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12 Things I’ve Learned About Teaching Live Online Dance Classes

It’s been over 50 days since the San Francisco Bay Area counties issued their stay-at-home order. At the start, I was preparing to teach out of my tiny little practice room/office/cat sunroom/workspace. I did it that very first night of the shelter-in-place, and, honestly, it wasn’t great.

Since then, I’ve been able to teach out of a proper dance studio. Thankfully, the studio where I teach in-person classes has remained open for us instructors, and I’ve been able to run classes from there.

I’ve tried very hard to keep my online classes as similar as possible to my in-person classes. This means giving feedback, listening to what my students want/need, and making sure we’re not just “following the bouncing butt.” But, of course, I’ve had to make some major adjustments… and I’ve learned a lot.

So here’s what I’ve figured out so far…

Done is better than perfect.

Many of us dance instructors shifted very quickly to teaching online… and not necessarily because of any competition or trying to get ahead of other instructors. We did it because teaching dance is our livelihood, and even just missing a week of income could have been a huge financial hit.

In the beginning, our classes weren’t as good as they could have been. Sound was garbled, camera angles were weird, and we had to get into the habit of sending a online meeting link to everyone who wanted to take class. But those early experiments helped us figure out what was working and what wasn’t. Sometimes you just have to jump in and try something before you can go back and improve it.

Record your Zoom classes.

For the first few weeks, I made sure to record each of my Zoom classes for my own reference. I do this because I can’t see how my classes appear to my students as I’m teaching them. Being able to watch the recording afterwards helps me see what’s working and what isn’t.

A few questions I ask myself as I review my recordings: Was the sound clear? Was my clothing distracting or helpful? When should I face the camera and when should I face the mirror? When should I be closer to the camera so that students can see my demonstrations? What could I do next time to make the class more enjoyable for my students? Were there any noticeable lags?

Remember: If you record your classes, make sure that your students know and have agreed to be recorded. Which gets me to my next point…

You’ll need a waiver.

Very shortly after starting online classes, I realized: “Oh crap. New people are coming to these sessions and they haven’t signed my liability waiver!”

Typically when a new student comes to take a class with me, I have them sign a paper waiver. Welp. Can’t do that anymore!

So, I immediately went into Google and created a Google Form. Now, whenever a new-to-me student registers for my class, I send them a link to the waiver and the Zoom meeting. It’s a standard liability waiver, in which I ask the usual stuff: contact information, emergency contact, pronouns, and any existing injuries or physical wellness concerns. I also include in the terms that students agree to be recorded.

Make sure your students can see your whole body.

I am eternally grateful to have access to a real studio space to teach my online classes. I don’t have to deal with my cat, my clutter, or disturbing my neighbors (the walls in our building are basically paper).

The studio space space has a plain white wall in the back, and a floor-to-ceiling mirror. No visual distractions compete with my moving image. Students can see my whole body, from head to toe, both from behind and in the reflection, like an in-person class.

And related to this point, I make sure to wear a hip scarf in a contrasting color so that students can easily see my hip work.

You don’t need fancy audio-visual equipment.

At the start of the shelter-in-place order, there was a mass mad dash amongst many of us dance teachers to get our online classes up and running.

And some teachers had access to better tech than others. I read about lots of instructors wearing wireless Bluetooth mics, routing their audio through mixers and soundboards, using external microphones, displaying their classes on flat-screen TVs, putting their tech set-ups on rolling carts, and using many other expensive tools.

As someone with very limited disposable income and a studio with limited space—I also have to put everything away when I’m finished; I can’t leave anything out and visible for safety reasons—I started to feel a bit intimidated. Did I need all that stuff to deliver a quality class? And would students attend if I didn’t have those things?

Thankfully, I’m scrappy, resourceful, and a problem-solver at heart. And I’ve made my classes work, even if it’s been a bit McGyver here and there. Here’s what I’ve done, and my students say that the sound has been just fine:

  • I switched my audio settings in Zoom to “Use Original Audio.” If you can’t do anything else, this is your one major key to better sound!
  • I wear a headset microphone, which I already had, which runs my voice through a portable external speaker.
  • I run my computer audio through the same external speaker.
  • I set my laptop up on a folding chair and 2 plastic storage bins, high enough that the camera captures my full body.
  • I place my laptop next to the external speaker.

That’s it. That’s the set up. And it works.

You’ll have to talk. A lot.

One thing I appreciate about really great online movement classes is when the instructors use clear verbal cues.

I get so frustrated if I’m in a Downward Dog or prone position with my face in my mat where I can’t see the screen and the instructor doesn’t give enough spoken cues as they go into the next movement or position. Then I have to get up, look at the screen and figure it out, and inevitably, the online class has already moved on to something entirely new.

So, now that I’m teaching my own live online classes, I’m trying to make sure that I don’t leave you in the lurch as I transition from movement to movement.

And that means talking a lot.

While moving. And dancing. And calling out musical counts, foot patterns, hip work, and cymbal patterns. Talk about developing a healthy diaphragm!

You’ll end up doing your own class.

One of the many things we learn as instructors in the Salimpour School is that we shouldn’t do our own class. What does that mean?

