Despite everything 2020 has brought, former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz still managed to experience three milestones this year.
In February, the couple welcomed their second child, Kailer. In July, Dec retired from PNB, deciding to move on to the next chapter of her life rather than wait out the pandemic. And in September, they opened their first ballet studio, DeCruz Ballet, in San Antonio, Texas.
Dec and Cruz—who fell in love with teaching during season layoffs from PNB and through organizing their own summer and winter workshops in Seattle—had long dreamed of one day opening their own ballet school. Opening in the middle of a pandemic, however, wasn't in the plans.
After several years of looking at studio spaces in the Seattle area, the couple had recently shifted their focus to Texas, where Dec has family. While visiting San Antonio in July, they found out that a studio where they'd guest-taught was available to lease. "It was ready to go with marley floors, mirrors, barres, furniture," says Dec. "We were very lucky and felt that we should take the opportunity."
At the time, the family had been residing in Oklahoma, where Cruz was teaching at the University of Oklahoma and Dec was on maternity leave from PNB, with plans to return to performing for the 2020 season.
Once Dec and Cruz decided to take advantage of the studio space in San Antonio, they packed up and moved their family from Oklahoma to Texas in three weeks to open the studio on September 8.
"It was really hard to pack the whole house with the baby and the 4-year-old and not only move, but start classes right away. I can't think of any challenge bigger than that," says Cruz.
Cruz and Dec in Crystal Pite's Emergence at PNB. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB
A Pre-Professional Focus
With over 40 years of combined teaching experience between them—from countless guest-teaching slots and Cruz's training at La Escuela Nacional de Ballet en Havana, where he earned the title of bailarin profesor (dance teacher)—Dec and Cruz knew exactly what they were looking for in a studio of their own.
"We really want to help students prepare for auditions, reaching teens who are figuring out whether they want to dance professionally or not," says Cruz. This entails helping pre-professional students understand the many avenues a dance career can take and exposing students to the benefits of college dance programs through one-on-one sessions and guest speakers.
They also want to instill confidence amongst teens. "We really want to focus on ages 12 and up, since that is a really crucial time for these kids to feel high self-esteem," says Dec. "We noticed that when we were teaching that age group, they don't have a lot of confidence because of all the social media out there."
Pandemic Silver Linings
Though COVID-19 restrictions have limited in-person class sizes in DeCruz Ballet's first months, the couple's experience teaching virtually at the beginning of the pandemic gave them a student following for the studio's virtual program.
"We offered some free classes when we first opened and people were joining from Brazil and Canada," says Dec. "We did a virtual master class for students in Mexico this past summer and now some of them have been joining our current Zoom classes."
Zoom master classes have also helped them diversify their offerings. "Pre-COVID, you just hired whoever was in the city," says Dec. "Now you can have other people teach and offer students exposure to wonderful artists." So far, they've employed virtual master teachers for styles such as contemporary, hip hop and Pilates mat, with goals to hire for ballroom, character, flamenco and other guest ballet teachers.
"It has been a wonderful way to connect with dancers from all over the world, and we will continue online classes after the pandemic," says Dec. "All of us coming together, whether in person or online, sharing this beautiful art form, has been a blessing."
Growing DeCruz Ballet
DeCruz Ballet's in-person classes are on track too, at least partially thanks to Dec and Cruz's star power. Two out-of-state students have even moved to San Antonio recently to join the pre-professional program, says Dec, which currently has five students due to COVID-19 restrictions, and others asking to reserve spots for next year. Even in normal times, the program will be capped at 12 students to ensure one-on-one attention. (The pre-professional program is also offered virtually.)
Pre-professional students dance for around four hours a day in classes such as ballet technique, contemporary, Pilates, cross-training, variations, pointe and men's class. Most in-person classes are taught by Dec and Cruz, and the couple plans to hire more teachers as the school grows.
In addition to the pre-professional program, DeCruz Ballet offers creative movement classes, intermediate and adult classes, and private lessons both in-person and virtually.
The couple's goal for the coming month is to continue to generate visibility (most of the marketing has been done through Instagram and word of mouth). They are also looking for a more permanent studio space, as their current lease expires at the end of June 2021. Dec and Cruz will continue working on their dancewear line, Solu, and are preparing for the launch of their new styles.
They look forward to growing the school's enrollment, but for now, the smaller class sizes have not only helped with maintaining safety during the pandemic, but also afforded students more attention to fine-tune their technique.
While San Antonio does have a professional company, Ballet San Antonio, which also has an affiliated school, Dec says they have never envisioned DeCruz Ballet focusing only on local students. "We positioned it as a studio where kids could join us from around the nation," says Dec. "We wanted to be that smaller school with really intense training."