Pennsylvania Ballet's Nicholas Patterson, rehearsing at home.

Courtesy Patterson

With No Live Performances in Sight, Some Companies Resume Rehearsals via Zoom

Ballet companies are in a bizarre holding pattern right now. With studios and theaters shut down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, how do they keep the repertoire alive and dancers in shape? A handful of companies, including Pennsylvania Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem, are pressing on with rehearsals, even with no confirmed performances.

"When you think of rehearsing remotely, with no space and spotty internet, how beneficial is that going to be?" asked Nicholas Patterson, a corps de ballet member with Pennsylvania Ballet. "But it's been a different kind of rehearsing. The tools they're giving us really help."

Patterson says it's been a struggle to find some normalcy since the virus hit in mid-March, but that when rehearsals began again at the end of April, it was almost like old times. "It was nice to get back to the routine of a typical working day, class and then rehearsals," he says. "Even if it has a new set of challenges."


McDaniel, in black pants and a blue t-stands, leans against a ballet barre in a small white and brown room.

DTH dancer Christopher Charles McDaniel shows off his at-home studio.

Courtesy McDaniel

Rehearsing in Makeshift Home Studios

Patterson returned to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, where there's more space to rehearse virtuosic ballets like Stanton Welch's Clear. With the marley squares the company provided, he's able to move full out—sort of. "I can jump and turn in place, but I can't travel," says Patterson. "You keep having to stop and back up to stay on the marley and on camera. It limits the flow of the rehearsal somewhat."

Christopher Charles McDaniel of Dance Theatre of Harlem built a home studio in a spare room that most quarantined dancers would be envious of. With 8 feet by 8 feet of sprung marley floor, he's been enjoying a busy Zoom rehearsal schedule. "The building of the studio inspired me to work and push myself like I'm in a normal situation," he says.

DTH's Crystal Serrano, however, lives in a space that is likely familiar to dancers in big cities: a small New York City apartment with roommates, and neighbors who complain of the noise from pointe shoes. Because of this, she participates in classes and rehearsals without turning on her video camera. "With my camera off, I'm more at ease to take in the work without having judgement from people, or myself, when I'm dealing with less than ideal conditions," she says. "They have to trust I'm doing the work and absorbing the material."

Crystal Serrano wearing warm-up clothes sits cross-legged on a yoga mat, stretching. Her bed is visible to the right.

DTH Crystal Serrano stretches in her makeshift rehearsal space.

Courtesy Serrano

Learning and Refining Choreography

Group work and partnering are obviously challenging, if not impossible, to work on via Zoom. Rehearsal directors and choreographers have had to find ways to make individual work beneficial in new ways. Patterson says that when rehearsing Clear in the studio, he relied on visual cues. On Zoom, he has to master the challenging counts of the music. "We dissected everything count by count, so everyone knew for themselves when to exit, enter, point their foot, look up, everything," he says. "When we get back to the studio, we'll be in unison and on the same page in a way we weren't before."

Nicholas Blanc, a ballet master at Joffrey Ballet, contributed choreography to a video by a local TV station celebrating Chicago artists staying at home. He filmed himself dancing the phrase of choreography, sent it to the Joffrey dancers to learn, then held coaching sessions on Zoom. The sessions provided an opportunity to improve his verbal communication. "For the dancers not to confuse left and right, I sometimes had to run the rehearsal with my back to the camera," says Blanc. "It's already hard to see them, so you have to be so much more detailed in what you say."

Blanc was happy with the result, but he's not rushing to choreograph over Zoom again. "It's a great temporary tool, but it's not something that I'm so thrilled about," he says. "Human contact is so important. Zoom can't reproduce that."

Keeping Motivated

DTH has been rehearsing repertoire the dancers are familiar with by refining counts and details dancer by dancer. But they've also been rehearsing other work to keep the dancers in shape, such as classical variations, that they may not perform.

Serrano, who is one of a few company dancers that rehearses off camera, says that it's changed what she aims to get out of a rehearsal. "It's scary not to have the feedback of the person at the front of the room. We are so conditioned to that as dancers," she says. "I'm really taking this time to work for myself, not needing to show that I'm capable or get the attention."

But still, rehearsing with no performance in sight is a challenge. "It's painful to get in really good shape and master choreography but not know what for," says McDaniel. "But we don't want to put our careers on hold. We want to be ready to come back."

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De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

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"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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