Philly’s coronavirus response

Dance studios host drive-by recitals and YouTube tutorials to keep students on their toes

Ballerinas will twirl down the block during one social distancing ceremony.

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Sound Space Performing Arts / Facebook
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If you’re passing near the Rail Park this weekend, you might catch a glimpse of costumed ballerinas pirouetting down Buttonwood Street.

B’Ella Ballerina Dance Academy, which usually offers lessons in ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop and tumbling, is hosting a “drive-by” recital on Sunday in lieu of its regular spring event. That’s just one of the adjustments the studio has had to make to accommodate its young dancers since the pandemic rolled through Philly.

Like so many people right now, dance instructors are tapping into the world of video chat to continue their work. For B’Ella owner Roneisha Smith Davis, it took a lot of trial and error.

Zoom didn’t work. A lot of the dancers at B’Ella are from low-income households, Smith Davis said, and don’t have access to reliable WiFi or the right devices. Of the 85 dancers at the studio, only about 10 or 15 logged on.

“I would say our virtual learning may have lasted for about a good two weeks before I stopped it because it was more of a burden,” Smith Davis said. “Imagine a two year old trying to pay attention on an iPhone for an instruction. That isn’t the same as the being hands on and in the studio getting that one-on-one direction and instruction.”

Eventually, Smith Davis and her eight instructors recorded themselves performing the closing recital choreography and posted the instructional videos to Youtube.

“And then the emails that I got from that was, ‘This was perfect,'” she said.

At Sound Space Performing Arts in Brewerytown, owner Pamela Hetherington had a slightly different outcome.

The hundred or so dance pupils who train there haven’t been back to their 4,000-square-feet studio since Mayor Jim Kenney ordered all non-essential businesses to close more than two months ago.

“When we closed in March, I remember thinking, ‘Two weeks, wow. That’s really an insanely long period of time,'” Hetherington said. “Not even realizing [we] would be here…11 weeks later.”

Since her studio specializes in tap, clogging and flamenco lessons. she decided to skip virtual lessons on Zoom because the platform “is not great for tap dancing.”

But she has been hosting a weekly Google Meet session. About 75% of her students, whom she calls “middle class,” have been attending — and continue to tune in even though their season should have ended last week.

Will students ever return? Either way, the show must go on

The conversation among creative circles right now revolves around how artists can accommodate smaller audiences with hybrid virtual and in person learning and performing, Hetherington said.

“I still have a hope of doing our recital, maybe even outside,” she said of Sound Space’s culminating event. “If we get to go to yellow, we could possibly still have it if the crowd is under 25 people. So I’m still holding on hope.”

On Friday, Pa. Gov. Wolf announced Philadelphia could move to the “yellow” phase of his reopening plan by June 5. Health experts say that even when Philly gets to green, there’s likely to be a new normal, with everyone wearing face masks and other changes to everyday life.

“COVID-19 is still a threat,” the governor said Friday, “and that won’t change until we have a vaccine.”

What that means for dance studios going forward is anyone’s guess. “I foresee a group of parents who will select only online because they fear the risks of being in public places,” said Hetherington, who is gearing up for her own Facebook Live performance premiere.

Both instructors agree that somehow, the show will go on.

Smith Davis has been inspired by one standout student at B’Ella. The girl, who used to be at the studio seven days a week, has maintained her passionate dedicationdespite the new format. .

“I still see that drive and that positive light in her,” Smith Davis said. “She’s pretty much keeping the positivity and the reinforcement that I need myself to know that this too shall pass.”

Hetherington said she’s pushing so hard because she wants to help her students get through this weird time.

“If any of them end up going into dance or art, they can use me one day as a role model and I want them to say, you know, the show must go on,” she said. “We kept going. Art does not stop.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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