What does one do when dancing isn’t allowed?
This may seem like a silly question or a cheeky callback to the premise of Footloose, but in reality, it’s an issue that has been all-too-real for dancers and dance organizations during the pandemic, which has seen nearly all venues and rehearsal spaces closed to meet safety regulations. Dancers and students have had even more hurdles to hop considering their art form usually requires intricate choreography and close contact. Simply put, dance organizations, their staff, and their students have been having a really difficult time.
Luckily, artists tend to be wily and creative, and a special partnership has developed between dance organizations and the City of Eugene Parking Services to come up with the creative solution of hosting dance practice and classes in the vacant levels of the Hult Center parking garage. One of the groups is the Academy of Ballet Fantastique, who have been hosting classes during the weekends.
We connected with Arabella Tan, who coordinates and teaches to find out about what it’s taken to sustain their artistry during these times:
We hear “unprecedented times” frequently, but what have been some of the biggest challenges and obstacles you’ve faced during this pandemic – for your art form and personal participation in it?
Arabella Tan: The biggest challenge of this pandemic has been finding new ways to teach and share an art form based on tactile touch and a strong sense of community. At the beginning of the pandemic and sporadically through the past year, we were not even able to let dancers into the studio. We had to navigate the challenges of connecting to our dancers on a digital platform. From the ground up, we built our first ever Virtual Dance Program (#bfanathome); we started with uploading, professionally-recorded classes, but our students and teachers were missing that essential personal connection with their students. Over the course of the Spring and Summer, we were able to set up a system for live virtual classes using Google Meet and Mindbody.
Since shelter-in-place was lifted, the biggest challenge has been adapting to the ever-changing requirements coming from the state. Everyone has been really receptive to all these new rules, but it takes time for these new habits to be learned. Whenever a new guideline is released, the Academy Coordinator has read through all the new documents from the state and retrain our staff (and update all our digital platforms and signage), and then our teachers reinforcing these new rules with students and families.
From an educational perspective – what transitions were needed and how has it been going?
Arabella Tan: Most if not all of our kids are taking school online from their homes five days per week. Kids are getting screen fatigue and cabin fever from spending all that time inside with their family. So as dance teachers, we had to remind ourselves that dance class is a respite for a lot of these kids. Ballet class can often be a bit rigid and structured, so, especially when we have to teach virtually or hybrid, we have been working on ways to keep classes engaging. Teachers are incorporating ballet steps into more interactive games for younger students and giving older students more opportunities to create their own dances. Teachers are also taking extra time to just check-in with students and parents, so that our families feel that they have someone to connect with outside of their household.
In the studios, another challenge has been maintaining physical distance. However, our teachers have been so creative! They have found ways to be more expressive with verbal directions and to either cut-down or change dance steps to allow more space between dancers.
I’ve never doubted that the arts would survive – but what have you seen that has given you hope or shows the resilience of artists?
Arabella Tan: We really are so thankful for how hard our teachers and families are working to adapt to virtual classes and new guidelines. Everyone has so many things going on, in and outside of the studio; we are seeing members of our community be very compassionate when it comes to giving others support or the space they need to cope with these challenges. When you are making all of these changes to adapt to a pandemic, mistakes and miscommunication happen, but families have been so understanding and teachers have really gone out of their way to make sure that every student feels included and caught up. Another plus is that we have seen new and returning dancers of all ages joining us from all over the country through our virtual program.
How did ballet in the garage come about and what have you been doing? What has the experience been like so far?
Arabella Tan: We actually started considering outdoor classes in the summer when the Company began to perform outdoors. But at the time our students were really just excited to be back in the studio, so we focused on that.
In late November, when Kate Brown announced the state-wide Freeze, we were forced to transition back to virtual classes with no knowledge of how long this would continue. Our older students were able to handle the transition pretty well, but our younger students really struggled not only with the virtual medium but the uncertainty of when they could return to see their classmates and teachers in-person. We even had to cancel the Winter Showcase we had planned to film in December. We had parents and teachers trying everything they could to keep the younger kids engaged, but by the end of December, our enrollment had plummeted.
With case numbers holding steady over the holidays, we decided to revisit the idea of outdoor classes, but we needed a covered space out of the Eugene winter rain. We saw that our neighbors in the DAC were using the Overpark as an outdoor gym. So we reach out to Eugene Parking of the City of Eugene and they offered us the Parcade space. We had our first week of classes at the Parcade on Jan 16th . Even in 40 degree weather, the kids were leaping and twirling ecstatically.
With a suggestion by Eugene Ballet Academy who was also using the space, Travis and his team at Eugene Parking switched us over to the Hult Center Garage. It’s a slightly smaller space with less foot traffic, which helps make our classes feel safer and more manageable for our teachers. We also think that it feels a little more symbolic to have our students dance right next door to our Company’s resident theater.
Before our studio opened up at the end of January, we were holding classes for dancers ages 2 to 13. Our dancers were able to rehearse for our rescheduled Winter Showcase filming using the Hult Center.
One of my favorite stories from this partnership: Bella Preston has not been to an in-person class since March because she lives with some high-risk family members. So the outdoor Jazz class at the Hult Center Garage was her first time seeing her teachers and classmates in-person in over 11 months. Her family is so thankful that Bella can have a safe outlet to express herself.
How can people support, get involved, or sign up for future activities?
Arabella Tan: We still have spots available for the Youth Jazz class and Bitsy Ballet at the Hult Garage. We will be holding an outdoor Robin Hood Storybook Camp March 22nd-24th. Email email@example.com if you are interested.
March 1st-6th: We will be running our 2021 BFan Free Dance Week. Open to the general public. Parents can redeem one FREE class for their child to attend, including classes at the Hult Garage (in-person spots are very limited, virtual options are also available). We are also offering free classes for adult dance students. Get involved with Free Dance Week
Support the Academy and Company by joining us for virtual watch parties, performance streaming, and live performances.
More information at balletfantastique.org or follow us @balletfantastique and @academyofballetfantastique
Interview by Rich Hobby with photos by Ben Schorzman. Dancers in image are Khaya Ainis-Michael and Bella Preston, with instructor Taylor Harrison.