TRD New Academy Director Jaime Simpson – Keeping Creative Energy Present

Words and Images courtesy of Jaime Simpson.

About two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach one of our TRDance students a virtual private lesson. She was at home, I was at the TRDance Center, and we were each logging in to Zoom to embark on an hour and a half ballet lesson. I had everything set up and had admitted her from the “waiting room.” Her video and audio came on, we smiled and happily said our greetings. What she said next definitely got my attention… she said, “This is the first time I’ve been able to see your whole face!” 

I had my mask off for this lesson since I was the only person in the studio, and I had the door shut. She had started taking classes at TRD earlier this summer, and until that particular lesson, she had only ever seen me with a mask on. I said, “Wow, that’s true! I didn’t realize that!” We smiled at each other again and started dancing. 

I have thought about that moment several times since. About how much has changed… in the dance world and everywhere. 

At TRDance specifically, many adjustments have been made to keep opportunities to dance and perform going, with health and safety being of utmost importance: we have specific cleaning processes in place; a mask policy for dancers, staff, and guests; limited class sizes; temperature checks; and more. We are offering many of our classes as hybrid options, giving dancers the opportunity to join the class virtually from home. In addition, all classes are set up so that they can shift to be fully virtual if we need to do so temporarily; the instructors are all experienced with teaching virtually and are ready to transition if that becomes necessary. 

In my third month as Academy Director, I have many goals. The most prominent of which, for the foreseeable future, is to keep as many dancers dancing as possible, as safely as possible. The art of dance has such an uplifting and healing effect, infusing joy and vibrancy into the spirit. It is so important to keep that creative energy present and glowing. Our Fall Structured and Open Class Programs are underway, and I am excited to announce that we have just added three new classes to the Open Program. In November, we will be holding weekend Master Classes in various dance styles. 

We are also currently building our new Pod-Style Dance Class Program which offers dance classes to children who are already working within a pod group for academics and other activities. These classes take place in the afternoon, prior to our evening Open and Structured Program classes. 

Regarding Academy performances, the Todd Rosenlieb Dance Ensemble and Virginia Ballet Theatre Ensemble came together this summer for a successful Virtual Solo Concert made up of 12 newly choreographed solos. Though the process was unique for the Ensemble groups, the dancers and choreographers were thrilled to be creating, and the results were everything that was hoped for. The Ensembles will soon be moving into rehearsals for another virtual show to be presented in December. 

Though so much has changed, I believe two things will always remain the same – the passion for dance, and the desire to dance. Dancers, instructors, choreographers, and directors here at TRD and everywhere are ready and willing to navigate this new path and adjust as needed to be able to safely move forward with this art form. I am at the TRDance Center every day, and every day I see the sparkle 

of excitement in the dancers’ eyes as they arrive for classes. And though their masks may keep me from seeing their smiles, I know that they are there. 

For general information on TRDance, please visit trdance.org.
For specific information on class programs or Ensembles, please email Jaime Simpson at academy@trdance.org.
If you would like to make a donation to support TRDance, please visit trdance.org/donate

Jaime Simpson began her ballet training at age 6, with opportunities to study at the Virginia Beach Ballet Academy, Maryland Youth Ballet, North Carolina School for the Arts, and Richmond Ballet. She then received her Bachelor’s Degree in Ballet Performance from Indiana University, training with Patricia McBride, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, and Violette Verdy. Jaime began teaching ballet while at IU, working with college students as well as students in the youth program. Since returning to Hampton Roads in 2005, Jaime has taught all levels of ballet and pointe at several area schools, and has choreographed ballet pieces for VBBA, Arts Enter Cape Charles, TRDance Center, and the VBT Ensemble.

Outdoor Cèilidh in the Time of Covid

Words by Penny Neef.
Image courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival.

The Virginia Arts Festival continues the quest for safe, live performances this fall, while the weather is still cooperative in Hampton Roads. There is a charming Courtyard directly behind the VAF’s Clay and Jay Barr Education Center on Bank Street in downtown Norfolk.

