Dancing Digitally: Teaching Online Dance Classes and Performing Online

I started writing this post like a million years ago and never posted it. So… here you go! Some observations and lessons learned from teaching dance online and watching and participating in online dance performances. This is not a technical post.

Teaching

I started teaching online because I was stressed out and wanted to dance with people. ÂŊ\_(ツ)_/ÂŊ Then I discovered that I really liked it and decided to pursue it more intentionally.

From April to May 2020 I taught donation-only Zoom classes that were a lead-and-follow combo. I didn’t have the technology set up the way I wanted it and felt bad charging full class fees for an inferior experience. Once I had a decent setup, I started doing paid Zoom classes and free live streams.

Negatives

  • Less feedback from students. Although students can provide verbal feedback (and boy am I glad when they do), you can’t “feel” questions like you can in physical space. It’s also more difficult to see students’ movements and where sticking points are. You really have to anticipate questions and throw out extra information “just in case” people need it.
  • Difficulty building a feeling shared space. The pre-class chat that happens organically in meatspace needs to be somewhat engineered in virtual space. I take everybody off mute at the beginning of class to encourage them to chat. I also make sure to say hello to each person as they log on and ask how they are doing–I don’t keep them on the hook for long if they don’t seem to want to talk but everybody hearing each other’s voices seems to encourage more conversation in general.
  • You have to demo the whole time (at the beginner level) and rely much more heavily on verbal cues. I am only starting to teach Dance Cohesion so I think over time people will become familiar enough with the drill style that I can tell them to keep going while I stop and watch the screen. But right now, as people are learning, I have to demo the entire time, which makes it difficult to see how the students are doing.
    • February 2021 update: After a few sessions of Cohesion, my group got the hang of the drill style and I was able to get them started, tell them to continue, and then stop drilling myself to get a closer look at the screen and provide feedback. So–it worked!
  • Extra admin. I still haven’t figured out a good way for people to sign up for class that doesn’t involve me manually sending out a link or posting it in a Facebook group. I’m trying to switch over to Facebook so at least I don’t have to maintain an email list. I know certain services exist to send links for individual classes but I also want to offer “class cards” where people purchase multiples. Right now I have people PayPaling me and I put the link in a private Facebook group. I’m sure some tech startup is working on a solution for us right now.
    • February 2021: I still haven’t figured this out. But I haven’t looked recently as classes have been on a bit of a hiatus.
  • Technology. It’s fine 95% of the time but there’s always that 5% where things just aren’t working and nobody can figure out why.

Positives

  • Flexibility!! I can charge whatever I want, schedule class whenever I want, teach whatever topic I want.
  • Lower costs (on average). A Zoom license is $14.99/month. I invested several hundred dollars in some streaming equipment up front, but you don’t have to. Over time, the cost of the equipment is much less than an rental.
  • Accessibility. Students who otherwise may not be able to access me can do so. I also think that people are more likely to maintain a consistent dance practice if they don’t also have to commute on top of it.
  • Less crap. Negotiating with studios, commuting, dealing with scheduling, getting kicked out of my room because some guy at the gym didn’t put me in the right calendar, etc, gone! All I have to do is turn on my ‘pooter.
  • Student comfort. Each person is in their own space, which is a little less intimidating than a group setting.

Both/Neither

Going along with the need for more verbal cues, I have also found it useful to be a lot more explicit about what we’re doing and in what order. For example, letting people know that we’re going to go over a certain technique; drill it X times; followed by a time for questions. I try to do this whenever we have a class transition (I don’t lay out the entire class at the top of the hour–who would remember??). I see this as a positive because it forces you to get really clear about what you’re teaching but I could see how somebody with a very free-flow teaching style might see this as a negative.

Even if you don’t feel a need to explain things in this way, I do think it’s useful to give students a heads up that there will be a question time later. Then students don’t have to stress out about finding the “perfect” time to unmute and ask a question–they can do it at question time.

Class vs. Live Stream

In a standard class, you are in a “room” (be it Zoom, Skype, whatever); you can see and talk to your students and they can talk to you. Due to the separation and general lack of class chatter, it almost feels like a performance in a way. Sometimes people have questions and you can react to those. In my opinion that nobody asked for, any “real” class situation that involves individualized feedback should be a paid experience (I’m sure somebody can come up with exceptions, but in general I think this is true).

