I read a quote by R.H. Sin the other day.
“She is strong, but she is tired…”
I could not relate to anything more in my life right now.
You may have noticed I didn’t release a podcast episode this week. I just didn’t have it in me. Between the amount of phone calls and Zoom meetings lately, I guess you could say I’m tired of listening to the sound of my voice.
They say that writing helps you understand what’s going on and makes sense of your thoughts. I believe writing also makes you think of new ideas and come up with solutions to your problems. Well that’s the hope anyway…
I also find that when I share a personal experience it helps others. So (especially if you’re a dance teacher, studio or small business owner) I hope this helps you feel less alone.
I. Am. So. Tired. However I’ve avoided admitting this in public because I feel like so many other people are more worthy of the title.
Take for example the many parents around the world trying to navigate home-schooling and working-from-home or the essential workers who have become the pandemic super heroes. My partner and I don’t have children. He’s working from home though and our only goal every day is to be kind to each other and know when the other needs some space. So I feel like I’m not quite allowed to admit to being tired… there are so many others out there in much more difficult situations.
And yet I am. I am so tired. I can only describe my tiredness as an over emotional decision fatigue coupled with fury. On top of confronting feelings I’ve never had to imagine before, every day I’m faced with a million decisions about my business, my community and it’s future. If one more person tells me to pivot, enjoy this time off or ‘at least you have your health’… I’m going to scream at them.
The week before our studio was forced to close I remember thinking that we were experiencing a slow and painful death. With no clear direction from authority and decisions being updated and drip fed hourly, I felt like an organic chicken running around the backyard with everyone in the family deciding when, where and the best way to kill me. All I wanted was for someone to just cut my head off already.
If you have a small business that deals with clients face-to-face you’ll understand how emotionally exhausting and traumatising those last few weeks were. Between being on hold to banks and support lines I’d have to pop on a smile when a client walked in for class or stop myself from crying when a client broke down in my foyer. There was such an array of emotions walking through the doors and when you’ve built a space where people feel safe to feel, express and cleanse through movement all those feelings come to the surface to be purged.
Even though it almost killed me, I’m proud to say I was there for anyone who needed me. But I’ll admit it was one of the hardest times of my life and every night I cried all the way home.
When we finally received directive that the studio had to close I breathed a sigh of relief. I thought the exhaustion was finally over, but boy was I wrong. The next week was spent drafting (and re-drafting!) emails filled with communication to our dance community and filtering through the responses which ranged from overwhelming care and concern to, ‘What do you mean you’re closed? Can I get my $19 back for next weeks class!’
The day after we closed, I woke up with nowhere to be. It was strange. I’m used to getting up, going to the gym and making my way to the studio for a full day of classes. Instead I laid on the couch, tears streaming down my face, too frozen to begin tackling the endless to-do list. Then someone called me because they showed up for class and everything was closed. I asked if she’d received my emails, my social media announcements… maybe watched the news? Instead of apologising she huffed and hung up. I slumped further into the couch.
I felt like I answered emails for days. And the calls! The calls! I felt like every dance teacher, studio owner or friend I’d been in contact with over the past five years called to ‘check in’ or ask for advice. I think we all thought someone might have an answer to all our problems. Some kind of secret, genius move. But of course, none of us did.
I answered calls from studio owners who are much younger than me. They were scared. They look up to me and what I’ve built and were hoping I’d just tell them what to do. I felt their disappointment when they realised I didn’t have a clue. My less than straightforward answer was, ‘Look I’m really not sure what to do. But I do know you have to do what’s right for you and your community and that looks different for everyone…’
I myself called those who I admire, who I thought might have an answer. Between us we tossed up and tossed out idea after idea before shrugging our shoulders and calling it a day. In the end they gave me the same answer that I gave those younger studio owners, except my mentors also suggested a big glass of wine…
Conversations and thoughts seemed to go around in circles. Between brainstorming ideas and talking about the sheer absurdity of the situation, I wondered what we ever spoke about before the pandemic. I felt dizzy from the conversations, the decisions, the circling back to topics that felt done to death. I felt so dizzy that one night I dreamt about my email inbox spiralling out of control and I woke up in a sweat, running to the bathroom to throw up.
The reason decision fatigue was in full force was because I was trying to come up with a solution that was sensitive to everyone’s varying financial and psychological situations. An impossible task. The way I saw it, studios were responding in three ways; run your timetable online and send invoices as normal (insensitive), close the doors and offer nothing (dangerous) or offer free content (expensive).
I understood why studios were trying to run full timetables and sending out invoices as if business was as usual. They probably had huge bills to pay and (like many small businesses) no money squirrelled away for a rainy day. But here’s the thing; business wasn’t as usual and we were facing an extremely unusual situation.
In my opinion, offering a full smorgasbord of classes with little adaptation and little discount was not only an unsafe option, but an insensitive one. With families loosing their jobs and financial stability, I found it difficult to even contemplate charging for my ‘non-essential service’. And yet, despite being comfortable (we’ve always saved for a rainy day) I didn’t want to charge nothing because our service and skillset is incredibly valuable.
So I opted for a combination. I sent out a carefully worded email to our dance community that took days to write. In it I provided two options. Option ‘A’ consisted of a paid virtual timetable with very limited spots available to ensure small class sizes and quality training. Option ‘B’ consisted of free YouTube content and connection through our social media channels designed to inspire our students to continue moving their bodies.
Many studio owners asked what I was doing, so I told them. I was always greeted with the same response. “So you’re letting them choose? Well they’re going to choose the free option. How do you expect to make money during this time?” And that’s the thing, I didn’t expect (I don’t expect) to make money during this time. This time is bigger than all of us. This time is about playing the long game and being empathetic towards our clients.
