How are dancers coping with quarantine? Perspectives from the Houston Ballet
Author: Carina Nasrallah on behalf of the IADMS Promotion Committee
I’m Carina, Houston Methodist Athletic Trainer for Houston Ballet and a member of the IADMS Promotions Committee. We were proud to have Houston, Texas as the location of the #IADMS2017 Annual Conference. As part of the Helping Dancers Help Themselves initiative, I wanted to share some perspectives from within our Houston community as to how we are adapting to the COVID-19 quarantine.
Houston Ballet Principals Melody Mennite as Marie Antoinette and Ian Casady as Louis XVI with Artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Stanton Welch’s Marie. Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2019), Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Ian Casady, Principal, Houston Ballet
The Coronavirus pandemic has had a monumental impact on my ability to train and stay performance ready. It is impossible to adequately replicate the training environment that I am used to, and that is required, for staying in top shape while stuck at home. Movement is limited both laterally and vertically, and even in spaces where I might be able to jump or turn, I am limited by the floor surface and hardness. In addition to the constraints of my physical space are the constraints on the amount of time that I can dedicate to working out. As the husband of a full-time elementary teacher and the father of an elementary student who are also both stuck at home, it has been difficult to find much focused alone time to keep a consistent training regimen. I am taking a daily modified ballet class in my garage, and supplementing that with general full-body fitness exercises and HIIT sessions when I can manage. For me, as with most of us now, work and life have melded into one, and the brain is constantly switching back and forth, from one to the other, throwing the idea of “work/life balance” out the window.
Allison Miller, First Soloist, Houston Ballet
A couple weeks back, Carina shared a plyometric training video with us which I loved and I plan on adding that in this week. I really appreciated Carina talking about floor awareness…I have been concerned for my fellow dancers, seeing them on social media jumping and doing a lot of moves on not-sprung floors. As a high school bunhead, I foolishly used to dance entire ballets on a cement pad in our back yard and that turned out very, very badly, though not immediately, and I ended up struggling with shin splints for a couple years. So I was glad to have her explain so explicitly how important it is to protect ourselves.
I had trouble getting on board with “hanging onto the counter” for ballet, and really took some time away from class the first few weeks of this thing. I’ve been biking a lot, and I have a handful of ex-dancer friends who teach Pilates and Gyrokinesis and now have zoom classes. It has been about four weeks of taking their classes (classes about 4 times a week) and I have been so happy to feel/see my muscles change. My hamstrings, which I know never want to work, are lit! My arms are feeling strong! My core is stronger and more articulate. I’m not using my neck for everything! It’s been fun to take this time and notice how my body feels different when you remove ballet all together.
I now have a floor (shower pan liner as fake Marley) and a little barre. I’m doing more ballet classes at home because I want to, and I’m excited to have shed the muscle baggage I usually have in a busy season and start fresh.
Artists of Houston Ballet as Wilis in Stanton Welch’s Giselle Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2019), Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Corps de Ballet, Houston Ballet
The Covid-19 crisis has influenced everyone's lives dramatically. I've gone back to my family in New Zealand for the time being, but have been able to stay involved with Houston Ballet online. I've found it difficult to balance rest and work, is this a good opportunity to let my body rest and recover from what was a really intense performance season, or should I push through to the end of June when our next scheduled break was supposed to be and remain in the best physical condition I can? I think the answer for many of us has been somewhere in between, and I think that’s the best for me mentally and physically.
I take a combination of ballet class and contemporary classes throughout the week, and I attempt to alternate. Mentally, ballet can be quite frustrating for me at home because I've realized I rely so heavily on having a good floor, I've been trying to work on port de bras and balances specifically, but contemporary/modern classes can feel more rewarding as I don't feel I'm compromising as much. Partnering is something I'm always focused on trying to improve, but it has been really hard without dance partners or access to gyms. I try to get in push-ups in a variety of positions most days of the week so that it might hopefully take me less time to get back to where I was when we return. I take one day off dancing and working out completely, usually Sunday. Things like jumping, turning and partnering are a bit out of my control, so I'm trying to focus on things I can control like equipment-less PT, Pilates Mat, little jumps in sneakers etc. Everything has been an exercise in creativity and as someone who hopes to choreograph one day, I'm trying to take the time to exercise the creative parts of me that can be easy to neglect during the usually busy work schedule.