The live stream is completely uni-directional. You can’t see or hear anybody. Viewers can type questions but there is a lagging effect and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what people are really asking when you have to rely entirely on typing. It feels very much like a long performance. I try to keep it fun for me and not too heavily technical. I actually really enjoy doing the streams–I like coming up with the combos and it’s kinda fun in a way to just blast them out onto the internet without caring if anybody likes them (I mean, OK, I care a little). For something like this where I basically do whatever I want and provide very limited (if any) feedback, I feel OK making it free (a little more on that below).

Random Being on the Internet Thoughts

When I started doing the streams, I watched a lot of other streamers and content creators. From that perspective: we are competing with the entirety of the internet where basically everything is free. I bring this up because there has been a little bit of criticism from people who don’t like the idea of providing free dance content online. I just don’t think it’s realistic to use the same model online as we do in physical space.

I see a lot of people doing the free-to-paid pipeline idea where the free stuff is basically establishing a brand and advertising for the paid stuff. It makes sense to me–once I know I like somebody I’m more likely to purchase something from them even if I could get it from somewhere else. You gotta get people hooked on YOU. I mean, just look at online fitness people–you can find all that stuff for free basically anywhere but I definitely paid money to access Meg Squats’ training program because I love Meg Squats.

I’m wondering if there is a way to leverage other aspects of online content e.g., monetization and merch, like professional streamers do (my channel is way too small to even start thinking about that but it’s fun to imagine). There is an underserved population out there that (even in non-COVID times) just can’t afford to pay for these types of classes and I think it’s nice that we can offer them some content too. But I also recognize and agree that we should be compensated for our time and expertise. Dance teachers vs. video game live streamers isn’t really an apples to apples comparison but maybe there is some hybrid we could come up with.

Performance

I have watched more haflas in the past few months than possibly the last five years! My friends and I have tried to recreate the social aspect of these shows by hopping on a separate video call and watching the performance at the same time. I have really enjoyed that part of it and I think it makes it more like a “real” show than just watching it on my own.

As an Audience Member

Some things I have noticed watching all these online shows:

  • I like that performers have started leveraging the camera, getting way up close; using props in front of the lens to hide or reveal; having a person hold the camera so they can move around the space while the “viewer” follows; taking advantage of light, shadow, etc. So many possibilities!
    • February 2021 update: I’ve seen a lot more performances that are basically like music videos: heavy on the editing, maybe a little light on the dancing. I like them on their own merit but now it seems like you’re a newb if you just, like, send a video of yourself dancing and nothing else.
  • This may be a result of this current point in time where people are pumping out show after show but I am feeling a little bit of dance fatigue. And since all these performances are on my screen, there isn’t the same immediacy–when my attention starts to drift I start doing other things.
  • Loss of detail. There was a performer who I could tell was doing “something”–some kind of understated vibration shimmy–but the combination of costuming and lighting choices made it almost invisible. This has always been a problem with video performances (as somebody who is not a bombastic dancer, I have this problem all the time) but I fear that if we are ONLY video dancers, we will lose all of our subtlety entirely because it just can’t be seen on camera. On the other hand, we could just bring the camera closer??
  • I turn into a big jerk. 🙁 Or, more specifically, it’s easier to pick things apart. For example, I was watching some duet where the dancers were doing big hip accents but one dancer was on downbeat right and the other was downbeat left. I wondered why they didn’t re-record it, since it was a pretty noticeable issue (my guess is they didn’t check the video after filming).

As a Performer

I’m never performing in public again. This is great. Knowing that somebody will be watching the video motivates me enough to interact with the camera and if it’s a pre-recorded video I can even do it again if I don’t like the way it came out. Also, I don’t have to leave my house. I suppose I should mention I’m not a great performer to begin with so it’s kind of a chore for me. I do understand some people really crave that live experience. 😉

The major drawback is, because you can re-record, it really makes it difficult to know when you’re “done” and it removes a lot of the little flubs and textures that are acceptable if not charming in a live performance–like getting a strand of hair in your face, recovering from a weird weight shift with a sense of humor, etc. I think it also might lead to an unreasonable expectation of perfection (see my note above about turning into a jerk). Without the immediacy of the live performance, we have only the visual product to pick apart at our leisure. This already happens of course because posting your performance video is very common, but even then I think the viewer has a slightly different expectation of a video of a live performance vs. a “studio” performance.

I am currently on a bit of a break from teaching or streaming but I will probably get back into it–hopefully I’ll keep learning new cool stuff and can do an update someday. 🙂

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