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How This Educator Is Keeping Recreational Dancers Invested During the Pandemic

Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

"I teach dance to kids who are 10 and under who only dance once per week," Oleson says. "It's so different from my highly intense competition upbringing in America. I'm not working with people who live, breathe and die for dance. I have to try different tactics."

Oleson shared the tools she's been using to keep casual dance students engaged, her recommended reading for dance educators and more.

Shannon Oleson in passe in her living room, teaching a Zoom class. She is in front of her black couch, and behind a clear coffee table with an unfinished puzzle on it.

Courtesy Oleson

On utilizing the Zoom camera: 

"I like to play with virtual backgrounds, as well as going in and out of the camera frame. I've had the dancers come close to the screen, or hide from view. I also use games that play off the sides of the room and other silly illusions that the camera can make. The kids really like how it shakes things up from their regular, virtual school classes."

Her favorite teaching attire: 

"I'm a walking poster for lululemon—I worked there on and off for five years. It looks professional, the fabrics are flexible for teaching/demonstrating, and are so comfortable. I love the Align leggings and dance-studio pants. I'm normally rocking one or the other when I teach. I also love to wear Allbirds sneakers. The wool-fabric sneaker is flexible for showing footwork, and spacious so they don't hurt my bunions or feel too tight on my foot. Allbirds also have great arch support and make all my other joints feel better after long hours."

Shannon Oleson sits at her kitchen counter, waving at her computer screen and smiling. Her laptop is covered in colorful stickers, and her kitchen can be seen behind her.

Courtesy Oleson

How support for the arts differs in the UK:

"I've spoken with dance friends in the States as well as dance friends in Europe, and it seems like everyone in London is getting by, while those in the States are really struggling. Even with my visa, I have been fortunate enough to apply for scholarships and grants that aren't dance-related in order to maintain a base income. Those opportunities are just much less available back home."

Nondance hobbies:

"I tend to have a really anxious personality, so I've found Ashtanga yoga to be really helpful. I also love how it parallels barre in that you do the same poses each practice so it feels like something to go back to. Beyond that, I enjoy bouldering, cooking and anything that gets me outside."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I warm up mentally more than physically when teaching. I prefer to make sure I can step away from anything bothering me to be focused and available for my students. I try to take about 5 minutes alone, and that lets me focus my intentions for the classes. For more physical classes, I'll warm up with some dynamic movements that incorporate light stretching and get my heart moving."

Shannon Oleson poses in a bevel in her living room, teaching a Zoom class

Courtesy Oleson

Recommended reading:

"Peer-reviewed journals like Research in Dance Education, Dance Research Journal and Journal of Dance Education. These offer research-based information that can help build syllabi and offer new ideas for training."

On taking care of her dancers during this time: 

"Zoom can feel so isolating for the kids right now. They're dealing with this pandemic too, and it's so scary for them. So I'm open to hearing how hard they want to work that day, and fitting class to their needs. I also allow small chat breaks with water so they can feel connected to the other students."

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