Dance, dance revolution: Schools find different ways to keep students moving

  • Amherst Ballet has resumed some in-person classes, with a restricted number of dancers, while continuing to offer classes via Zoom. Image courtesy Amherst Ballet

  • Classes at the School for Contemporary Dance & Thought (SCDT) in  Northampton remain mostly on Zoom, and students and teachers find new ways to be creative.  Image courtesy School for Contemporary Dance & Thought

  • Inna Selman, 10, from left, Aurora Kim, 11, Sophie Michel, 12, Bess King-Pollet, 11, and Kora Brissett, 11, all students at Academy of Ballet Arts in Hadley, rehearse in a common area at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Katherine Bervera, artistic director of Academy of Ballet Arts, leads some of her students during a rehearsal at Village Hill in Northampton. Students have been practicing outside since summer. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sophie Michel, 12, an Academy of Ballet Arts student, rehearses for “The Coronavirus Ballet” at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sophie Michel, 12, an Academy of Ballet Arts student, rehearses for “The Coronavirus Ballet” at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kora Brissett, 11, on the ground, Inna Selma, 10, from left, Bess King-Pollet, 11, and Sophie Michel, 12, rehearse “The Coronavirus Ballet” at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kora Brissett, 11, from left, Inna Selman, 10, and Sophie Michel, 12, students at Academy of Ballet Arts, rehearse “The Coronavirus Ballet” at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kora Brissett, 11, from left, Inna Selma, Bess King-Pollet, 11, Sophie Michel, 12, Sabine Loinez, 9, and Aurora Kim, 11, rehearse “The Coronavirus Ballet” in a common area at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kora Brissett, 11, front, Inna Selma, 10, from left, Bess King-Pollet, 11, Sophie Michel, 12, Aurora Kim, 11, and Sabine Loinez, 9, rehearse “The Coronavirus Ballet” in a common area at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Inna Selma, 10, from left, Bess King-Pollet, 11, and Aurora Kim, 11, rehearse “The Coronavirus Ballet” in a common area at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aurora Kim, 11, left, and Bess King-Pollet, 11, students from Academy of Ballet Arts in Hadley, rehearse in a common area at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aurora Kim, 11, left,and Sophie Michel, 12, students from Academy of Ballet Arts in Hadley, rehearse “The Coronavirus Ballet” in a common area at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2020 11:55:24 AM

The pandemic has brought all sorts of constraints to the arts, from forcing most musicians from live to virtual performances to shuttering art galleries and museums for months, though many have now reopened for limited visitation.

For dancers and dance schools, COVID-19 has been a particular challenge: How do you perform or document a physical activity with a remote platform like Zoom, with its the fixed camera and the inability of dancers to be together?

As a new season gets underway, local dance schools are using a variety of means to teach lessons, from holding rehearsals outside to dancing in studios under strict safety protocols, as well as hosting Zoom sessions, in which teachers and dancers try to use the medium in creative ways.

“This is a very challenging time for anyone who’s dancing, but we’ve found that dancing outside is really working best for us,” said Kathrine Bervera, artistic director of Academy of Ballet Arts, located in Hadley. “The outdoors feels safe, and it really feels like it feeds the students’ creativity.”

When the pandemic hit in March, classes at Academy of Ballet Arts went to Zoom, as they did at other area dance schools. But this summer, Bervera began leading classes outdoors in the morning on the South Amherst Commons. The school has also conducted lessons in a common area at the Village Hill housing development in Northampton, and her 10-to-12 year-old students have choreographed their own dance, “The Coronavirus Ballet,” which will be performed at Village Hill at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 20.

Some things in ballet are tough to duplicate outside, notes Bervera, such as having dancers be en pointe, but overall it lets her students move much more freely than when taking classes remotely, she says; students still wear masks and stay apart from one another while outside.

“We plan to stay outside as long as the weather permits,” Bervera added. Her students “have been working very hard, and their technique has improved.” After that they’ll return to Zoom; Bervera says she and her students’ parents agreed they’re not feeling ready yet to have students practicing indoors together.

Amherst Ballet, however, is now offering a mix of in-person and remote classes. The school went to virtual classes last spring, but in July one in-person class, held four days a week, was offered to gauge the possibility of bringing back more studio instruction, according to Reiko Sana, president of the school’s board of directors.

In-person classes are now offered with various restrictions: masks are required at all times, classes are limited to five and seven students, respectively, in the two studios, and class times are staggered to allow for regular cleaning/disinfectant of all areas and to prevent many people being at the building at the same time.

A webcam has also been added to one studio, and with a computer placed next to the instructor, students can also take these classes, at the same time, via Zoom, Sono notes.

“We’re trying to be flexible,” she said. “Our older students [teens] in particular have been very eager to come back to the studio. But if you’re not feeling well, or you don’t feel comfortable being in the studio, you can be in your home.”

Sono says the biggest challenge with remote classes has been keeping very young students engaged; some students left the school when in-person classes were suspended in March, she notes, and haven’t returned. On the other hand, Sono said, some “talented alumna” from the school are back to teaching classes for Amherst Ballet as they struggle with a tight job market elsewhere.

For instance, former student Anna Plummer, an Amherst College graduate, is now teaching a Zumba class — a combination of fitness and Latin dance — at Amherst Ballet, both in person and via Zoom.

Thrilled to be back

At the Hackworth School of Performing Arts in Easthampton, where the fall session starts Sept. 19, in-person classes are resuming, though with many safety protocols in place. Co-owner Lisa Anthony notes that the floors of the school’s four studios have been marked to keep dancers several feet apart; before the pandemic, the school could accommodate about 70 to 90 students at a time, Anthony notes, but now that number will be limited to about 50.

Students can also continue to take classes via Zoom, Anthony notes, which in general have worked well, though she noted there has been a drop in attendance among young children. “Our teachers found some really creative ways to keep them engaged [in spring],” she noted, “but when the warm weather arrived, there was some fall-off.”

Overall, students, especially older teens, are thrilled to be back for in-person classes, Anthony said: “They’re really excited about seeing their friends again.”

Jen Polins, the founder and director of the School for Contemporary Dance & Thought (SCDT) in Northampton, says her school has also struggled to retain young students in Zoom classes. “I just think it might be too abstract for them,” said Polins. “The younger students really benefit from being in the studio with a teacher.”

SCDT is going almost entirely with remote instruction for its fall classes. The format has worked well for the school’s teenage dance company, called Hatchery, said Polins (the group has also met outdoors on Sundays for a shorter lesson and to allow members to touch base with one another).

“Everyone has worked on finding different ways to bring creativity” to Zoom sessions, said Polins. One example is dancers tailoring their movements to the space they’re in and having students approach and then move way from the camera.

Hatchery has also opened registration to teens from across the country — Polins says she has gotten some initial inquires from Colorado and Washington, D.C. — and teachers from outside the area will offer lessons, including Sakina Ibrahim, a dancer, writer, teacher and alumna of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley.

“Of course, we’d like to get back to being together when we can, but I’m excited about what we’ve been doing,” said Polins.

Hatchery students will perform a virtual dance concert in December. SCDT and A.P.E.@Hawley are also staging their fifth annual “Practicing Presence” festival Sept. 24-27, an online event that combines dance and movement, with classes, film and other events that offer “opportunities for clearing, calming, energizing, and focusing the body-mind,” according to press notes.

More information on these area schools can be found at academyballetarts.com, amherstballet.org, hspadance.com. and scdtnohn.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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