On Saturday, October 10, the VAF and the Virginia International Tattoo will present Courtyard Cèilidh on the outdoor stage in the Courtyard. 

What is a Cèilidh, you might ask? How do you even say it? Cèilidh is pronounced Kay-Lee. It is a traditional Gaelic party that would include poetry, storytelling Celtic music and dancing. It translates from the Old Irish as “companion visit”. There are not a lot of parties and companion visits going on these days, but VAF is able to keep family groups apart, sanitize, limit the number of tickets sold, and provide lots of fresh air to keep it as safe as possible.

Performers will include Rhodes Academy of Irish Dance, US National champion Scottish fiddlers Seán Heely and Colin McGlynn, and Tidewater Pipes and Drums.

Chris Pearcy, the Pipe Major of Tidewater Pipes and Drums calls the Courtyard Cèilidh, a “mini Tattoo”. If you’ve never attended the Virginia International Tattoo in the spring as part of the Virginia Arts Festival, you have missed something spectacular. A Tattoo is a large gathering of military bands. The Virginia International Tattoo brings bands from across the world to Scope Arena each year for the largest Tattoo in North America. 

Here are the Massed Pipes and Drums of the 2019 Tattoo

Pearcy will be bringing 10 bagpipers and 8 drummers to the small stage in the Courtyard. Ten pipers are still a big sound. 

Tidewater Pipes and Drums are one of the original bands of the Virginia International Tattoo. They perform at Scope each year. Pearcy says they love meeting and performing with other pipe bands from around the world. They were disappointed when Covid forced VAF to cancel the Tattoo this year, but the pandemic also made Pearcy’s group “realize how much they missed practicing together and playing together”.

In March, April and May, the band did one-on-one work with technique and expression through Zoom calls. Pearcy is also a professor at ODU, teaching mostly European history to freshmen. He worried at the beginning of the pandemic that the members of Tidewater Pipes and Drums would lose their skills.

By the time June rolled around, the band was “itching to get out there and do something together”. They began practicing outdoors and 6 feet apart. Pearcy was thrilled that “people did not forget how to play.” In fact, they were better than ever. “Covid has been a big rebuilding phase for our group,” Peacy says, “We sound like one great, big bagpipe.” That’s a good thing, if you’re a pipe and drum group.

October 10th will be the group’s first time performing together since St. Patrick’s Day, oh so long ago. Even though the Courtyard Cèilidh will be barely 1/100th of the size of the “big” Tattoo, it will still be great to hear the sounds of the bagpipes, Scottish fiddles and see the high stepping of Rhodes Academy of Irish Dance.

TRD and VBT Ensemble Virtual Summer Solo Concert

Words by Dr. Lynette Hauser,
Associate Director TRDance Ensemble, and 
Jaime Simpson, Associate Director VBT Ensemble
and TRDance Academy Director
Images by Sara Bobulinski

Todd Rosenlieb Dance Ensemble and the Virginia Ballet Theater Ensemble will be performing their Summer Solo Concert virtually this year. Ticket holders will be able to view the concert from Saturday, August 15, 2020 at 8 pm through Monday August 17, 2020 at 10 pm.

The dancers of the Todd Rosenlieb Dance Ensemble and Virginia Ballet Theatre Ensemble consist of high school, college and post college graduates. They will be performing solo works in both modern and ballet. 

The concert is a collection of mostly new original pieces, along with one solo variation from a full length classical ballet. The original works were choreographed by current TRD and VBT company members, TRD Academy instructors, GSA graduates, and other Hampton Roads locals. In May, both Ensembles put out a call for choreographers, who then submitted a video of their concept. A virtual audition for dancers followed, and the choreographers were able to work with the Ensemble Directors to cast their dancers from those selected. The pieces are quite diverse in theme and character, and were inspired by personal experiences, music, nature, and current political and social themes. 

The majority of the pieces in the concert were recorded in the Benjack Studio Theater inside the TRDance Center, and one was filmed on location in Norfolk. 

A male dancer in black pants and a white t-shirt appears to be running while leaning backwards, giving the impression of a grand movement.

