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Dancing Through COVID-19: How 3 Pros Stuck at Home are Staying Positive and Productive

Syracuse City Ballet dancer Claire Rathbun rehearsing for performances of Cinderella, which were cancelled due to COVID-19. Felipe Panama, Courtesy Syracuse City Ballet.

Coronavirus precautions are spreading throughout the U.S. and the world, and the dance community is feeling the effects. As schools and public gatherings are being shut down, dancers are forced to take time away from the barre and postpone performances. It's been heartbreaking to hear about almost every company of every size cancel upcoming performances, stop classes and rehearsals, and temporarily lay off dancers with no solidified end date.

As a dancer with Los Angeles Ballet, in a city where the spread of COVID-19 is rampant, I've had to adjust to this new reality. Somewhat thankfully, the company is already on a previously scheduled lay-off right now through April 13. Our season will continue through June, and we have yet to cancel shows or weeks of work, which hopefully will remain the case. Los Angeles Ballet School and our A Chance to Dance community outreach program, which hosts a day of free classes taught by LAB dancers every month, are on hiatus.


Two ballerinas in long white tutus and spkiy white crowns leap through the air with thier arms in a V-shape. Behind them, four similarly dressed dancers bour\u00e9e in sous-sus.

The author (left) and Julianne Kinasiewicz grand jeté during a performance of L.A. Ballet's Nutcracker.

Reed Hutchinson, Courtesy L.A. Ballet

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, the Syracuse City Ballet—which has been celebrating its first full season as a professional company—had to postpone its performances of Cinderella in accordance with Governor Andrew Cuomo's policies limiting large gatherings. "This was our first full-length as the new ballet company of Central New York," says company member Claire Rathbun, who was to perform the title role. "We were all very excited and prepared." The dancers found out that performances were being postponed two days ahead of opening night; the ballet has yet to be rescheduled. "Honestly, it didn't feel real at first," she continues. "We were so close to performing it. Like gearing up for a big race, and then not going."

Caitlyn McAvoy, wearing a blue, gold and red costume and gold headress for the Nutcracker's Arabian dance, lunges deeply in fourth position with her arms spread wide.

Caitlin McAvoy in Alabama Ballet's Nutcracker

Melissa Dooley, Courtesy Alabama Ballet

At Alabama Ballet, dancers learned that their performances of Romeo and Juliet would be postponed on the afternoon of opening night. Company dancer Caitlin McAvoy admits she was surprised and disappointed. But, she says, "I feel it was the right thing to do to protect the dancers, staff, crew and community. I know it was a tough call to make and we are sad to not be performing, but I think we all know it was the best decision." Now, like most other companies, the dancers are not rehearsing, and Romeo and Juliet will be rescheduled for next season, sometime in early spring of 2021.

So now that seemingly everyone is forced to stay at home, how are we staying active and motivated? The outpouring of dancers and teachers who are posting class videos online or hosting live streams has been a great learning opportunity. "I'm taking class from all different people via their live stream, like my old coach from The Rock School, Mariaelena Ruiz," says Rathbun. "I also took Ashley Bouder's class, and Tiler Peck's!" It's also worth seeing if there are local teachers in your area to take class from and work out with via streaming services, so that we can continue to support them.

McAvoy has been using her time off to be productive in other areas of her life, including doing work on her house, which she recently bought. She is quarantining with her boyfriend, a fellow dancer, who has been an added source of support. "It's helpful that we are experiencing the same situation together, both at work and with everything else going on," she says. "It is helping me stay positive."

As for me, in addition to giving myself barre and trying to stay active, I'm working on some extra projects. For example, I'm using this extra time to build a website to promote my dancing, teaching and writing in hopes that being productive now will allow me to hit the ground running when we go back to work. To stay inspired, I've been reaching out to my friends and family, watching some of my favorite dance videos online, reading, and following what other dancers are up to on social media, where everyone has been so supportive of each other. "It's really inspirational, actually, to see the dance world coming together like this," says McAvoy.

Even though we have a lot of unknowns ahead of us, the important thing to remember is that, as artists, we try our best to give back to others. The work we do, and our performances, are for the audience. The best way for us to give back right now is to follow these preventative measures to limit the spread of disease through our communities. Even if it's hard for us, by staying home we are helping our society, which in turn will be there to support us when we return to the stage.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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