Isabella Boylston has been teaching on Zoom for Universal Ballet Competition, as well as on Instagram Live. (Courtesy Boylston)

(Virtual) Dancing with the Stars: How to Get the Most Out of Online Classes with Dance Celebs

When your dance studio is your second home, taking class in your actual home just isn't the same. But if there's one silver lining to the current situation, it's that some of the biggest dance stars from stage and screen have gone online to lead barres, host dance parties, demonstrate combos, and teach technique classes—some of which are completely free.

"Students can learn so much from working with the pros directly," says American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who teaches on Zoom through Universal Ballet Competition as well as offering the Cindies Ballet Class on Instagram Live with fellow ABT principal James Whiteside. "It's inspiring and eye-opening to connect with dancers all over the world."

So what benefits do these virtual master classes offer? How do they fit into your overall training regimen? And how do you even navigate all of the content that's out there? Read on for advice from the pros.


Be Choosy

Is there a teacher you've always wanted to take from, but couldn't get to in person? Are dancers from your dream company or summer intensive offering online classes? Lisa Pelliteri, owner of Plumb Performing Arts Center in Scottsdale, AZ, encourages seeking out virtual classes that will help you explore your career goals. "I tell my students, 'Please experiment!'" she says. "Learn what's out there. See what a style feels like on your body. Try something different." Celeb master classes can count as research toward your future.

As you follow your dreams and whims, consider the pros and cons of various platforms. Is the class live or pre-recorded? Will there be interaction with the teacher? Will you be able to access a recording after the live session, to keep practicing? Wanting a workout is different from craving technical feedback, and there's content out there to meet every conceivable need.

Dana Wilson teaching an online class (courtesy Wilson)

Plan How You'll Learn

For virtual workshops, let go of the pressure to get every detail right. "Focus on broad strokes first," says commercial performer Dana Wilson, who teaches for New York City Dance Alliance, including NYCDA's ongoing Virtual Dance Experience. If the teacher posts YouTube videos, prep for success in the live session by watching them, to get a feel for their style. Also, on a platform like Instagram Live where the teacher can't see you, "feel empowered to do a bit of your own thing," Wilson says. "A hidden gem here is that you can exercise your creativity."

On Zoom, which promises more interaction, go in with realistic expectations about the kind of feedback you'll be able to get, and how much. Francesca Hayward, principal at The Royal Ballet and star of the 2019 movie CATS, prefers not to single anyone out in her Zoom classes for UBC. "When I see something, I'll give everyone a reminder of what I would think of while doing that movement," she says. Because UBC's virtual workshops also include a Q&A with the teacher at the end of class, any lingering questions can be addressed then.

Francesca Hayward leading a Zoom class for UBC (courtesy UBC)

Lags between devices and mirrored camera settings can keep teachers from assessing your timing, musicality or footing. Instead, anticipate comments on placement, shape, spatial orientation and performance quality. Wilson has also been using her Zoom classes to introduce camera terminology. "Mid-shot, closeup, extreme closeup—this is language dancers may need when jobs come back," she says.

Finally, whatever type of class you're in, "treat it like a private lesson," Wilson advises. "If the teacher asks a question, answer it out loud, even if you're on mute. Talking out loud can commit lessons to memory, just as dancing full out encourages muscle memory."

Take It Home

"Online master classes aren't a replacement for your studio classes," cautions Pelliteri. Even in a time when physical contact isn't an option, your regular teachers know you on a personal level. "We know what you're working on and can give more precise corrections," Pelliteri says. If a comment in a master class resonates with you, bring it to your studio teacher to dig deeper.

Above all, remember that the benefits of a virtual master class go far beyond honing your technique and performance. "This is such a tough time," Hayward says. "At the moment, we all need inspiration and motivation, and to remember the joy of moving our bodies in space. I hope classes like mine can help keep things feeling fresh and exciting until we're all safely back to the studio."

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