When the coronavirus hit, ballet dancers had to take their twirling home.
Zoom conferences replaced in-person rehearsals and cramped living rooms stood in for spacious studios — not to mention the emotional and financial blows of canceled performances and unemployment.
But performers are a resilient bunch: They got creative about staying in tip-top shape and bringing their craft to the masses via virtual recitals, lessons and even playful Instagram and TikTok videos.
We caught up with six New York City movers and shakers to see how they’ve stayed en pointe during the pandemic.
Below, pliés enjoy photos and videos from the new normal for local ballerinas and ballerinos.
James Whiteside American Ballet Theatre principal dancer
Compared with James Whiteside’s usual daily routine of company class coupled with gym workouts and up to six hours of rehearsal (even longer on performance days), quarantine life has proved quite the adjustment.
Now, the 36-year-old danseur does barre and as much center work (segments and combinations away from the barre) as he can — all in the 700-square-foot Murray Hill apartment he owns and shares with his long-term boyfriend. That comes to about two hours a day.
Whiteside was also teaching for an hour three times a week via Instagram Live, but has taken a break this month. For the classes, Whiteside teamed up with fellow American Ballet Theater (ABT) principal dancer Isabella Boylston to attract an audience of 20,000 people tuning in for each session from all over the world, with proceeds going to charitable causes.
Since March, Whiteside has been posting choreographed routines set to pop music and other playful videos — both with Boylston and solo — to Instagram @JamesBWhiteside, much to the delight of his 263,000 followers.
Practicing at home off-camera, though, has been far from smooth sailing. “I don’t have the space to move in a way that can make me a better dancer. I can’t train properly,” he says. ”In fact, I loathe my at-home studio space — also known as a kitchen.”
Nevertheless, he’s tried to make it work. “Barre is perfect to do at home because it is stationary in one place, and I can use my kitchen counter to hold onto for balance,” Whiteside adds. “So much of dancing is about taking up space and moving from one side of the room to the other, which is hard to do in a small NYC apartment.”
Whiteside has never had this long of a break from dancing in his career. And while the setup hasn’t been ideal, and he’s planning to move to Brooklyn for more space, finding ways to dance anyway and capturing his moves for social media has helped him stay sane.
“I’ve shared my love of dance with my friends and fans,” he says, “and it has helped me cope with the fact that I’m unemployed and unable to perform.”
Breton Tyner-Bryan Director, choreographer and performer
Breton Tyner-Bryan calls the dance-from-home slog “sweaty, comforting and grounding.” But she prances around barefoot or in Laduca heels in her one-bedroom apartment anyway, beside framed images of Lucille Ball, Mae West, Josephine Baker and Agnes DeMille, citrine crystals, vintage costumes and 10 bamboo plants for good luck.
“I’m really alone with my breath, thoughts, sensations and physicality,” she says of dancing in her Washington Heights home. “For better or worse there’s no distractions like being in a ballet class with other people, socializing or enjoying the live music. Teaching on Zoom has brought some sense of community and it’s been nice to connect with dancers and schools around the world.”
The centerpieces of Tyner-Bryan’s bedroom studio, meanwhile, are “inspirational bay windows” that provide plenty of light and a backdrop that makes her feel like she’s doing theater in the round. She can quickly and effortlessly move carpet for teaching gigs, lectures or auditions. The back of a chair serves as her barre.
“I’ve learned that I’ll always be dancing whether anyone is watching or not, and nothing satisfies like starting my day with a ballet class. It’s a ritual that I need to function at my best, and having matured into other artistic avenues, I wasn’t sure that would always be the case,” says Tyner-Bryan, 38. “Whenever I’ve felt lost in my life, the answer has always been to dance, to move in new directions. It’s a simple answer, but I’m amazed at how many times it is what I need to hear.”
Gonzalo Garcia New York City Ballet principal dancer
Ah, quarantine diaries, dancer edition: “My apartment has very much become my live-in dance facility, in several ways. At the start of the pandemic, I began dancing in my living room, and then bedroom when I realized I’d have more floor space by moving my bed,” says Gonzalo Garcia, 40.
“As the weather got nicer, I took my makeshift dance floor to the deck of my outdoor garden, behind my brownstone. While I eventually purchased a portable ballet barre, initially I was holding onto the wood paneling of my apartment for support.”
