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Let’s face it - 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year, especially for the dance industry--and it’s still only September! When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit in March, studios were forced to close their doors and go virtual, competitions had to cancel countless events, and live performances continue to be on hold for the foreseeable future.
On the Season Two premiere of Making the Impact, host Courtney Ortiz sat down with studio owners Erika Hogan of New Attitude Performing Arts Center (Rock Hill, SC and Stanfield, NC) and Becky Chiasson of Spotlight Dance Academy (Westford, MA) to discuss how they’ve navigated the pandemic and returned to their new dance seasons.
So how did these two owners pivot in the wake of abrupt change?
Erika started to prepare for virtual classes after seeing other studios reacting. As a result, when she was forced to close on March 19, she started virtual classes immediately. Becky took a different approach, opting to give her dancers and parents a moment to breathe. Instead of jumping right into Zoom classes, Spotlight Dance Academy took the months of March and April to do pre-recorded classes and complete different conditioning and technique assignments. In May, they jumped onto Zoom, which, for others, seemed late, but it allowed the dancers to avoid burnout as they wrapped up their season in June.
Although Zoom has been a great way to keep dancers training and in contact with each other, it certainly presents its own set of issues. For Erika, her North Carolina studio location has bad internet. On top of the connection speed, teachers have to constantly navigate sound quality, music, and whether to mirror the dancers or face away from the camera.
And the dancers face their own challenges. Often, siblings take different classes at the same time, so families have to navigate space, devices, and internet speeds, all on top of the other hardships and worries of day to day life.
While learning routines on Zoom wasn’t ideal, dancers across the country adapted to this new mode to celebrate the end of the season in different ways. Erika had six mini outdoor recitals in one day, while Becky, after surveying her studio’s parents for their preferences, did a livestream awards ceremony complete with recorded interviews of students sharing their favorite memories and moments from the season.
Post-recital, dancers were excited to leave last season in the past and start fresh, even if classes and studio protocols look a little different.
While dancers navigate the new normal of mask-wearing, distancing, and limited traveling in classes, studio owners are constantly gathering new information from local and state leaders around new guidelines and regulations. For Erika, having two studio locations in two states, even if only an hour apart, has been complicated. She was able to resume in-person classes at her SC location at the end of May, but has yet to open her doors in NC. Not only is this frustrating, but it’s also confusing for the students who all know each other from training and competing together over the years.
In MA, Becky resumed in-person classes on July 13 and did a 6-week summer session, but it was unclear where dance studios fell in terms of guidelines for re-opening, so the mandates continue to be murky.
Both owners have had to limit class sizes and both have gone above and beyond to ensure safety, not only with enhanced cleaning protocols and temperature checks, but also with studio setup. Becky created different entrances for each studio to avoid traffic, set markers on the floor for standing and designated areas for dancers to place their belongings.
Similarly, Erika closed her lobby and only dancers are allowed inside the building. To make up for the TV monitors in the lobby where parents could previously observe classes, she sends a Zoom link to parents to log in and observe the last ten minutes of class. She has also transformed her storage room into an additional studio to make up for the caps on class sizes.
And then there’s the question around masks. Different states have different requirements, and every parent and dancer has their own approach and comfort level. As small business owners, it’s the studio owner’s right to make the rules, but Erika reminds us that they can’t afford to lose students right now, which makes the situation that much trickier. She also notes that for young dancers who are known to push themselves to their limits, it’s hard for them to know at what point they need to take a break due to constricted breathing.
At Spotlight Dance Academy, Becky has set up six or eight foot boxes throughout her spaces and the dancers only use every other box, which means that they’re 12-16 feet apart all times. Given this distance, she allows them to take their masks off once they’ve settled. Some studios are under government mask mandates, though. Courtney went out to the West Coast to teach over the summer and was required to wear a mask for the entire class, as were all of the dancers.
Becky notes that parents are going to push back either way; some won’t send their kids to the studio if the dancers aren’t all wearing masks, and some feel the opposite. Ultimately, they have to follow the government orders and like most aspects of this pandemic, everything is in flux right now and there are many question marks, including in-person school start dates in some counties.
Here at IDA, we’re all about the competition side of the dance industry, so looking ahead to the 2021 season, things will be altered, but hopefully dancers will be able to get on stage. Some events have already been rescheduled and have been hugely successful.
Becky brought some of her dances to a couple of these events and had great experiences. She noted the block scheduling of one studio at a time, required masks while not on stage, and the live-streamed awards at the end of the day. She did explain that this created a new mystery during awards since the dancers hadn’t seen any of the routines that placed in front of or behind them.
Erika echoed these sentiments and also noted that for the dancers, it’s an exciting moment when they place and get to stand up and introduce themselves. With live-streamed awards, this element gets lost. It’s also a challenge to explain to the parents that they have to drive three hours to then dance for two and return back home that same day. But both owners felt that everyone was just so excited to get on stage that they were willing to do anything to make that happen.
The competitions have tried, in every way, to make their events work for their customers and they deserve to be applauded. This new structure is going to force a change in how judges approach their job, though, since the structure is now more like a recital for each studio instead of being mixed in throughout the event.
While studio owners, dancers, teachers, and parents have all had to adjust to this new normal, there are some silver linings to the pandemic.
Perhaps one of the greatest skills that dancers have adopted is an ability to learn choreography from different angles. As Courtney explained, during her time in Portland, she had half of the dancers in the studio and half on Zoom, which meant that the dancers in the studio were behind her and learning in the mirror, while the Zoom students had to essentially reverse all of the combinations. This is a great skill for auditions and learning repertory! Another silver lining that both Becky and Erika mentioned is that this is forcing them to be more creative as choreographers. Gone are the days of being able to insert the same turn sequence in multiple pieces, now that the judges are watching all of the dances from each studio at once.
Becky also mentioned that she feels like she can re-block anything now. When it comes to partnering and formations, there are still question marks, but in the adapting way that dancers have always operated, Becky feels that she can create as she wishes and change it later. For Erika, since her studios didn’t compete at all last season, she is reusing a lot of last year’s pieces. She is also using the time to do more small group dances in styles that the students don’t experience as much.
So although the season didn’t end as most had hoped, the dance world continues to show its resilience and we all know that we will emerge stronger than ever...but until then, let’s remember that we’re in this together and our community is one of the strongest. Oh, and wear your mask!
Maddie Kurtz is a staff writer, teacher, judge, and dance educator. Check out her other articles on the IDA Blog and visit her website here.