World renowned dancer Emma O’Sullivan has been putting dancers through their paces during lockdown thanks to the wonder of technology.

Best known for her street performance videos shared by over 20 million viewers worldwide, Emma is one of one of the many people in our creative and performing arts sector whose livelihood has been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Described as a “gifted and natural teacher” she is in demand both at home and abroad as a tutor of the old-style dance traditional step-dance.

The All-Ireland Champion has a particular passion for the sean-nós style – a percussive discipline where steps are danced close to the floor, making it ideal for dancers of all ages – indeed, her eldest pupil is well into her 90s.

When Emma’s regular classes were cancelled when lockdown began back in March, she decided to try something completely new by setting up weekly solo step dancing classes conducted via Zoom which her students fondly call “zoom-nós”

“My dance instruction DVD “Step by Step” is quite popular abroad, but I never had the time to try and figure out the technology involved in online live tuition,” she says of her usual busy schedule, which involves street performances, gigs, teaching weekly classes in national and secondary Schools as well as occasional weekend workshops. So, the lockdown kind of gave me the time to explore it and get through the learning curve.”

Emma put together a 30-minute introductory sean-nos dancing tutorial video and uploaded it to YouTube. The feedback encouraged her to set up Zoom classes.

“There’s so much more to consider with zoom classes. Lighting and audio were a bit difficult, because while Zoom is fine for just chatting, suddenly I needed to talk and play music too.”

Happily, with a little advice from fellow dance teachers she was soon ready to put students through their paces three evenings a week across four different skill levels, complete with ‘homework’ videos for them to study between lessons. “Teaching to an empty room has taken some getting used to and I miss the connection with the students. I suppose everyone is feeling that loss now. I would always have had lots of hugs with my students or a clap on the back to say well done and of course the little ones love to hold your hand as they dance along – in Zoom we now have 15 minutes’ free time after class to check in with each other and have some social time to recreate that sense of comradery you find in person.

The classes have been hugely successful, helping Emma to reach a global audience, attracting dance enthusiasts from around Ireland and beyond, including participants from Germany, France, Spain, England, Portugal, Sydney, Moscow, Brazil and both US coasts. Groups in Japan, China and Argentina have their own private class to suit the time difference. “I am an early bird, so it suits me to hop out of bed and kick off a class with the Hiroshima group but staying up late to teach the Argentinean students requires a bit more stamina.”

As a teacher Emma’s enthusiasm for sean nos is infectious, making her Zoom classes a relaxed, fun way for folks to give it a try for the first time or stop themselves getting rusty while regular classes and workshops are unavailable. The classes also feature a strong focus on the history and heritage of Connemara also. Since lockdown Emma’s Facebook live videos which showcase the people of Connemara and their stories have been hugely popular.

“I always tell my students that as a sean-nós dancer you are a custodian of the heritage of the Gaeltacht areas. It is important to connect with Connemara and its people. Many students and Facebook fans have told me they feel really connected to the area through my social channels. I hope it will help beat the loneliness and isolation people are experiencing right now. Dancing is one of the best forms of activities because it keeps the mind alert and the body active,” Emma enthuses. The chats after class and sharing videos and music in our what’s app groups has created a brilliant sense of togetherness for my students around the world.”

Hopefully the current restrictions will ease over the coming months allowing Emma can get back to her regular performances and classes. However, it seems that might not mean the end of “zoom nós” especially when it comes to her new network of foreign students.

“I am not sure when air travel will get back to normal. Many of my students are taking the class in the absence of their annual trip to music festivals and dance workshops here. I will continue the Zoom classes for those who want it and I really look forward to the day when I can welcome them in person to Connemara and show them all the pretty places and the wonderful characters who feature on my social channels.”