The ensemble concert is an annual summer occurrence at the Benjack Studio Theater, although this year we had to reimagine the concept in order to put together a performance without a live audience. We knew that dancers and choreographers were itching to move and create; we were excited to establish this virtual performance that allowed a safe space for them to share their artistry.

In the initial stage of this process, virtual auditions were definitely an adjustment; seeing multiple dancers on a screen is a significant change from seeing them dancing in person. During filming, we discovered just how much stage lighting for video differs from how lighting would be used for a live performance. What looks dim and muted in person is much brighter on video, so we changed how we used the lights and adjusted costumes as a result. 

We are thankful to have the opportunity to bring a performance to the community this summer. The arts are such an amazing way to relate and connect; though we may not all be in the same space for this concert, we are thrilled to still have the chance to share the art of dance.

Anyone looking to purchase tickets can do so here.

Spotlight Saturdays – Sponsored by Sandler Center Foundation

Ballet Virginia

Interview by Moriah Joy.
Images courtesy of Ballet Virginia.

This week’s Sandler Center Spotlight Feature is with Ballet Virginia. I sat down with Janina Michalski and Suzanne Lownsbury, who are the Co-Artistic Directors. These amazing women have dedicated their lives to helping the local dance community evolve while focusing on skill and professionalism. 

What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement?
Janina: Our mission statement is fostering a lifelong passion for dance by nurturing the community and enriching their lives with educational programs and performances. This is accomplished through classes and through our productions that all have passion, love, and exploration. 

What education programs are offered?
Suzanne: We offer ballet classes starting from 18 months to adults as well as pointe, tap, jazz, contemporary, modern, hip hop, pilates, tumbling, and musical theatre.
Janina: We also have been working with the public library this past summer to start offering library programs. We work with various schools when we have performances to get them free tickets to see the shows. We also offer adaptive dance classes for people with autism and various other needs. Right now we’re working on getting a dance class together for people with Parkinsons. 

A ballerina leaps through the air on stage

What or who inspires/ influences your work?
Janina: The kids.
Suzanne: The passion for dance. Really both of those things and then we’re just so thankful to have each other to inspire each other during these challenging times.

What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important?
Suzanne: The arts are important to every community. It’s sad because when places are looking to cut budgets that’s the first thing they do is take arts out of schools. I think especially right now that’s what people need more than anything is that form of expression and escapism. 

What adjustments has the virus caused to your schedule?
Janina: Well, we immediately sent out tapings of the classes, and by the end of the week we had moved to Zoom classes.
Suzanne: Right now we’re offering what we call “hybrid classes” where the green group will come in and the purple group’s classes are online. It’s been challenging, to say the least, but we’re still having a bunch of people reach out to us to start taking classes. Everyone has to wear masks when they come in, and their temperature is taken, so that we’re following all CDC guidelines.
Janina: We also keep the students ten feet apart, which is really nice for a lot of them who had been doing the Zoom classes at home and their pets or siblings wanted to come into the frame. 
(Editor’s note: I assist with teaching martial arts classes, we went online for COVID, and some of my favorite zoom moments from the last few months were pet and sibling cameos.)

Male and female dancers in black leotards at rehearsal

In what ways are you being proactive for re-opening?
Janina: We have plans A through Z right now because nobody really knows what’s happening and it’s changing all the time. We’re still planning our four week summer intensive, specialty programs, and yearly classes. We’re hoping to get our professional dancers back, and they’re being so patient and supportive. For our performances- we’ve talked about doing virtual performances for The Nutcracker, and potentially partnering with Toys for Tots so that people can buy toys and we can put them in the audience. A few years back we did a “Muttcracker” where we had dogs perform. Our main thing is that we want to keep people entertained and bring a smile to their faces.
Suzanne: If nothing else, the 2020 Nutcracker experience will be truly unique.

Two dogs meeting at Muttcracker auditions
Image from Ballet Virginia’s Facebook Page of Muttcracker Auditions. Those puppies are SO CUTE!!

Are there any specific upcoming projects you would like people to know about?
Suzanne: As of right now our potential projects include a collaboration with Symphonicity, Sleeping Beauty, that was supposed to be Spring of 2020 is now Spring of 2021, and a performance at the Zieder’s theatre in March.

