This time last year, as was the case for many people, I had never heard of Zoom. I was introduced to it in the middle of March 2020 at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, when our two-week writers retreat was chopped in half. The World Health Organization had just declared the COVID-19 outbreak a worldwide pandemic.
I was part of the first batch of writers who got to read from their work when everything was ‘normal’. But by the second Friday, almost all of the participants had pulled out and departed. Only an American woman from the Bay area and I were left. We sat in the deserted lounge of Lloyd Hall, and at precisely 7pm (Mountain Time) something called Zoom was activated on her laptop. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Four days earlier these poets, playwrights, and fiction writers were here with us at the Banff Centre, hiking with us on nearby trails, eating in the gorgeous dining room with its panoramic views. Now I recognized each of them fenced off in squares on her screen as they sat in their bedrooms or living rooms in Vancouver, Portland, San Diego, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, St. John’s. One by one they read a poem or two, a scene from a play-in-works, or a piece from their manuscript. I trembled slightly as if seeing a miracle. I saw each of them as if through a keyhole.
Back in Toronto, reality hit. My retreat in the Rocky Mountains was over and the world had turned upside down. My Pilates on the Ball studio was shuttered, my way to make a living on hold. I could not shake the memory of what I had seen in Banff. Was it possible to take baby steps into technology and somehow teach Pilates through a keyhole?
My first Zoom Pilates classes were angst-ridden experiments. I selected five of my more tech-savvy students and invited them to a 30-minute class that I taught from an armchair in my spare room. I placed my MacBook laptop on a small table in front of me and leaned in. I saw two bodies lying on their mats in a corner of their respective living rooms. One knew to close the curtains behind her to cut out glare; the other had pushed back her laptop so I could see three-quarters of her body. A third student was in shadows. Two of the five had black holes with their names stamped on them, as if they had tossed a black cloth across their lenses. Afterwards, one student taught the others how to unmute themselves, and how to turn on their cameras, so we could discuss the class.
Fine tuning was essential. Without balls or equipment, I had only my words and a few hand gestures to help people to understand what I wanted them to achieve. Nor could I rely on physical feedback. In the studio I used a gentle touch to adjust a student’s body. Now I could only describe the movement, and modulate the results with unambiguous cues and exact prompts. To make sure my students had a good and safe experience, I had to convey exactly the goal of each exercise, where the movement was coming from, what muscles needed to be activated. Most important, I wanted them to follow my words and not be craning their necks to look at me on their screens.
By the middle of April, 2020, I had moved off the armchair onto the floor. I took the laptop down there with me and set it up on a low stool so students could see my movements. But when I lifted my leg in the air my foot was cut off on the screen. When I knelt up tall, my head was not visible. The keyhole was small and precise; and I needed to be, too. I fine-tuned the angle of the screen, as I did the cues I used for each repetition. I discovered that Zoom allowed me to record. I could save a recording and watch it afterwards—cringingly. I introduced more light, even wrapped one bare lamp with a patch of milky plastic cut from my shower curtain, after reading that it would diffuse light and help with shadows. I rejigged the background, moved away clutter, and listened critically to the sound and volume of my voice.
I remember being told in my training that mat-work was the heartbeat of Joseph Pilates’ method. I saw now the indisputable truth of this statement. Teaching in this unique and unusual way—me alone with only a mat and a laptop – had reunited me with the essence of Pilates.
At first it was exhausting. To teach one hour on Zoom made me as tired as three classes in the studio. But I welcomed this challenge. And I needed it. The fact is I had been coasting as a teacher for the last five, probably seven years, ever since I had stopped going to various cities in Brazil to teach Pilates workshops to instructors and fitness professionals. My first weeks on Zoom reminded me of those full-day workshops, which were the most physically and mentally challenging teaching I had ever done. In both cases I had to use hand motions and the precision of my own demonstrations to communicate. Clear, concise words were needed in translation, as in Zoom. So were lots of smiles to humanize the process and make people feel engaged.
By June, I began to watch how young YouTube ‘influencers’ and awesome Pilates teachers such as Margot McKinnon, founder of Body Harmonics.com, work online. They advised tight clothing, vibrant colours, and ‘to smile like Breakfast TV’. They included lighting charts and links to cheap ring lights on Amazon, so that the audience could distinguish legs, arms and torso from the mat and background. At 64, I was now wearing spandex leggings, which I had never before owned, so that my movements could be seen clearly through the keyhole!
Time on Zoom was also different than in-person, and I had to adjust by speaking more slowly and taking time to set people up in a good neutral start position– whether lying on their backs, stomachs, sides, or standing. I had to do this before each and every exercise. And I asked more questions of my students in a virtual class than I did in the studio. Where were they feeling the work? In the front of the hip or the back? Could they feel how the shoulder blades ‘glided like slippery bars of soap on the back of the ribcage?’ Thumbs up or down? Communicating with thumbs was something I also used to do in Brazil; who knew it would work so well on Zoom.
As the months dragged on, I eventually let go of my studio for good. I saw that teaching through a keyhole was here to stay. It was not perfect, but I enjoyed it. I relished the comfort of teaching from home. I felt as connected to my students as I had in the studio. I saw all the humanity of their lives and its interruptions—UPS at the door, a son asking about dinner, or a cat wanting to share a student’s mat at precisely the moment she rolled back on it. Charming, although less so when my internet acted up. But even that utterly infuriating connectivity problem has been solved (so far) with a 24 buck ethernet cable. I still can’t believe that I can flick up the lid of my laptop, click on my ‘meeting’ and see my students in cities across the country? Nothing short of a miracle. One year later, I still feel that magic.
Next week we’ll look at Zoom classes from the opposite side of the keyhole and explore how to make your experience as a participant more fruitful.