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Anchorage dancers are back in the studio, but COVID-19 is pushing them to reimagine their art

Ashlinn Tuning warms up alongside classmates during the Studio Pulse Competition Team dance practice at Studio Pulse in Anchorage on July 15, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

In a typical ballet class at Alaska Dance Theatre, Associate Director Farah Zoetmulder would be dancing with her students, offering them hands-on corrections. At Studio Pulse Center for Dance, the hallway would be overflowing with parents watching their kids in class. And Underground Dance Company’s students would often hug and high-five one another to show encouragement.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s no longer the reality of dance classes.

A citywide hunker-down order in March ended in-person classes and canceled anniversary performances and spring showcases. Studios moved to online-only lessons and then, when capacity restrictions for Anchorage were lifted in May, cautiously reopened for summer — with some dramatic changes.

Now students must stop multiple times during class to sanitize and wipe down the barre at Alaska Dance Theatre. Instead of moving freely throughout the room, dancers at Studio Pulse Center must stay on their X’s and in 10- by 10-foot squares. As students walk into Underground Dance Company, they are repeatedly reminded to sign in, wear a mask and wash their hands.

Cali Rybicki, right, practices alongside classmates as social distancing markers on the floor separate them at Studio Pulse in Anchorage on July 15, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Stephanie Wonchala, the owner of Studio Pulse Center for Dance, said her priority is to keep her students safe, and she decided to face the difficulties of in-person lessons head on.

“I came to the conclusion relatively quickly that this a just a new normal,” she said. “Instead of being afraid of it, to survive I had to embrace the challenges and find a safe way to move ahead.”

As a dance educator and principal choreographer for the studio’s professional company, Wonchala said she’s discovering how to use the limitations of social distancing to her advantage.

“I just have to be a little more inventive with how I use that space,” she said. “How are we going to use all four corners? How are we going to use the diagonals? How are we going to move more under ourselves? So I think there is a lot more movement exploration happening, just trying to utilize the spaces that we’ve created.”

Stacks of fabric face masks rest at the back of the room as ballet practice takes place at Alaska Dance Theatre in Anchorage on July 20, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Kali Dey, center, practices during ballet class alongside classmates at Alaska Dance Theatre in Anchorage on July 20, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Zoetmulder of Alaska Dance Theatre has even come up with her own pandemic dance terminology. She coined the term “COVID technique,” meaning adapting movements so that dancers do not travel across studio space, and “kitchen ballet,” referring to the popular home location to take virtual class. She has had to alter her teaching methods to stick to her small section of the studio and no longer physically demonstrate combinations.

“It’s still completely more verbal,” she said. “I have to keep my distance from my students while I’m teaching, so I can’t help them stretch or help them lift themselves into a more extended position.”

While attending classes in person presents its own challenges, it is nothing compared to the difficulty of doing classes or practicing performances online, said Ernie Gray, co-owner of Underground Dance Company. It’s almost impossible to tell online if dancers really know the choreography musically and physically, Gray said.

“I can say that for a competitive team, virtual learning or virtual dance instruction, it’s very difficult to clean a routine,” he said. “Somebody might have the most amazing internet connection, somebody else may have a mediocre connection.”

Gigi Bundu, center, auditions for a performance piece as Caleb Carrillo, left, and Sofia Nocelo, right, listen to the music to prepare for their audition at Underground Dance Company in Anchorage on July 23, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)
Performance Choreography Coach Toby Carrillo watches students practice at Underground Dance Company in Anchorage on July 23, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Zoetmulder said that after being virtual for three months, she noticed a difference in her students.

“I saw a huge gain in my students for (elements like) balance, flexibility because that was what we could work on,” she said. “But we got back in the studio, and it was like cardio bad, cardio not so good at all.”

Even with online performances filling the gap, studio owners worry about the long-term impacts of not being able to perform for a live audience.

“Performing is such a huge part of dancing. We were looking at losing our big recital at the end of the season and that just seemed so, I mean honestly, depressing,” Zoetmulder said.

Dance studios, like other Anchorage businesses and organizations, have had to navigate rapidly shifting COVID-19 guidelines. On Friday, the city released a broad emergency order that — among other restrictions — requires people to limit outings and physical contact with others outside their household or “bubble,” and further limits gathering sizes for four weeks starting Monday.

As for wearing masks while dancing, it is technically not required by public health measures. In June, the city issued a mandatory mask requirement for certain public indoor settings, but individuals who are exercising are exempt if wearing a mask interferes with their breathing.

Some studios, like Studio Pulse Center for Dance, Underground Dance Company and Barbara’s School of Dance, still require their dancers to wear masks while in class.

Gabe Harvey, co-owner of Underground Dance Company, wants his students to be role models for others to wear masks whether they’re dancing or not.

“You have your mask on,” he said, clapping to punctuate each word. “You are representing not only this dance company, but you are a PSA.”

Students in Summer Group B at Underground Dance Company maintain distance as they wait to audition during their performance choreography class on July 23, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The threat of COVID-19 weighs heavily on Wonchala. “My biggest fear is someone coming in (with the virus) and then becoming a COVID hot spot like that is such a huge fear of mine,” she said.

All studios have seen drops in enrollment, as some parents are not ready to send their kids to in-person classes. But Gray said that even if dancers are in masks and socially distanced, attending classes in person makes a world of difference.

“I really think the encouragement, the camaraderie ... there’s something to say about the energy that comes from another person,” he said.

Leia Hoggard, right, and members of the Competition Team at Studio Pulse practice in Anchorage on July 15, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Olivia Lovrich, 14, is a dancer on the competition team at Studio Pulse Center for Dance. She said being back in the studio is worth any additional safety measures.

“I feel like it’s really a small price to pay to be able to dance with everybody again, to make it safe, to make you not feel guilty,” she said. “It’s really good to be back.”

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