Pairs of male and female dancers onstage, the males are balancing the women for a leg lift

Anything else you want to talk about?
Suzanne: We’re a non-profit so it’s extremely important to us to have sponsors to help fund us, and corporate donors. We are so thankful to everyone who has helped us in our journey, and to those who can continue to help us.
Janina: The important thing is that we aren’t going anywhere! I feel like being in the arts, you start out as a gypsy wandering and exploring your passions, and through that, develop a sense of survival to be able to continue to pursue those passions.

Where can people find you (for classes, donations, etc)? 
Check out our website: https://balletvirginia.org/
Click here to make an individual donation, or here to become a corporate sponsor.

The Beauty of Dance: Spotlight on Todd Rosenlieb and TRDance

Words by Moriah Joy.
Photos courtesy of TRDance.

As performances and classes are moving into a virtual environment, some artforms encounter more challenges than others. However, as creativity is at the center of the arts, places like TRDance in Norfolk have been able to overcome these roadblocks. I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the founding members and the Artistic Director, Todd Rosenlieb. Todd started dancing in college where he very quickly realized the passion that he had for concert dance and decided to pursue an M.F.A. in Performance & Choreography at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in New York. From there his career evolved as he has served as a dancer and choreographer for various companies and institutions as well as Company Director for the Erick Hawkins Dance Company. Then seeing the need in Hampton Roads for a professional dance presence, he decided to establish his own studio which has now been flourishing in the community for almost fifteen years.

A male dancer lifts a female dancer gracefully in a museum.
TRDance celebrates the Munch Exhibit.

As of this moment, Todd’s focus is on his Norfolk studio and nurturing the skills of dancers of every age, style, and ability. After the shutdown, they quickly moved to online classes and have been successful in maintaining their class schedule with their teachers of high notoriety. They are currently offering a variety of classes every week featuring the dance styles of jazz, modern, ballet, pointe, tap, hip-hop, and pilates. At the studio, inclusion is at the forefront of their mission, whether that is offering a safe space for members of the LGBT community or those with mixed abilities such as Down Syndrome and Autistic Spectrum Disorder. 

“…By celebrating your artform, the discipline [of dance], you can encourage and accept diversity and inclusion, all people. No matter their abilities or their gender or their race, anything. It’s so important that the human form be represented not the individual or any preconceived notions about them.”

Their mixed abilities classes came about 10 years ago after a grandmother approached Todd wanting to provide the same kind of opportunities for her grandson as other children. The words she used in describing her grandson have been an inspiration to Todd and his program ever since as she said her grandson “came to us with Down’s Syndrome.” She had seen some stories about adaptive dance classes on the Oprah Winfrey show and was interested in starting a program in the Hampton Roads area.

MixMo class group photo
TRDance’s MixMo class.

“I knew nothing about it. I was like okay, ‘I love you, let’s try this.’ She was very active in the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads and we had seven or eight kids in our very first class. I gotta tell you- the first class after 25 minutes I was out of tricks. I thought, I am not prepared for this. But [after] I applied creativity, reading the room, knowing I had done my research of course, and was working with physical therapists from CHKD as part of the collaboration- it became amazing, joyful.”

TRDance has since expanded their classes working with various organizations such as St. Mary’s Home, the South Eastern Virginia Training Center, the Ability Center of VA Beach, and many more. Todd’s original program has come full circle as the very first student who inspired the program ten years ago has been able to rejoin their classes, despite having moved away five years ago. The virtual classes have allowed for reunions amongst various students as well as the instructors to see how they’ve grown from children to young adults. These reunions truly show the strength of the dance community lies within the dancers, not the distance between them. Along with the dancers being connected, the families of those involved are also a big part of the dance community. One of the ways in which TRDance is hoping to show their appreciation to the families is by doing a virtual cocktail party for the adults and dance party for the kids with a DJ to continue that sense of connectivity. 

A zoom class for MixMo.
TRDance’s MixMo Zoom classes allow students who have moved away to participate again.