Until the NYC Ballet provided pieces of Marley flooring (made of slip-resistant vinyl) for dancers to use at home, Garcia innovated by covering the wood floors of his Upper West Side two-bedroom, where he resides with his husband, with a shower curtain liner. He’s added an Ikea mirror and portable heater to the newer al fresco arrangement to round out the space.
“I wouldn’t say I love my home studio, as there’s nothing like being in a real ballet studio or theater. That said, I’ve enjoyed creatively problem solving, and being able to teach and take class remotely has allowed me to stay connected to my colleagues and students, and to the dance world in general,” Garcia reflects. “In truth, it’s been a frustrating process though, dancing at home with limited space, and without sprung floors. Dancers have to be extremely aware of their physical health, and work wisely to avoid injury.”
These days, Garcia typically takes one Zoom class — and teaches between one and three Zoom classes — daily, as well as cross-training sessions in Pilates and a similar strength workout called Gyrotonics several times a week. Throw in some meditation and yoga as “grounding forces,” too.
“I’ve always known that dancers are resilient and passionate people,” he adds, “but I’ve really come to appreciate my own determination, and creativity, and continue to be inspired by the perseverance of my colleagues.”
Amanda Smith Dance Theatre of Harlem company artist
Amanda Smith has made the best of dancing in the “small and quaint” living room she shares in a Washington Heights three-bedroom. The 30-year-old and her dancemates were gearing up to premiere a ballet in Detroit this March when the coronavirus crisis abruptly canceled all shows and everyone was sent home. A stark contrast to her typical M.O. of almost daily rehearsals and touring the world for more than half of the year, Smith has looked for silver linings in her makeshift studio.
“I love the sunlight that the big window in the room provides, giving me hope in the midst of my Zoom company classes,” says Smith. She also throws in a daily conditioning class, along with a yoga or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class. Plus lots of teaching, a COVID-necessitated departure from her normal routine as a practitioner.
Living-room workouts come with risks “I have a futon that I would constantly be hitting even after moving it,” she says. “Another obstacle was having a large tank for my roommate’s turtle in the living room, where I was in constant fear that I would hit it with one of my legs and it would be a disaster.”
Calling dancing at home “the ultimate test of my patience,” Smith was ecstatic when her company’s rehearsal director provided members with Marley flooring from Harlequin Floors. “I could finally put on my pointe shoes,” she says.
Despite the tiny space, she’ll still take the Big Apple drawbacks over other locales. In July, she briefly returned home to Placentia, California, where she practiced in her backyard. “Mosquitoes and June bugs meant lots of running away mid-combinations!” Smith laughs.
Gabe Stone Shayer American Ballet Theatre dancer
Innovation has been the name of the game for Shayer, who has lived in a unit on the Upper West Side for almost nine years that he deems “a shoebox.”
“There are so many ways to use what you have in your apartment to your advantage. All of [a] sudden your shoe rack becomes a calf stretcher, your door frame is a balance tester, and your kitchen floor becomes your stage,” says Shayer, 26.
“Mid-pandemic, I would use the ladder to my built-in loft bed to stretch and do ballet barre,” he notes. Traveling in center — ballet-speak for dancing from side-to-side in a large space — sans square footage is more challenging.
As the coronavirus restrictions wear on, Shayer sees a few upsides to the ballet-from-home status quo.
“I’ve definitely learned the importance of rest and separation from the machine of my company [and to] be reacquainted with the artist within me who has felt stifled by timing and circumstance for so long,” he says.
“This time has given me a very healthy dose of perspective.”
Deepa Liegel The Ballet Spot, private instructor
Deepa Liegel rents one room in a Crown Heights three-bedroom for $1,050 a month. The 26-year-old — formerly with Mark Morris Dance Group, The Metropolitan Opera and Limón Dance Company — has been using her absent roommate’s bedroom as a studio for ballet and Pilates.
“I love it because it’s facing east, so we get a lot of great sunlight. It also makes the room super hot, which helps with warming up,” says Liegel. “It’s spacious and sits over a bodega so I’ve never had neighbors complain, which is so nice since I teach early mornings and into the late evenings.”
Like others, she’s gotten crafty, using her stepstool as a barre and dancing in tennis shoes for jumps because she doesn’t have sprung floors.
She echoes her fellow dancers in what a rollercoaster the last five months have been, shut out from her normal spaces and fellow dancers.
“My body is feeling the ill-effects of dancing on a hardwood, non-sprung floor — I may need to see the chiropractor,” Liegel says. “Some days I’m miserable and so unmotivated because I want to be in a studio. And some days, I just feel lucky to just have space to move my body.”