Michelle de los Reyes, Company Manager, Houston Ballet
Working from home when you work for a performing arts groups is just not something you ever imagined you’d do. Performing arts require collaboration throughout all aspects of the group and that is usually done in-person. Though some of the specifics of my job as Company Manager have changed, I am still doing many of the same types of work as before. Much of my day is still focused on managing the company of dancers and their doings. The big difference is that now I am doing all my work via phone or web. Communication is something that I think people take for granted when you see someone every day. But now, I am on the phone or web calls probably 60-80% of my day, making sure to stay in touch with the Artistic Staff and the company of dancers. All those little passing check-ins you can do when you see someone walking the halls now are deliberate phone calls or meetings. For me, this amount of digital connectedness, though extremely important, can sometimes be exhausting. One personal policy I have put in place is a hard start and end time for my day. Without it, I think working at home would allow ‘work time’ to creepy into and take over ‘home time’. So, unless something is urgent, I do my best not to work after 5pm. When that time hits, I change into my workout gear and do my daily work out and/or walk. I’ve found this to be a really great transition from being ‘on’ for other people to quieting down for my ‘me/family’ time.
Barbara Bears, Ballet Master, Former Principal Dancer, Houston Ballet
I’m walking 2-4 miles a day around the bayou. I try to keep a good pace, enjoying the nice weather and trying to keep my distance from others. I’m trying to stretch once a day. Also, I have 2 yoga mats that I set up in my kitchen to give myself a barre. I regret not grabbing my Theraband and Yamuna balls out of my locker but I’m making do with what I have.
Amy Fote, Ballet Master, Former Principal Dancer, Houston Ballet
As a ballet master with Houston Ballet, I often teach company class. Now, under COVID-19 measures, I teach from home on a slippery wooden floor (versus a sprung, Marley covered floor) holding onto a small ballet barre. In the studio, I’m used to hearing and sensing the reactions of the dancers, where now we do classes on Zoom. All of the dancers are muted, so when you make a comment, or a joke, or want to ask a question, you are met with silence on the other end (thank goodness for the thumbs up “Reaction” option on Zoom). When we first began Zoom classes, I had to use a CD with music dictating what comes next. It was a challenge to make combinations fit the specific track, from length to tempo. More recently, we have added a live accompanist to our classes so we’re also fortunate to have live (virtual) music again.
Our staff meetings are done using Skype for Business, where the person speaking appears on the computer screen. I’m not technologically savvy, so just to have someone’s face appear on my screen seemed like a big feat accomplished (and reason for applause in my own home)! But truly, we take for granted the social cues from one another when we’re sitting in the same room together. With this element missing, I feel our meetings have an in efficiency, not including the occasional Wi-Fi network issue, which causes me to miss even more.
I still do video homework, but very different from notating steps/formations. We’ve been asked to create videos of our own, and to approve those submitted by our dancers for social media posts. In any video I’ve personally submitted, it has to be done in one go, because I do not know how to superimpose text in my video, or combine different takes. Often the video submissions from the dancers come in with details missing, so I need to look up the dancers contact information and text, email, or call them to ask if they can redo a section or two.
The challenges are many, but we are resilient and will come through this having learned more skills and appreciating the sense of community even more than before.
Houston Ballet Principal Karina González and Soloist Harper Watters Photo by Claire McAdams (2019), Courtesy of Houston Ballet
For myself, a day-in-the-life has required a whole new set of skills and responsibilities. Since my outreach responsibilities at the Houston Ballet have been dialed back almost completely, as an employee of Houston Methodist, I was re-assigned to our main hospital at the Texas Medical Center. I have assisted with employee and patient screenings which involves taking temperatures and asking about symptoms or possible exposures to COVID-19 prior to entering the hospital facilities. I have also worked in the hospital’s central supply delivering various types of equipment and supplies throughout the hospital. Most interestingly, I have served on a medical intensive care unit assisting the medical staff with positioning intubated COVID-19 patients to optimize comfort and respiratory function.
All of these tasks have been challenging with unique physical and mental demands that I have had to adjust to. Trying to be flexible with a constantly shifting schedule and never knowing quite what to expect when I head in for a shift takes a lot of energy and mental preparation. When I am not working at the hospital I have tried to stay in touch with the Houston Ballet dancers, checking in to see how they are doing and making sure they have adequate resources for coping and staying physically fit during this unusual time. It has been helpful to have resources from IADMS that I can pass along to them to help guide them through this season safely and mindfully. Furthermore, I have been so grateful for a strong support system at home and lots of large parks and trail systems nearby where I can get outside often while still protecting myself and others.
IADMS has produced and collected resources for dancers during this difficult time. Our initiative – Helping Dancers Help Themselves – includes weekly webinars on Performing Artists’ Mental Health posted to our YouTube Channel, live panel discussions on safe dance during quarantine on our social media platforms, and more. For a list of medical resources, mental health resources, and online dance and exercise classes within IADMS and beyond, please visit www.iadms.org/coronavirus.
Thank you to the Houston Ballet for sharing your processes, struggles, and successes during this time.