Denver area dance teachers learn to think on their feet

Virtual learning provides challenges for dance teachers

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Instructors at the Parker Dance Academy are getting better at using their words.

Studio director Lexie Steinhauser has danced and taught dance for years. But even she struggled when it came to teaching through a computer screen.

“Usually, as you’re teaching the technique of dance, you go around and touch their shoulders, tell them to go back, tell them to fix their foot,” said Steinhauser. “We’ve gotten really into imagery with our students, and with movement, how you utilize different body parts.”

Without the ability to get up close with their students to adjust an elbow here or a plie there, dance teachers are adapting their methods to reach students beyond the studio.

“As dancers, especially dance teachers who have worked all over the world, you have to learn how to adapt to a situation no matter what,” Steinhauser said. “It’s part of the gig. If someone goes the wrong way, makes a wrong step, gets too close to another dancer, the music stops, the audience throws something at you — you have to adapt to that situation and make it seem like nothing has gone wrong.”

Dance instructors throughout Denver are finding new ways to reach their students and picking up new tricks themselves along the way.

Allison Jaramillo, co-director of the Littleton Ballet Academy, said the instructors found some new tools while learning to teach virtually. The angle with which the students position their web cameras can sometimes help instructors visualize a student’s form. The shy students in class have been noticeably more engaged. Less-advanced dancers don’t feel left behind in a big group and end up discouraged.

“They knew they weren’t the best in the class, but all of a sudden they were the best in their house,” Jaramillo said.

They say dance like no one’s watching, Jaramillo said.

“For some of them, it was actually true.”

The pre-ballet students, from ages 3 to 6, have been the most difficult to engage. Students are sometimes left without a parent watching at home and become distracted.

Instructors have to be more expressive and praise the students as much as possible. Lisa Leafgreen, director of education at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, said the instructors have to give twice the effort to get half the output from the students.

“It’s just not an ideal format for a performing art,” Leafgreen said. “But we adjusted. They pivoted their teaching style like we all did to put more into their teaching. It’s not that they didn’t before, but it takes more excitement and exuberance.”

Jaramillo said the Littleton Ballet Academy may not be back to full in-person teaching for several months. The academy is operating under a “hybrid” model, letting students choose to stay home or find spots in a class. The school won’t be holding any performances until at least spring, hoping to perform “The Nutcracker” as soon as they can.

“The ones that started coming every day because they had nothing else to do realized they started improving, which helped them keep up,” Jaramillo said.

High school students lost their proms, graduations and most of their spring semester. Lisa Leafgreen, director of education at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, said the center set out to make sure its art programs were one of the few things that didn’t close or cancel.

““As writers need to write, dancers need to dance,” Leafgreen said. “It is such an important time to stay connected.”

The Arvada Center is offering in-person classes for its all its usual dance courses. Capacity is limited to about half as many students with social distancing maintained. Lessons are available online as well.

Leafgreen said the shift to a virtual teaching format has given the center more opportunities to reach a wider range of people as well. Leafgreen said the center has had people take virtual lessons from across the country. One person tuned in from Guatemala.

“As a director of education, that was something that wasn’t on my trajectory of what I thought our program would be doing, but we shifted, we pivoted, we’re nimble and it opens different possibilities,” Leafgreen said.

Dance instructors are just beginning to venture into this world of virtual teaching, Leafgreen said.

“I wake up each day thinking, ‘OK, is this going to happen? Is that going to happen?’” Leafgreen said. “How do we stay relevant here? How do we continue to keep kids engaged? It’s rethinking everything we do.”

Without any competitions to work toward, no thunderous applause to look forward to and no “The Nutcracker” over the holidays, instructors are also finding new ways to motivate their students.

Steinhauser says she tries to remember what makes dance important to the kids.

“A lot of these kids, the reason they dance is for the friends and community and the relationships you only get with someone in an artistic way,” Steinhauser said. “We’ve been continuing to think outside the box to move together.”

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