explains, “For me, there is no well-being without ballet. It’s like being on cloud nine, it’s my happy drug.”
For many of us, the activity is a welcome escape from quotidian challenges. Mastering ballet technique and quickly picking up combinations requires intense concentration. This explains why we often feel accomplished, our minds fired up after class. Williams explains: “You can go into class feeling awful but you forget what’s going on elsewhere and emerge feeling more energised, like you’ve achieved something.”
With lockdown, ballet classes have had to adapt, moving onto platforms like Zoom. This presents considerable challenges. The lack of proper dancing space is just one factor that renders the online ballet class experience inferior. Jacob Modak, a writer who started dancing two years ago, says: “In the studio, you can push yourself harder. The environment is designed for you to exert yourself safely with a teacher.” The nature of online classes – the way Zoom displays images of participants or trying to find the right angle to position your laptop camera – means that it is often hard to receive individualised corrections the way you would in the studio. For Modak, online classes are simply “no replacement” for those in the studio.
Indeed, lockdown ballet has also been challenging for teachers. Amber Doyle, who teaches at Pineapple Dance Studios, normally has around 20 students in the studio, but she has about 35 to look after on Zoom. Teaching online is a tricky act to balance: “You’re thinking of the steps, you have to flip the screen on Zoom… you just can’t monitor everyone. Some people will get the sequence, while others can’t, because not everyone is a visual learner, and they can’t physically follow your movement the way they can in the studio.”
There are also what Modak calls “the intangibles”, namely, the energy that comes with dancing with others in a shared space. It is the sense of camaraderie you feel after you sneak a peek in the mirror and realise everybody is dancing in unity to the music. Dance is, after all, a social activity. In his book The Dance Cure, dance psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt explains that we feel more affinity with people and trust them more when we move in synchrony.
The sore lack of human connection is the biggest distinguishing factor between physical and online ballet classes, and why we feel less good after the latter. Especially when accompanied by rousing live piano music, “Everyone’s synced up, dancing together, and it feels like you’re riding a wave the whole class. You come out feeling buzzed. You just don’t have that online,” Modak laments.
Although lockdown ended last week, not all studios have reopened. Dancers are certainly looking forward to ballet again. “It’s just not the same thing, is it?” remarks De Camp, who finds that dancing with others inspires her to work harder. “Having other people there, smiling, dancing together to the music – without that, ballet feels a little flat.”
Photograph: Gez Xavier Mansfield.