Camila Rodrigues performing with Movement Headquarters Ballet Company. Liz Schneider-Cohen, Courtesy Movement Headquarters

Meet Camila Rodrigues, New York City’s Go-To Virtual-Class Demonstrator

By March of last year, Brazilian-born ballet dancer Camila Rodrigues' career was finally taking off. After patiently waiting several years to obtain an O-1 visa, she was approved to work in the United States in August 2019 and was immediately hired by several New York–based companies, including Kathryn Posin Dance Company, Neglia Ballet and Movement Headquarters Ballet Company (where I am artistic director). Only seven months later, that momentum screeched to a halt when the coronavirus pandemic caused the performing arts to indefinitely shut down. But Rodrigues leaned into the same indefatigability it took to kickstart her career and found a unique way to keep herself in top shape for the future.

For many New York City dancers like Rodrigues, who don't have access to regular company class, it's common to maintain their conditioning in the city's vast open-class network. But "at the beginning of our lockdown, there were no virtual classes," she says. "I would clear out the living room and give myself exercises to stay in shape." Two months after Steps on Broadway closed, teacher Nancy Bielski started offering classes on Zoom from her home for Steps' virtual program. "But with the city shut down, I had no income to pay for class," Rodrigues says.

Having been a regular in Bielski's class for several years, Rodrigues entrusted her as a mentor. "I texted Nancy, letting her know I wanted to be in class but couldn't afford it. My intention wasn't to ask for a free pass. Instead, I told her out of respect for our history."

At the time, Bielski already had Christine Shevchenko from American Ballet Theatre demonstrating on Zoom for her. But her schedule often had conflicts, which opened up an opportunity for Rodrigues. "Soon after reaching out to Nancy, she asked me to demonstrate from my home." Rodrigues would receive free classes in exchange for her time as a demonstrator, which helped resolve her accessibility issues. "Nancy has an international following that takes her classes regularly. So, I was very grateful for the opportunity and that she trusted I could represent her class well."

After several classes, Rodrigues was taken on as Bielski's go-to dancer. "Camila is a beautiful dancer," says Bielski, whose classes feature live music by accompanist Steven Mitchell. "She knows my class well and loves to dance and perform. Her ego is strong enough to accept and almost devour corrections. She is a joy to teach, and all that joy shows as she demonstrates my exercises."

Within a few weeks, Rodrigues received additional requests to demonstrate for Espen Giljane (also at Steps) and Kate Loh DeMarco at Ballet Arts. Her schedule quickly expanded to performing exercises for virtual classes seven times a week. "Since quarantine started, I have never felt out of shape because of these classes," she says.

Pre-COVID, it was more common for educators outside of ballet to have an assistant to show their warm-ups or as a visual reference for choreography. This all changed with the introduction of Zoom; with virtual delays and new dancers enjoying previously unheard-of access to classes, many ballet teachers have taken on assistants. "Zoom has limitations," says Loh DeMarco. "But the right assistant will support the spirit and tone of the class. Camila's demonstrations help guide students, but also inspires them."

While working as a demonstrator is typically unpaid, there are several benefits. Aside from accountability to stay in shape, Rodrigues gets free classes. And while most New York City dance facilities have remained closed, demonstrators like Rodrigues sometimes work with teachers from inside a dance studio. (Bielski continues to teach from home, while Giljane teaches from the studio and Loh DeMarco does a mix.) "After Espen's classes, we spend several minutes executing grand allégro and fouetté turns, which is something I can't do at home," says Rodrigues. Beyond these perks, Bielski's class also has company directors, artistic staff and répétiteurs who join in when they can. "Having these artists watching me demonstrate offers a great opportunity to be seen and inspires me to keep pushing forward."

Rodrigues admits that demonstrating can cut into her own class experience. While other dancers wear warm-ups or alter combinations to fit their needs, she believes she needs to look presentable while replicating class material verbatim. She also chooses to not sit out any combination. But she also sees the flip side of the coin. "Demonstrating has helped me overcome the loss of my performing season over the past year. I feel like every class is a performance. I have to prepare myself to be seen by an audience. I think about everything from my hair to the color of my leotard. I warm myself up with yoga exercises before class starts and make sure I look presentable, so students can clearly see my line on their screens."

When asked about her exhausting schedule, which has included virtual and outdoor performance projects, Rodrigues again points to the structure demonstrating provides. "It forces me to get up earlier and doesn't let me get lazy," she says. "It also ensures I get out of my house several days each week and has helped me mentally, knowing that people are counting on me. And while I am a professional, I will also always be a student. But now I get to lead."

Latest Posts

The author, Lucy Van Cleef, dancing Balanchine's Serenade at Los Angeles Ballet. Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy Los Angeles Ballet

My 12-Year Journey to a Bachelor’s Degree While Dancing Professionally

If you'd have told me in 2009 that it would take 12 years to earn my bachelor's degree, I never would have believed you. Back then, I was a dancer in my early 20s and in my second year with Los Angeles Ballet. I was used to the straightforward demands of the professional ballet world. I knew that hard work and willpower were the currency you paid in the studio, and that the thrill of live performance made all that investment worth it. What I didn't know then is how life's twists and turns aren't always so straightforward. In hindsight, I can see how my winding road to higher education has strengthened me—and my relationship with the ballet world—more than I ever could have imagined.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Margaret Severin-Hansen, teaches class at Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. Cindy McEnery, Courtesy Carolina Ballet

7 Tips for Making the Most of Your Summer Intensive

Last summer many intensives were canceled or online-only. And the past school year has been spotty and strange for many, as well. All the more reason to look forward to an in-person summer program this year with excitement—but also, perhaps, some nerves. Take heart, says Simon Ball, men's program coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. "Once you get there the first day, all those fears will be relieved."

Here, Ball and two other experts share their advice for how to make the most of this precious opportunity to dive deep into dance—and how to handle complications that may get in the way, like injury and drama.

1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

Michael Cousmano, AKA Madame Olga. Courtesy When I'm Her

New Documentary "When I’m Her" Shows How Madame Olga’s Positive Affirmations Can Transform Ballet

Michael "Mikey" Cusumano was a rising star at American Ballet Theatre in the 1990s, joining the company at 15 years old and dancing principal roles by age 16. But the high pressure of ballet proved detrimental to his emotional and mental well-being. "I couldn't find the joy in ballet anymore," says Cusumano.

After 10 years as a professional ballet dancer, Cusumano transitioned to Broadway, where his alter ego, a sparkly-turban–wearing Russian ballet instructor named Madame Olga, was able to fully emerge. In Madame Olga, Cusumano became the ballet teacher he wished he had growing up. While Olga's classes feature the same technical rigor as any other intermediate-advanced ballet class, they also incorporate her signature humor and positive affirmations. It's common for Madame Olga's students to vocalize those affirmations while dancing (for example, saying "love" out loud while doing an adagio combination).

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks