Studio Owners

How Dance Studios Are Honoring Their Seniors Amid Canceled Recitals and Graduations

The Variations Dance Studio seniors at their send-off. Photo courtesy of Stacy Young

The cancellations of end-of-year recitals and competitions have been disappointing to teachers, studio owners, students and parents alike.

But for high school seniors, who are likely missing their final opportunity to dance with their studio family—and dealing with the cancellations of other milestone events like graduations and proms—it's a particularly heartbreaking time.

As studios throughout the country deal with the uncertainty of gradual reopenings, many are finding safe, creative ways to give their seniors the recognition they deserve.


Social-Media Shout-Outs

COVID-19 has forced many dance classes and performances onto social media—so it makes sense that Instagram and Facebook were the first stops for studio owners looking to recognize their seniors.

Stacy Young, owner of Variations Dance Studio in Auburn, Alabama, started by interviewing each of her graduates, and creating sleek social-media posts with quotes and photos. Having separate posts for each student allowed them to receive individualized congratulations from members of the studio community—which Young helped facilitate by encouraging comments on each post. "It gives everyone an opportunity to commend these dancers and what they've accomplished," says Young. "And it's a platform for the younger students to give them a virtual hug."

Using social media as an interactive tool was key to Kimberly Rishi's idea, too. For her Ashburn, Virginia–based Studio Bleu Dance Center seniors, she set up quizzes on Instagram Stories where followers had to guess which senior was featured, based on baby pictures and fun facts. The correct answer was then announced on Facebook and Instagram the following day.

Rishi also continued the tradition of having her graduates give "senior reflections," this year through individual Facebook posts. By giving the seniors a chance to express in their own words what their dance studio means to them, Rishi demonstrated to her entire studio community the value of seeing a dance education through.

A variation on the "Don't Rush" TikTok challenge made by the Studio Bleu seniors as a surprise—featuring swag from the colleges they'll be attending—positioned them as role models for younger students.

Socially Distanced Celebrations

Off-screen celebrations are giving studios the safe, in-person interactions they're craving—and bringing them community-wide attention.

Both Studio Bleu and Variations Dance Studio made congratulatory yard signs for their seniors, which can double as free marketing for everyone who drives by.

Variations held a drive-by senior send-off, where graduates stood (six feet apart!) in front of the studio as parents and dancers drove by with signs, balloons, gifts and congratulations. That event also gave the Variations seniors a chance to safely continue a tradition that usually happens on the last day of classes—rolling up the marley and signing the floor underneath.

The Variations Dance Studio seniors at their send-off.

Photo courtesy of Stacy Young

The grand finale of Young's senior celebration was a drive-in movie-style event, where a slideshow of senior memories was projected onto the side of the Variations studio. The presentation featured congratulations and words of encouragement from fellow students, and two special surprise guests: Alabama native Desmond Nunn, who was recently in the Hamilton national tour, gave a musical performance, and American Ballet Theatre principal Sarah Lane gave the keynote speech.

Video Performances

For Needham Dance Theatre owner Grace Noyes, canceling her recital didn't just mean the loss of a performance opportunity for her students, but also that of a meaningful tradition: Individually recognizing her seniors in front of the audience of each show with a tribute and a gift.

"It's such a rite of passage," Noyes says. "Everyone knows that when you're a senior you get that chance to walk out onstage."

Noyes, who owns both Needham Dance Theatre in Needham, Massachusetts, and Millis Dance Theatre in nearby Millis, quickly formulated an alternate plan—one that allows the seniors to take what they've learned throughout their training and create a final performance that is truly their own. The seniors are currently choreographing a dance via FaceTime and Zoom to a song of their choosing, which they will eventually perform—one by one—in a local park, where a videographer will capture them from a distance. The videographer will then edit the solos together into one cohesive performance.

"I said, This is your goodbye to your dance studio," says Noyes. "They sprung right into action. They're so resilient. It's a labor of love and it's a distraction for them. I know what they come up with is going to be very healing."

Post-Pandemic

For many dancers, returning to their home studio throughout college and beyond is as much a rite of passage as the final recital.

Even though the senior experience has looked different this year, going off to college or to work doesn't mean the end of a dancer's relationship with their studio.

Rishi is making extra efforts to welcome the 2020 class back to Studio Bleu once they're gone. All members of this year's senior class can come back for free classes and master classes, and for those 2020 alums who still want one last competition experience, she intends to try to make a spot for them.

"It's important to have a footprint showing others in your organization how to be inspirational and how to be a good role model," says Rishi. "They are the future, and younger kids look up to them."

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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