As the worries of the world have been very difficult for many community members to bear, Todd has also been leading guided meditations as a way to engage in “constructive rest.” One of the techniques he uses in his meditations is the idea of putting worries, concerns, or anything else that weighs heavy into a backpack. This idea has the beautiful implication that our worries are only as strong as we allow them to be and do not make us who we are. Todd also stressed the importance of mental well-being so that as individuals we can be better equipped to help those who depend on us and ultimately make a better nation. He has used dance as a way to have conversations about the importance of mental health as previously partnering with the Chrysler Museum. The beginning of both his dance sessions and guided meditations start with the notion of simply allowing the experience.  

“Leave your ego at the door. There is no success or failure here, we are experiencing our bodies, our minds, the music, our imagery, our companionship and our friendship all together in one room.”

While dance is beautiful to enjoy and watch on TV or through viral videos, there is an uniqueness to the environment that is created when going to see a show live. Feeling the music echo through your ears, with the soft whispers and commentary of fellow participants, along with the exuberance passed between dancer and active participant. The true beauty within that experience is something that Todd calls “the interpretive web.” He joked about how people will come up to him after a performance to ask what a dance meant, replying with inquisitiveness to ask what it meant to them, then upon listening to their interpretation finding sometimes that he liked it better than what he had in mind. 

TRDance company and alumni group shot.
TRDance company and alumni.

“Dance can be scary to people. They are afraid they’re not going to know what it means. It doesn’t matter if it makes you feel an emotion. Everyone sees through the eyes of their experience, be it touch or gesture or form or shape that relates to your life…your emotional status,…your relationship status. That’s what the meaning of art is, to touch the human being, to look deeper than what it might look like if it wasn’t a part of their life.”

For anyone seeking a way to engage with an artistic community, grow as a dancer, or simply just try a new way to stay healthy and active, check out the TRDance website for more information.

The Art of Interacting Online

Words by Louise Casini Hollis.
Images courtesy of the Academy of Dance and Gymnastics.

Academy of Dance and Gymnastics

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

“It’s our 40th year of The Academy of Dance and I am determined that we have our recital [in some form]” says Linda Haas, owner and director of The Academy of Dance and Gymnastics. Founded in 1980 by Linda, the AODG has been a National School of Excellence Recipient in 2017, 2018, 2019 from the Association of Dance Competitions and Conventions which recognizes the studio with the Highest/Top Score upon the completion of Nationals. 

“The very first year we did a competition,” remembers Linda, “we went to Nationals in Myrtle Beach and I wasn’t that knowledgeable at that time, so we went to the thrift store and got costumes because I had half of them dressed like men and half of them dressed like women for the dance that we did. And we show up in Myrtle Beach and I’m sitting there and there are some of these schools – the one before us came out with this huge shell that opened up and a mermaid got out – and I’m sitting there going ‘oh dear’. I mean, our costumes did not have one rhinestone on them – nothing!  But they were excellent dancers and so they got out there and did their number and they did such a wonderful job and they won over the people with the big shells. I mean I was just floored by some of these things because that was my first taste of getting into competition. So 40 years later, we continue on learning as we go.”  

Older dancers from the Academy's Christmas Recital, they are in red dresses with white hats, all kicking.

And grown they have! Forty years later the company has grown into three studios located in Hampton, Denbigh and Yorktown that serve several hundred students a year. It was inevitable that Linda would found her own dance studio, even though she started out as a Sales and Marketing director for hotels. “When I was young, I would line people up in my neighborhood after coming back from my dance class, and my garage was my dancing school. I had barres and I put a mirror in there and I had a record player – you remember what that was?” laughs Linda. “And I would teach them all what I learned in my dance class that class day. So I think, you know, some people just have something in them.” As an adult, Linda continued to teach dance nights and weekends while doing her day job, and then only three years after founding the AODG she became a full time entrepreneur.  Now she fosters the love of dance as a recreational activity for all ages and hosts a dance company for students who wish to participate in dance competitions at the national level.

