Like other performance artists, dancers and dance instructors depend on human interaction to convey their artistry to their audience. COVID situation presents unique challenges for dance instructors. Most dance teachers have had to replace their studio-based classes with online sessions, in line with the “stay-at-home” state guidelines. As they move their classes online, they are finding innovative ways to keep their audience and students engaged.
I am an Indian dance instructor based in the Greater Seattle area, teaching Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dance. As I have transitioned my classes to Zoom, it has been somewhat of a challenge due to various technical issues, as you can imagine.
Some funny moments arise from online classes:
Recently I have noticed a funny development…
My students were performing their mudras (hand motions) while chanting Sanskrit shlokas. As most of my younger students are US-born and lack fluency in their native tongues, I take time after each class to make them practice both the mudras and their accompanying shlokas. I teach my classes on a laptop connected to a large flat screen tv, with the sound ramped up. My daughters join me for some of the classes too and we perform together.
My husband, who is an IT professional, sometimes sits and works in the adjacent kitchen area while I take classes. It seems that our shloka recitations have started affecting him too, as I can hear him repeating the mudras with us as we practice. During one of my online classes, I remember quizzing my students. “What is this mudra?”, I asked. “Kartarimukhaha” (a scissors shaped hand gesture), chipped my husband before the student could answer. The students and parents attending the call broke out laughing. He keeps humming these shlokas as he works around the house these days. I successfully implanted the Shloka bug in him finally after 16 years of our marriage during lockdown!
In another incident, two adorable sisters, Aleyssa(8) and Ameyssa (5), were in the middle of their online Bharatanatyam class, working on a movement called “Araimandi” (a half-sitting posture where the dancer creates a typical diamond shape with her legs). As Alyessa was practicing, her Labradoodle, Sugar, decided to run through her legs. She took it in stride and exclaimed that Sugar was her “Horsey!” So, in the middle of our class, there was my student, Aleyssa, riding atop her dog Sugar, like a princess on her horse! This ended when her 5-year-old sister, Ameyssa, came and held sugar’s ears and finally managed to stop her. Usually, an online session is very stressful for both teacher and student, but this incident made me laugh and brought in a much-needed bit of joy in this pandemic crazy homestay.
I am also inspired on a regular basis by my adult students. Most of them have kids at home and have to squeeze out time out of their daily schedules to attend classes.
My student, Pallabi, has two active girls aged 4 and 7. Normally, when Pallabi would attend Bharatanatyam class, her daughters would play at the church nursery or at the park. After I moved the classes online, Pallabi decided to continue attending the online sessions. One day she was learning a complicated travel and sidestep, where she was trying to create a V shape on the ground with her feet, and as she danced, both her little girls were using that V-shape as a zig-zag path to run around.
How she learned that complicated step amidst all the chaos that was going on at her home, is beyond me. This is funny as well motivating too, as it shows that if we are resolute in our focus, no chaos can be considered as an excuse.
I have also started teaching Bollywood dance lessons. I am currently teaching a sequence of Warrior queens from Period Bollywood musicals. For these lessons, students need to use props as swords. We were about to order these props and distribute them to the students but the lockdown came about before I could hand them over. However, the energy and positivity of my senior students came to the rescue. They decided to meet online and finish learning that sequence. For the prop swords, they turned to whatever they could get their hands upon in their respective homes. One took a rolling pin from the kitchen, another picked up her husband’s cricket game stick. Someone else picked up her kid’s toy arrow from a bow and arrow set, and another person grabbed a Jedi’s sword from her son’s desk.
I am blessed to have these passionate people in my life. When I moved my classes online, I offered a discounted fee structure. However, all my students waived off these discounts and they pay the full fee amounts as they all think that more labor and prep time is involved in teaching online classes. I decided to contribute some of these earnings to other artistic communities, as a way of giving back.
Theatres, auditoriums, and other dance studios shut down across the country in response to COVID-19. Many studios are quickly exploring the option of teaching classes online. Many non-profit studios are asking for donations to help them stay afloat. Being a freelance Indian dance instructor with a decent IT job, I decided to donate online dance earnings to a dance studio named “Da Vinci”, which always provided space to people like us to continue our passion.
As the world continues an uncertain battle against the invisible COVID-19 virus, performing art communities worldwide have been among the first to be affected due to restrictions on public gatherings and concerts. The virtual world is flooded today with free offerings of all kinds of art, movies, museum tours, music festivals, dance concerts, music festivals, to keep up the morale of the world as it copes with the lockdown and the cultural climate. As a society, we need to help the arts survive as it helps with inner healing.
Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps.