The Show Must Go On: Dancers’ virtual studio experiences during COVID-19


(Photo courtesy of Tamara Houck)

Tamara Houck participating in a virtual ballet class from her bedroom.

Elizabeth Alton

Every day after school Junior Tamara Houck transforms her bedroom into a dance studio. She rolls out a Marley floor on top of the wood of her bedroom, scrubs it with rubbing alcohol to make sure it isn’t slick, and sets up her barre on top of it. Next, Houck puts together a small table with some light snacks and her laptop, meticulously arranging it to maximize the effectiveness of her Zoom camera.

“Dancing is one of those things… where you don’t need a lot to succeed,” Houck said. “For example, if you’re playing the violin you need the violin to make the art, but with dance, you are the art. When you’re dancing nothing else matters… you’re just dancing your heart out.”

For Houck, who dances at Ballet Hispanico, dance can be therapeutic and a chance to escape from the outside world. 

Many of WESS’s dancers see their studios as a place where they can focus on movements instead of words and perfect their craft. These dancers had grown accustomed to running back and forth from their school classes to their dance studios, home, and then repeat.

But when COVID hit, everything changed. Now living rooms and bedrooms have become dance studios, and Zoom has become the music.

A New Routine

For Junior Pia Sharma, who dances with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, going into the studio is now a rare occasion.

“[Before COVID-19] it was so much better,” Sharma explained. “I would go in four days a week… Now I have two days during the week, 4:30 to 7:35, but on Zoom, and on Saturdays I have three hours in the studio, which looks like five kids in an entire studio which used to have like 30. Now we have little boxes with tape and we can’t really leave the tape boxes… and we’re all wearing masks.”

With Mayor De Blasio’s recent announcement that New York City Public schools will be closing, Sharma is worried that she might lose that one day in the studio.

Junior Maria Conaty, who dances with the school of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, misses performing in person as well. She and her peers alternate going into the studio every two weeks.

“I definitely miss performing because the theater is closed,” Conaty said. “Dancing in the classroom is pretty much performing now, which is such a weird feeling.”

A Different Tempo 

Sharma has also felt the contrast between a physical and remote learning environment.

“It’s so weird… dance is really about expression and showcasing your energy, so it’s hard when you’re dancing in your room at home…” Sharma said. “Your movement is significantly impacted by the confinement of your living space, and you’re not able to express yourself fully. So it sucks, but I mean it is really the best we can do with what we’ve got…”

Houck has felt a similar change in energy when she dances at home.

“When you’re in a room all together, you feel that unity, the energy that everyone else gives off, and it adds almost a different vibe to your dancing,” Houck said. “By being in a room with everyone else you learn from watching each other, and you correct yourself based on what you see with other people, but on Zoom, you don’t have that peer review.”

For Conaty though, Zooming in from home has brought some advantages as well.

“Mentally it’s easier because it’s less stressful to be in your own house than a studio with a lot of other people around you, so it helps me express myself more,” Conaty said.

Skipping a Beat

Learning on Zoom has also presented some challenges for students.

For Sharma, it’s the fact that because Zoom videos are mirrored. Implementing directional instructions, a skill that’s essential in dance, is now much harder.

“If you hold up your right hand in the camera, the left side will show on the other person’s screen,” Sharma said. “So when we have to learn a combination or even just a simple step, we have to learn it on one side, or learn it on the other side, but it’s hard to keep track of what is what because it’s reversed.”

For Houck, who is learning a new style of dance over zoom, getting corrections has been critical.

“There are a lot of difficulties with making sure you get the whole idea of the step rather than just one side of it.”

And when she does get corrections, Houck explained that they can be hard to implement.

“You don’t get as many corrections because the teachers aren’t able to see you as well, and they can’t physically touch you to correct you, they have to use their words.

Because her living room is the biggest space in her house, Contay has set up for her online dance classes there on the weeks she doesn’t go in person. But there can be physical ramifications to a lack of studio space as well.

“I’m making it work, but dancing on a carpet is different than dancing on a sprung floor, so injuries are very possible,” Conaty said. “I’ve gotten a lot already.”

Conaty’s dance studio has been working on advertisements and documentaries while they haven’t been able to perform in person. On December 18th, a documentary called On Pointe about the School of American Ballet, one of Conaty’s studios, will premiere on Disney Plus.

Curtain Call

Despite the challenges, these dancers intend to keep on going no matter how long the pandemic lasts.

“[Dance] is a good way to express myself without words because I’m not really a talking type of person, so I could be shy, but dance is always there physically, and dance is like a breath of fresh air…” Conaty said.

Conaty, as well as Sharma and Houck, don’t plan on losing that feeling anytime soon. Despite the pandemic, the show will go on for these WESS Dancers.