Dance Studios, Students and Artists Improvise and Keep Moving | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Dance Studios, Students and Artists Improvise and Keep Moving

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Megan Stearns deep-cleaning Lines Studio - COURTESY OF JUNE BUECHNER CARNEY
  • Courtesy of June Buechner Carney
  • Megan Stearns deep-cleaning Lines Studio

If necessity is the mother of invention, the pandemic is the mother of improvisation. While many Vermonters are finding creative ways to cope during the stay-at-home order, artists who depend on human interaction are being extra resourceful. Dancers, in particular, face unique challenges because they typically teach, create and perform in kinesthetic interaction with each other.

Seven Days reached out to dance studio owners, instructors, students and artists to ask how they're responding to the coronavirus era.

Most dance studios "rose to the occasion," said Hanna Satterlee, executive director of the Vermont Dance Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports dance in the state. At many studios, students of all ages enroll by the term (fall, spring and summer) and pay in advance, or monthly, for classes in everything from ballet and modern to yoga and Pilates. The stay-at-home order fell smack in the middle of the spring term, so studio owners sprang into action to honor their obligations to students — and staff — by providing online instruction.

Contemporary Dance and Fitness Studio in Montpelier offers 50 weekly classes and employs 12 instructors, said director Allison Mann. Since mid-March, she and her team have been teaching via Zoom and using cellphones and cameras to record instructional videos for their YouTube channel.

"We are keeping them moving, which is just so crucial," Mann said. "So many of these kids are sitting in front of computers to do their schoolwork."

Jen Barden teaching an online dance class from her basement - COURTESY OF TIM BARDEN
  • Courtesy of Tim Barden
  • Jen Barden teaching an online dance class from her basement

Spotlight Vermont serves nearly 400 students per week at its studios in South Burlington, Vergennes and Middlebury, said director Jen Barden. She and her 13 instructors have also been teaching via Zoom and videos.

"I'm teaching my 14 classes downstairs in the basement," Barden said.

She has reduced tuition rates because "they're not getting the same experience as they would in the classroom." Although some patrons have insisted on paying full fare, the business is taking a financial hit. Barden, like other studio owners, applied for and received federal coronavirus relief loans. But if her business faltered, "I would feel good because I went ... above and beyond," she said. "It's so much more work to do a Zoom class than to go into the classroom and teach, but it's so worth it."

Megan Stearns, co-owner of Lines Vermont studio and store in South Burlington, explained why teaching online is hard. In person, she demonstrates a few things, and then watches students execute them, calling out encouragement. But online, brief demonstrations don't provide enough information. She has to dance "full out" along with her students, which is exhausting when teaching multiple classes a day. Instructors must also adapt lesson plans for students dancing at home on hard surfaces or in small rooms.

Lines Vermont opened last May and had just built "great momentum with our customer base" when the coronavirus hit, Stearns said. Catering to adults, it had been offering drop-in dance and fitness classes daily, as well as workshops and master classes by professional artists from companies such as the American Ballet Theatre.

Online, the studio is offering fewer classes, and students pay by donation, starting at $5 per class, "so our daily revenue is a trickle," Stearns said. But she and co-owner June Buechner Carney wanted to make classes affordable to help people keep moving. They estimate that 20 percent of their patrons have shifted to online classes; the rest may not be able to dance at home or may not like the online experience.

But dancers throughout New England — and as far-flung as Alaska, Florida and the UK — are taking the studio's classes. Stearns and Carney hope those who live within driving distance will come to master classes once the studio reopens. They also wonder whether the pandemic is ushering in a "new era" of online dance instruction.

Since the stay-at-home order, Martha McAuliffe, a South Burlington nurse, has continued taking at least two classes weekly, in hip-hop and ballet, at Lines Vermont. She finds it hard to get uninterrupted time in her house and misses the energy of dancing with others. But she appreciates the time she saves by not driving to the studio and the chance to try new dance styles.

"I registered for a jazz funk class this week, and I am so thankful to be able to take the class at home with the camera option off, just in case I'm a disaster," McAuliffe wrote by email.

Abbey Snow, who has competed in Irish dance for most of her life, began learning ballet at Lines Vermont in January. The Milton college student has found that dancing in her family's small living room invites her to move in new ways and that her appreciation of dance has intensified.

"Dance has always been a part of my life ... a stress relief, but now it's a lifeline," Snow realized. She calls her weekly dance class "a moving meditation. It grounds me mentally and pushes me physically. After this, I will never take an in-person class for granted."

Limits on in-person interaction can be particularly hard for dance artists. "Individual artists are at a total halt," Satterlee said, "because you can't rehearse, you can't plan, you definitely can't fundraise."

Burlington's Toby MacNutt postponed the preview performance of their first-ever solo show, A Singular They, due to the pandemic. MacNutt (who prefers they/them pronouns) had been about to conclude a New England Center for Circus Arts residency. Stuck in a small apartment with limited movement options, MacNutt improvises weekly with a colleague online but wrote by email, "My art is in a confused, grieving, anxious and tapped-out place along with the rest of me."

Erika Senft Miller, who creates large, public, site-specific events, has added writing and drawing to her movement practice. "Art is what I do when everything else falls away," she said. She's grateful for a home life that allows her to make art and is finding new "multisensory inspiration in my immediate environment." But like other dancers contacted for this story, she misses the physicality of dancing with others. "You can only roll around on the floor or lean against a tree for so long."

Performances of Hannah Dennison's The Quarry Project, originally scheduled for August, have been postponed until summer 2021. In development since 2016, the work is sited on the water at the Wells-Lamson Quarry in Barre. Dennison marveled in an email that "one of the roots of this piece was the question, 'How do you create intimacy in such a vast space?' That question applied to the six-acre quarry and now applies to our reality under the Plague."

Dennison and many in her ensemble are trained "in the art of improvisation," which "is all about inhabiting the unknown, learning to trust in self and others, honing our ability to respond, opening to something bigger than planned ... paying attention," she wrote.

Since March, the group has improvised to remain "together apart," and this intimacy has altered the dancers and the work. "We now really know how interconnected we are, how dependent on each other," Dennison wrote, calling these discoveries "a gift — for the project, for the ensemble, for the individuals involved, for the future audience ... We are changed."

Learn about financial and other resources for dancers at vermontdance.org and Smart Artist Vermont on Facebook.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Keep Moving | Dance studios, students and artists improvise through the pandemic"