Clear the living room, throw on some shoes and press the spacebar.
It’s time to dance.
Starting March 30, dance studios will open in homes across the county as Carpinteria’s Curtis Studio of Dance resumes its regularly scheduled classes – virtually. Determined to provide some normalcy amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the studio will use the videoconferencing app Zoom to teach students anything from hip hop to acrobatics, all in the comfort of their own house.
“Everyone in the whole world is, in some sense, part of the same situation where their normal lives are completely disrupted,” said Nicole Powell, a teacher at the Curtis Studio. “For a professional or whatever stage of dancer someone is, that’s really hard because dancers are so consistent.”
To Ms. Powell, dance is an art of commitment. So when the studio’s owner Bonnie Curtis approached her with the idea of online classes, she couldn’t say no. And as Ms. Powell imagined what mediated dance lessons meant, she quickly realized classes could be what they’ve always been, particularly with Zoom.
While pre-filmed videos on YouTube or livestreaming seemed like attractive choices, Zoom provided something they did not – interactivity. Through Zoom, Ms. Powell and the studio’s other three instructors can see, talk to and correct students taking class. Apart from working with the teacher, students can also interact among themselves. This, quite literally, brings the dance school home, a much different atmosphere than taking tips from a television screen.
“Studio time is precious for any artist, but I think (it is) for dancers most of all,” said Ms. Powell. “Community is important. To be creative amongst other dancers. You need that.”
Ms. Powell knows the impact of losing a community firsthand. After UCSB moved to remote instruction earlier this month, Ms. Powell’s involvement in the university’s professional dance company came to halt. Suddenly, in-person classes and pieces the company has worked on for months were cancelled, leaving Ms. Powell’s schedule wide open.
But not for long, as she quickly turned her attention to her students.
“All of the work I had been focused on got postponed or cancelled, and it was devastating,” she said. “At the same time, I’m happy to use the free time to help.”
Translating class to an online setting will take some restructuring by the teachers, but Ms. Powell thinks the change could do their students some good. Without the space of a dance studio, lessons will have to focus on stationary exercises like stretching and strengthening the core rather than large movements across the floor. In other words, the dancers are going back to the basics.
“We can easily adapt class,” said Ms. Powell. “The good thing about ballet is that a lot of it can be done in a stable position. Jazz, contemporary, and hip hop choreography can be detail-oriented and stay in the upper body. Strengthening and conditioning can be done without a lot of room. Tap can be done quite easily in place to work on rhythms.”
Ms. Powell even thinks the at-home atmosphere might instill more self-awareness in her students, something every dancer needs whether on stage or at the barre.
“It will be a good lesson for everyone,” she said. “Learn how to correct yourself. I’m encouraging my students to take a video of themselves and watch it back so they can see for themselves the corrections that I would have given them. They can see it in their own bodies so maybe I don’t have to say it for the next time.”
This new kind of class may motivate students to push themselves, but Ms. Powell knows the opportunity goes far beyond technique. Having started online classes herself, she can’t wait to share the experience with her kids.
“(The classes) give me a sense of something that I’ve been doing in my life forever and really makes me happy,” said Ms. Powell. “As soon as I take one, I feel a little more okay with the situation because I have something to do.
“Growing up, dance was my social life, passion, and exercise. To have that and to not have school at the same time would be unbearable. What we’re doing is a way to give (students) community and keep something normal.”
This reliance on consistency even rings true for the teachers, whose wages have remained steady through the crisis. While Ms. Curtis knows her studio is a business, she couldn’t bring herself to cut the income of “her girls.” Her choice to continue with online class was in part practical, but most of all, sympathetic.
“I’ve paid my teachers through this whole thing,” she said. “They are getting full pay. I don’t care. They are my girls. They don’t have an income. Those are my employees. We’re like a restaurant or any other business that has employees sitting there with nothing to do as the days go by.”
Likewise, Ms. Curtis felt for her students, some of whom have faced financial setbacks due to COVID-19. Though she plans on charging the same amount of tuition for remote instruction, Ms. Curtis will happily accommodate anyone in need of a helping hand.
“Those being affected by the coronavirus financially can give me a call and we’ll cut tuition in half,” she said. “Some of them couldn’t even do that, so they’re taking classes for free. If they email me and explain their situation, they don’t have to pay at all. I’m not going to give out all classes for free. We are still a business. I need to consider that. But I will help those who are in dire need.
“I don’t care if I get a penny out of this. I really don’t. I just want to make sure the teachers can keep teaching and the kids can keep dancing.”
Even as she prepares to retire and move to Oregon by June, Ms. Curtis has put the needs of her students above her own. While the studio’s end of the year show is all but cancelled, Ms. Curtis is making sure music and costumes are secured for whenever it is safe to perform once again.
“I don’t want to stress out the kids,” she said. “I’ve completed the music for the show. I’ve told them they have the costumes because there’s no reason when things open in July or even in September after I’m gone that they can’t bring their music to (Carpinteria) Middle School and run the show in the multipurpose room. They don’t need stage props or lighting. They just need a stage, and they’ll get to do the dances in front of the parents.”
Until then, Ms. Curtis hopes the online classes will keep her dancers strong and stretched, so by the time classes begin again, they’ll feel like they never left. And if the opportunity to perform presents itself, Ms. Curtis will be waiting on Zoom, ready to watch.