One masked dancer, two frozen screens: Local dance studios respond to COVID-19

Thursday, October 1, 2020 - 5:52pm

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Annie Klusendorff/Daily

Randazzo Dance Studio normally has around 250 students that waltz in and out of its doors on Washtenaw Ave. The school, founded in 1940, hosts three studios that support classes in ballet, tap, modern, jazz, musical theatre, hip hop, lyrical and pilates, plus rehearsals for the affiliated ballet and tap performance companies. It’s a busy place, invigorated by the singular buzz of energy felt during weekday afternoons of local dance studios across the country: music bouncing off the walls, students breathing heavily after big sequences of jumps and teachers counting in sets of eight. 

Heidi Vitso, co-owner of the studio, knows this bustle well. In her ballet classes, she normally welcomes about 20 students at a time, moving through their spacing and offering physical corrections to further their understanding of the art form. This year, she’s only allowed six in-person students at a time — the rest she watches simultaneously through video tiles on Zoom. The two groups fight for her attention: studio, screen, studio, screen, studio. 

“It’s really hard to coordinate that and Zoom at the same time,” Vitso recently said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “You can’t physically correct the students on Zoom.” Dancing is often achieved through methods that cannot be verbalized, but rather moved, experienced and demonstrated. Mired by physical distancing and Zoom boundaries, she’s left to find words for things that she has only ever had to feel.

“It’s not a good way to teach,” she said, “but it’s better than nothing.” 

This predicament is not unique. Dance training may be one of the harder things to achieve online — good, individualized coaching often depends on physical touch and visible synchronization with music. These factors feel quite impossible in 2020. Of course, like everyone else, the last six months catalyzed conversations among dancers about  how to make the impossible possible. But much of social media only displayed the strategies used by professional dancers and prestigious academies with flexible funds at their disposal. Local studios in Ann Arbor face just as many challenges, but with far fewer resources. 

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Sara Fox teaches hip hop, jazz and ballet at Dance Theatre Studio on North University Ave. In March, the school took several weeks off before resuming completely online. 

“I went home to Chicago,” she said, “and I was just teaching from my room with my laptop.” The wifi didn’t work perfectly, the computer’s camera couldn’t capture all of her demonstrations and her fourth grade students started complaining that they didn’t have enough space for the combinations. As a student of the Department of Dance, Fox herself was increasingly familiar with such constraints — but “it’s hard to just say ‘suck it up’ to a fourth grader,” Fox said. 

That struggle pushed many students away from returning to dance classes this fall. Randazzo’s enrollment, for example, is now down by almost 45 percent. Many dance schools operate on budgets reliant on high enrollment from their preschool and elementary-aged students — two groups that offer significant challenges in terms of enforcing physical distancing and engaging over Zoom. Even with the older students remaining, Vitso struggled to schedule classes at Randazzo’s studios: “We’ve also had to put 15 minutes between each class for COVID cleaning,” she said, “and we can’t start classes until students are done at school.” The limitations further inhibit the studio’s ability to make up for lost funding. 

Zoom classes do not help with this financial strain — they are actually quite a costly endeavour. When Fox resumed teaching in September, DTS stayed completely online and invested in TVs and cameras for each room, where she connects with her students on a larger screen and with a bigger picture. Randazzo made similar investments for their hybrid structures, and also increased their broadband strength. While the end result makes online teaching more accessible, the technological learning curve was not easy.

“The first week of classes was literally a nightmare,” Vitso said. 

Despite these rough waves, the original missions of both teachers stay the same. Dance remains doable, and for the students, enjoyable. 

“I’ve always wanted my students to love to dance,” Fox said, “and that has not changed.” Now, Fox is hoping to help her students work on becoming more independent with that love. Motivation dwindles easily when students cannot fully see her demonstrations, and they remain barred from the social aspect of after-school class — but Fox is grateful for the students’ dedication in coming back each week. 

When Vitso’s students take their turn at in-person instruction, she can sense their excitement. “They say ‘it’s so good to be back Miss Heidi! It’s so much better here than on the TV set!’” 

Now, Vitso has her eyes set on the spring: Perhaps a performance outside under a tent, and eventually they will return to recitals at Saline Middle School. For now, the bright eyes that sit atop masked faces will have to do the trick. 

Daily Arts Columnist Zoe Phillips can be reached at zoegp@umich.edu.

 


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