I kept coming back to…
People will always remember how you made them feel.
I felt like a combination model not only assisted those who wanted that in-person feel but was also incredibly sensitive to families who simply couldn’t afford our service right now. I hit send and hoped for the best.
The emails poured in. Everyone was so thankful for the options and the thought that went into our approach. I’d never felt so loved or ‘essential’ in my whole life. It almost made the whole pandemic situation worth it. The time it must have taken for some of my students and families to write these heartfelt emails!
Then every now and then I’d receive an email or phone call from a parent who didn’t understand why we weren’t re-opening. Usually they were rude. Usually they sounded frustrated. I tried not to judge them and reminded myself that everyone is really sensitive right now. I kindly asked if they’d watched the news lately and explain that the government literally won’t let businesses like ours open their doors yet. I tried not to giggle at their ignorance, but giggling stopped me from crying.
I was feeling good. A couple of days later I’d finished replying to everyone, setting up our new enrolments in the online system and negotiating internet contracts with our providers to get the best possible connection. Many students weren’t opting into virtual classes (this was to be expected) but the limited spots I’d opened up with an anticipated amount of students filled up fast.
Everyone felt heard. Everyone felt seen. This was my goal and I felt (finally!) that I was on the right path. Now I just had to start teaching my little butt off online…
No one can prepare you for teaching online. Especially being forced to teach online. If it’s not a choice it’s got an extra stab to it. I don’t know how to explain it, but when teaching an online class everyones minds feel like they’re together, but our bodies are not. This dissonance is confusing and exhausting.
You see, when I’m usually walking around a studio teaching a class I pick up on so many non-verbal cues. For example, I truly believe a ballet class starts well before the music begins. I watch my clients walk across the car park, enter the studio, pick their spot and warm up. I can tell if someone is having a bad or good day without a single word muttered. I can tell if they’re frustrated, depressed, ecstatic or content just from their body language.
When you teach an online class you simply log on and are expected to start teaching. That’s not my style. I like to get a sense of the room first and deliver a class that suits how everyone is feeling. It’s a vibe.
The other problem with online teaching is that everyone is usually delayed by a second or two. Before beginning online classes I read a study that showed these short delays make people appear less friendly or focussed. All of a sudden I become obsessed with shortening the delay, being over-the top friendly and hyper aware of my facial expressions. Again, an exhausting act.
I quickly started experiencing what the experts call ‘Zoom Fatigue’…
But I pushed on and most importantly I wanted to inspire and ensure my students (especially my adult ballerinas) understood what this time would and could be about. So I wrote a short script that I’d slightly deviate from depending on the age of students, but it went something like this;
Today is all about going back to basics. Through this time, through this alternate universe filled with technology, there are positives. If you continue your practice, you will learn more about your body than ever before. Carving out this focussed time for yourself will not only evolve the conversation you have with your body but it will also mature, extend and develop a more sophisticated mind-body connection. Because this is different to the studio environment, you will have to trust yourself and your movement a little more. If you make a mistake please don’t be hard on yourself. Be gentle. I’m already so proud (and grateful) that you showed up for yourself today. Let’s begin…
I didn’t type this out because I needed a script to instil belief. I typed it out because I believed it so wholeheartedly that I didn’t trust myself to remember to remind everyone. And I thought that reminding everyone was one of my most important jobs as a teacher right now.
Many of us turn to work to find our value and identity. I can guarantee anyone in this position is finding this time incredibly stressful. I keep seeing Instagram posts telling me to ‘find a hobby’ or ‘redefine myself’. But what if you don’t want to? What if your work makes you happier than anything? Besides family of course.
I have built an entire identity around what I do. Some may view that as a dangerous thing (especially now) but it has forced me to become creative…
You might already know this, but I’ve been running a little ‘Live’ ballet class on Instagram and YouTube every Friday night at 5PM AEST. It’s called ‘Glass During Class’ which is a spin on my famous in-studio event ‘Glass After Class’ for adult ballerinas. Except you guessed it, we get to drink during class from the safety and privacy of our own homes.
This little community initiative was the best decision I ever made during the covid curfew. Yes, it’s online. But it’s more relaxed. YouTube and Instagram are fun and I teach for the love of teaching. No one pays for the service and over three hundred people tune in. Women (and some men!) comment and connect with one another and afterwards they tag me in pictures of themselves participating in class so I can share them.
Every Friday at 4.55PM my partner leaves the house for a walk (to give me some privacy with my students!) and I teach class for one hour from my living room. I pick a theme each week that usually determines the type of music I play and I pour a drink and do what I do best – communicate.
I communicate the importance of connection. I communicate my love of ballet. I communicate the technique and fundamentals whilst setting class work. I communicate how much I appreciate everyone for tuning in.
Then at 6PM I log offline and sit on the couch just as the boyfriend walks through the door with dinner. He asks how class went but tip toes around the discussion. He knows that I’ll pretend to watch the movie he puts on during dinner because I’m too busy reposting everyone’s pictures and answering their many messages of thanks. Last week was the first time I did this without tears quietly streaming down my face.
This week will be the fifth ‘Glass During Class’ event and with this number I came to the realisation that my studio has been closed for over a month now. Over a month!
Everyone will agree that one of the hardest things about all of this is the unknown. My students keep asking me when we’ll be open again. It breaks my heart to tell them that I just don’t know. One thing is for certain though, I know I’m going to be even stronger after all this.