For many years, the fundamentals of ballet class have remained largely unchanged. There was a barre, there was a mirror, and there was the beat of a piece of music. But recent months have seen that relative consistency brought to a halt.
The coronavirus pandemic forced ballet schools and dance centers in the D.C. area to abruptly close. Ballet dancers, once poised with one hand resting lightly on the barre and the other lifted overhead, now stand beside a dining room chair or a bannister during virtual class, if they have class at all.
Just offscreen, teachers and musicians are engineering creative ways to approximate in-person class, while executives and board members make calculations and contingency plans. The question hangs in the air: Will we reopen at all?
In March, when D.C. Public Schools announced a two-week closure until April 1, local dance studios followed suit, either taking a spring break or posting a handful of pre-recorded lessons to tide dancers over.
But the pandemic’s longevity soon became clear. For many schools’ leaders, the first concern—even ahead of potential financial fallout—was how to continue classes. Ballet lessons provide structure to the day and an outlet for younger dancers. More serious dancers need regular classes the way all athletes need regular training. The instruction is also crucial: Part of the teacher’s role is to observe students and correct their form when necessary.
Translating ballet training onto a screen is more complicated than it would initially seem. Joining class on a video platform like Zoom requires internet access; theFederal Communications Commission recommends a broadband subscription for regular use, like a class. According to the American Community Survey, about 83 percent of D.C. households have internet access, but only about 70 percent have a broadband subscription (rather than satellite or dial-up internet, or a cellular data plan). And these rates vary by ward. Less than half of households in Wards 7 (45 percent) and 8 (48 percent) have high-speed broadband subscriptions.
“Our class sizes have limited because most of the children don’t have access to telephones and the internet,” says Carrington Lassiter, executive director of Northeast Performing Arts Group, which provides arts education, including ballet classes, in northeast and southeast D.C. Lassiter estimates attendance in dance classes fell from around 40 kids in a week to about seven to 10.
Students also need a tablet or computer they can commandeer for the length of class, or even a smartphone. (Imagine learning a new dance combination on a screen the size of an index card.)
Even if children can do barre exercises at home, their safety must be considered. The height of their makeshift barre matters for preventing injuries, and the floor needs to have traction.
Especially for children, online safety is also a concern. “We set up passwords and waiting rooms and disabled things like the chat feature or the share screen to make it really challenging for any type of hacking,” says Monica Stephenson, head of school at The Washington School of Ballet Southeast Campus at THEARC in Ward 8.
These considerations aside, studios reopening depends on the guidance of their local governance. Under Mayor MurielBowser’s reopening plan, dance studios would likely fall under “arts education organizations.” Phase One guidance advised “continuing to use virtual or digital means for arts education, programs, and services.” Phase Two began on June 22, allowing studios to reopen with five people per 1,000 square feet with physical distancing. Phase Three will allow for 10 people in that area.
All of the directors featured in this story say they place students’ health and safety above concerns for their school’s finances. But, because tuition makes up one of the major sources of revenue for a ballet school, the limited reopening plan could make the finances of keeping the doors open even harder. The directors say they have taken a significant financial hit, or anticipate struggles by the fall.
Bethesda Conservatory of Dance went from more than 40 classes a week this spring to about 15 this summer by combining age groups and levels.
“We’re essentially not charging for the Zoom classes—it’s just the right thing to do for our students,” says its owner and director Colleen Snyder. “For us, it was just a matter of being able to give an outlet to the kids.”
“Financially, it’s terrible,” Alyce Jenkins, executive director of Maryland Youth Ballet, says of the pandemic’s consequences. As dance schools go, Maryland Youth Ballet was in a relatively stable position. Tuition for the children’s program was already paid through March, and few families asked for refunds. Over the years, the school had managed to save a rainy day fund, and it successfully applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, with difficulty. “It was rough just finding a way to submit an application,” Jenkins says. But the loan will enable them to continue operating for the summer.
Schools have redesigned their summer programs. Maryland Youth Ballet is offering its summer session both virtually and in person with a strict safety protocol. Among other measures, all students will wear a mask at all times and bring their own hand sanitizer, and the studio floors have been marked off into 10-foot spaces. The Washington School of Ballet and Bethesda Conservatory of Dance, on the other hand, have transitioned their summer programs fully online.
“We’re delivering the same number of hours of instruction and intensity and rigor,” Stephenson says, but the tuition is now significantly less. “We recognize obviously the differences between training at home versus training in a state-of-the-art ballet studio.”
Boards of directors for dance programs throughout the region are making similar calculations. Adagio Ballet School of Dance in Arlington decided to close entirely. “Unfortunately, our board of directors has come to the decision that the laws currently in place and the uncertainty of what is to come leave us no other option but to close,” the school wrote in an email to parents.
Bound up in these complex decisions are children, for whom a ballet studio is a place to make friends and build confidence. Paige Coles, 8, took ballet and jazz at Adagio. When classes started on Zoom, they became the highlight of the week, an opportunity to dance and a time to see friends.
“We didn’t see her smile,” says Rachael Flores, Paige’s mother. “Then all of a sudden, she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I saw Miss Stephanie,’ ‘I saw Miss Sarah Beth.’”
Paige and her younger sister both danced at Adagio. When she spoke to City Paper, Flores had shared the news of the school’s closing with Paige, but was still struggling for words to explain the loss to her younger daughter.
“I can’t tell you that there weren’t tears for both,” she says. “The 8-year-old and mom.”
For many children and their families, a dance school becomes more than a place to take class after school. As Lassiter puts it, “Northeast Performing Arts Group is home for a lot of our kids.”
At the Washington School of Ballet, the children in Level Three go together to be fitted for their first pointe shoes, a special milestone for ballet dancers. One student in Level Two asked her teacher, Stephenson, what would happen if they couldn’t go to the store next year.
Stephenson encouraged her, echoing the now-familiar phrase that this is not permanent, and there will be a time when class in the studio resumes.
“And even if there’s a delay in pointe shoes, you are going on pointe one day,” Stephenson says.