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  • Writer's pictureLouise Casini Hollis

The Art of Interacting Online

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Ballet Virginia

Words by Louise Casini Hollis Photos by Patrick McCarty

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR News is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

Lisa McCarty, Children’s Program Director and Marketing Director for Ballet Virginia has been working hard from her home in Norfolk to reach out and continue to teach her students online. “As quickly as we could [we] got busy making videos,” says Lisa, “and sent the links out to our students. That was before they put all the serious restrictions in so we’d invite a couple of kids to dance with us and do a little class and I think a lot of people appreciated that. Then we went onto Zoom 2 or 3 weeks ago… That has been very successful.”

Ballet Virginia was established in 2008 by Co-Artistic Directors Janina Michalski and Suzanne Lownsbury and past president Hope Paryzek, “to create a classical ballet academy for Hampton Roads that offered high quality training and professional quality performance opportunities,” notes Lisa. They have locations in Norfolk and Virginia Beach that serve just over 400 students. A little over 200 students are tuning in online to continue classes. Lisa explains, “especially at the beginning we did a lot of social media at first – like every day – we’d do a post like ‘Turn out Tuesday’” [on Instagram]. Currently, they are focusing their energy on their students by posting the class schedule on their website, Facebook, Instagram and by email. Lisa also sends out a newsletter once a week.

Between teaching all age groups at Ballet Virginia, and being an adjunct professor at ODU,  Lisa has “all different ages, but the thing that I noticed the most when we did the videos and when we did the first week of Zoom, I watched myself which was really hard, and was surprised… You don’t get the in between texture of a person so you have to make sure that you come off really positive, because there were moments in the videos where I looked like such a mean person when I was really just thinking. So I’m making an effort to be more positive, and to smile more and to speak more clearly and slowly.” Lisa adds, “I’m trying to interact and say people’s names a lot because they need that right now.”

McCarty greets students on Zoom

McCarty greets students on Zoom as they arrive to their digital dance class.

The arts, especially for young children, not only offers a form of expression, but an opportunity to find camaraderie with their peers. Lisa fosters this in her classroom, and has found a way to extend it online. “I always try to open the Zoom meeting 10 minutes before we dance so that everyone can talk…This is like a touchstone for them. And I’m just paying more attention to their mental health, I think, and thinking about something we’ve always taken for granted before – that they can come up and give me a little hug, or I can pat them on the back or interact with them. So it’s really made me more aware of the preciousness of human interaction, and I’m trying to convey that over the screen. When I get back to the studios I’m going to keep that in my head a little more… You can see at the end of the class they’re standing a little taller and they’re a little more engaged, happy children.”

Teaching from home offers physical challenges as well. For example, there’s the space constraints. “We can’t leap across the floor because people are doing it in their kitchen,” so Lisa has responded with more compact combinations. She also incorporates everyday household objects such as chairs or her dresser to substitute for the barre (editor’s note: see the featured photo). “I don’t want anyone to think, ‘Oh I can’t do it because I don’t have a barre.’” She adds, “I think it’s really important to show the kids we can carry on.”

Finally, Lisa says of this experience, “I never want to do it again! It’s exhausting!” The challenge is understandable, as noted in a BBC article by Manyu Jiang, video conferencing causes cognitive dissonance making your brain work harder to “process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.” The faculty of Ballet Virginia have found that keeping the combinations a little more simple not only helps the students, but themselves. “One Zoom class is like teaching 2 or 3,” observes Lisa, due to the amount of energy exerted trying to reach her students through a screen, rather than together in the studio.

But there is a bright side to going online. A former adult student who now lives in Pittsburgh has been able to join the adult class. “Everybody was excited to see her,” Lisa notes of the fellowship the dancers share. Other former students as far away as Japan have also expressed interest in rejoining their old studio to take advantage of online class instruction. And because they don’t have the space constraints of a studio, the academy has been able to invite their students to attend more than one of the scheduled classes for their age level. “Tons of them are coming!” notes Lisa, to be a part of “something that is meaningful.”

What does the future hold? Ballet Virginia hopes to bring Sleeping Beauty to life in August at The Sandler Center starring their professional company. The show had been slated to run April 4th and 5th. They also hope to hold their summer programing because “the kids need the stuff they love,” adds Lisa. This past season was the premier season for their professional company, and they are eager to carry on.

You can find more information about Ballet Virginia’s Company and Classes on their website, or find them on Facebook or on Instagram.

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