A strange thing happened last Friday. Jacopo Grabar, the talented Italian Sydney Dance Company (SDC) dancer I’ve been watching on stage for 18 months, was in my living room. I repeat, in my living room. Not in the flesh, sadly, but right there on my computer screen. He was teaching me the basics of classical ballet as part of SDC’s virtual dance studio.
With the Covid-19 social distancing restrictions leaving us all housebound, SDC has adapted its existing public dance class program for digital delivery using web-conferencing software Zoom. It means you can learn just about any dance style you’ve ever dreamt of from the comfort – and privacy – of your own home.
SDC now offers around 45 digital classes a week in real time, from hip-hop to jazz to contemporary and stretch, with more to come. It’s particularly great if you’ve wanted to do a class but have felt embarrassed or shy. All you need is a mobile device (you can even turn off the camera), an area of clear floor space and a good attitude. And at $28 for unlimited weekly classes, it’s quite affordable.
SDC’s open classes, which have been operating for many years, attract more than 80,000 participants a year and is a vital source of income for the dance company. For more than five years it’s discussed launching a virtual studio, but it’s always been put on the backburner.
“When you’re not a fully funded dance company like they have in Europe, you have to be a lot more resourceful about how to make an income, and education and teaching have always been the future,” says SDC’s highly respected artistic director and choreographer Rafael Bonachela. “Online learning is a great tool, we know that, but there’s always been something else to worry about because arts companies are always in crisis. [Coronavirus] is just a bigger one. Suddenly it was like, ‘okay, all the work has been done. Let’s do it’.”
The response to the digital classes has been overwhelming. While many existing students have transitioned to the new format, there are plenty of newcomers too, and not just from Sydney but interstate and even abroad.
Bonachela says the reason for the popularity is multifaceted. “You can do it in your living room, so many barriers [to attending night classes] have been broken, and you can turn off your video camera if you feel shy,” he says. “But it’s also that sense of community. We’re all talking about social distancing, but you don’t have to be socially distant, you have to be physically distant. You can still stay social.”
The most popular class has been ballet beginner, but the weekly all-ages and all-abilities dance party Feel Good Friday run by acclaimed former dancer Charmene Yap proved a particular hit, with 98 people joining the zoom class on March 27.
The high-energy class is supposed to be the class equivalent of a Friday shake-off-the-week club visit. The dancers choose the music and each week a different theme is announced (last week’s theme encouraged dancers to wear an outfit they’d always wanted to, but never had the courage to wear). Bonachela says the feedback has been phenomenal. “It’s good for the spirit, it’s good for the body and when people are isolated physically, it’s good to be able to come together.”
The open classes have always given punters the extraordinary opportunity to learn from SDC’s accomplished teachers and 18-strong troupe. But Bonachela says the digital classes have also offered the professional dancers something, too. “Company members are usually so busy – there’s so much they’d love to do but can’t because of the [workload] or they’re travelling. But now they can say what they’d like to do. It’s wonderful to be able to stay engaged with our community in a way they never have before.”
Which takes us back to Mr Grabar in my living room, encouraging me and my 38 classmates to keep trying for that elusive perfect pirouette.
His instructions are clear, the music is pitch perfect and the steps manageable, even for someone like me who hasn’t taken a classical ballet class since I was 10. It’s fun watching the others give it a go too, and it really does feel like a community. It offers a good workout, and a great sense of achievement. But the best bit? For a whole 60 minutes I didn’t once think about the c-word.
“This is why art and culture are so important in the world. Because life as it is is not enough, particularly with situations like this. It hasn’t even been a week, but the virtual studio has been a huge success so far. It’s kept us going, in many ways.”
Classes start from $12, with an unlimited weekly membership for $28.