We teachers introduce or verbally cue a movement, but then step back to observe how our students are embodying our instructions. We shouldn’t do everything we ask the students to do, and we definitely shouldn’t be looking at our own image in the mirror while we teach. Class time is for our students, not for us teachers to work on our own technique.

That guidance pretty much goes out the window when teaching online.

Because the students in the class are relying on seeing the instructor, rather than the energy of the room, or maybe a more advanced student at the front of the class, I am basically doing my own class. And I’m constantly evaluating myself in the mirror to make sure that I’m giving the best visual example that I can for the students on the other end of the internet.

Now, of course, I go to the screen to check in, give what feedback I can, and offer honest and heartfelt encouragement.

But this is not at all how I prefer to teach. I’d rather be able to have my eyes on everyone, to see if there are general adjustments or cues that I need to call out. I’d rather feel the vibe of the room, and feed off that energy. But this is what we have right now that that’s all right.

You’ll be way more tired.

So, by now I think we’ve figured out that “Zoom Fatigue” is a thing.

Why is it that communicating through a screen is so much more exhausting than being in person? Well, we’re not able to gauge emotions, reactions, or other non-verbal communication cues that we’d be able to observe in person.

I also find that when I’m teaching online, I’m trying to hold space for everyone… in a space that has no one but myself.

I can’t feel if you, the students, are excited by what I’m teaching. I can’t tell if you understand right away. When I’m teaching combinations, I can’t see if you’re picking it up or if we need to go over it again. I have to make far more decisions and tiny judgements along the way that I never even knew I was making in my in-person classes. And humans should only make a limited number of decisions a day.

Now that I’ve gotten the hang of it, I’m far less drained after teaching, but those first few weeks really knocked me for a loop.

(And it doesn’t help that we’re experiencing one of the greatest global crises of our lifetime.)

Technology will eventually betray you.

It was bound to happen. After nearly 2 months of smooth sailing, my tech failed me.

Last week, the internet in the studio where I teach broke. Totally kaput. Even our internet provider couldn’t fix it from their end.

And if that weren’t enough… when I used my phone as a mobile hotspot, it cut out every 30 minutes. Not so great for an hour-long class!

So, if you are a student of an online class, and the technology decides to just up and leave… well, your patience and understanding is worth so much. Most of us instructors are really trying our best with the resources we have.

Your feedback to students will be limited by the medium.

It’s very unlikely that all of your students will be able to set up their cameras in a space where you’ll be able to see their whole bodies all of the time.

This means that you won’t be able to see their feet, which is an essential part of posture and alignment. You also won’t be able to get the 3-D view of your students that you would in a physical class.

In addition, lag and latency in connection times will make it appear that some students are off beat, or even doing a movement on different downbeats, say, starting on the right hip instead of the left.

You have to be willing to sacrifice that level of detail to teach live online classes… and trust that your students are stepping on the right foot at the right time. And, of course, this is where giving more precise verbal cues and reminders are going to be even more valuable.

It’s easier to give level adjustments

In a studio classroom of adult students, particularly beginners, they often want to either A) follow you or a more experienced student and/or B) not feel like they look awkward or weird.

Here’s the great thing about live online classes: When your students are alone in their own separate dance spaces, that pressure disappears.

Because students aren’t side-by-side, they’re far less likely to compare themselves to the other students in the room.

This means that it’s much easier to give appropriate level adjustments for whoever is attending class. Sometimes the levels of the students range from just barely Level 1 to advanced Level 4 and 5 dancers.

But with the Zoom classes, it’s easy to give options to everyone without the lower level students feeling like they need to keep up with or copy the higher-level students. Everyone wins!

You’ll reach students you’ve never met before.

What has absolutely surprised me the most about teaching live online classes is that people I don’t even know have been attending consistently.

In the past few years, horrendous traffic and the skyrocketing cost of living have taken a huge chunk out of class attendance here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many students just stopped coming to class because of traffic, being stuck at work, or not being able to afford it. But not with the online classes!

Teaching live online classes has allowed so many of us to reach dancers who would love to take classes with us, but who have been limited by distance and location. And we still get to feel like we’re taking a class in the moment, seeing our friends and fellow students, even if it’s not in person.

And, even though I’m introverted, I love sharing knowledge with people. If I’m excited to tell you something that I know and have learned, that means I care about you. It’s like if nerding out about something were a love language.

So, thank you to all the intrepid students who have been with me on this live online journey. Seeing all your faces in class and being able to dance “with” you has been a rare ray of light in a time of quite a bit of darkness.

You’re amazing.


Join me for class

For the time being, all my belly dance classes are live and online.

All of my classes are worth 1 CEC towards your Salimpour School certification.

A sneak peek at what we work on in class.

More options!

Hundreds (maybe even thousands!) more classes always available 24/7, on-demand and PPV at the Salimpour School Online. You’ll find lots of classes with yours truly, many other incredible and skilled instructors, and, of course, master teacher Suhaila Salimpour.

Which, speaking of… have you seen the exciting program changes at the Salimpour School? Go check it out!

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Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.

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