“For me I think it’s great to go to competition, and I think it’s great to do well, but I think you also learn from not winning, too,” Linda says. “We want to teach children to be successful no matter what they do.” Academy of Dance and Gymnastics alumni have gone on to work at the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, on Broadway tours, Regional tours, regional theatres, theme parks such as Disney World and Busch Gardens, the Rockettes, and several Broadway shows including the current productions of The Lion King and Dreamgirls.  Of course, her most notable student is her daughter, Tiffany Haas, known on Broadway for her performance as Glinda in Wicked.

Academy of Dance and Gymnastics alumni also include not only doctors and lawyers, but also parents and grandparents of current students. How has dance shaped these students? “It’s about life lessons,” shares Linda. “It’s about teaching them to be on time, teaching them to be respectful, teaching them to work hard. Which are all life’s lessons for success. So when we get letters back thanking us, saying all those were really beneficial to them in their journey it’s just refreshing.”

Young dancers at the Academy's Christmas recital, they hold up blocks that read "Merry Christmas"

Linda extends these life lessons during the holidays by giving students the opportunity to participate in their Christmas Extravaganza held every December at the Ferguson Center. “For over 25 years, every Christmas we do a big Christmas show and we donate all the funds to Operation Smile, and we’ve operated on well over 1000 children,” Linda proudly recounts. Linda got involved with Operation Smile when she found out one of her student’s baby sisters was being treated by Dr. William P. Magee, the Founder of Operation Smile. Through the assistance of volunteer Vonnie Wray, Linda was able to begin raising money for the organization. “These people are just so selfless in what they do – Dr. Magee and his wife – the things they have done have just been amazing, all over the world. That’s how I became involved. The more I learned, the more I wanted to help.”

Currently, all of the Academy of Dance’s classes are free to their students. “I just think it’s important because everybody’s suffering in one way or another right now whether it’s financially, or just I think for children [to have] all these things taken away from them – their school, their out-of-school activities – sports, dance, whatever, and I think it’s got to be a challenging time especially – not just for the young people but for their parents as well,” shares Linda. “I know that some people are really struggling and I want to be able to have everybody participate without the obligation of a financial burden.”

Academy of Dance and Gymnastics typically has class sizes of 10-14 students, but during quarantine they typically have between 8-10 students join them in their online Zoom classes. “We have found over time we have more and more students logging on for our classes,” notes instructor Emily Donston. Donston, who recently graduated from East Carolina University with a major in Dance and Choreography, grew up studying at AODG and now has the pleasure of teaching Jazz, Tap, and Ballet to the next generation of dancers. The academy also has a Google drive folder so that students can access their warm-ups and recital choreography and keep practicing at home. “Especially if they can’t log on for the live class,” adds Donston.

A dance student takes an Academy class on zoom.

Teaching online is a learning curve. “I wouldn’t say we’re fully adapted at this point,” Donston observes. “We are constantly making shifts, so we’ve been working on coming up with things that can be done in smaller spaces or with alternate floors because some of the things we would do in the studio can’t be done the same way at home.” The AODG teachers are also adapting to dealing with the sound delay that comes with using musical accompaniment online. For private lessons, students play their music at home so that they can hear better to compensate for the lag in sound from a  Zoom feed. “So we’ve been adapting all the elements, not just what we’re teaching.”

“I would say it’s a lot more difficult in the arts to train on a computer, than it is hands-on in the studio of course, so that’s something that’s been very challenging,” shares Linda, “and I think also to keep the attention span with the younger ones because we have many props and things in the studio we can use to keep it exciting and fun for our younger students.”  

Linda says their objective is, “to keep what we normally do…The main thing is we’re trying to keep them engaged.” Keeping students engaged in physical activities like dance is important not only for their physical, but also emotional, well-being. “Studies show that dance helps reduce stress, increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, and helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition,” writes Scott Edwards in his article “Dancing and the Brian” for the Blavatnik Institute of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Thus, dance offers a great outlet for engagement and stress relief as AOD students connect with their teachers and each other online.

“The most important thing is being able to have children see themselves in a positive light,” concludes Linda, “and just making it exciting and fun for them. Whether they end up being a dancer or a lawyer or a Mom – whatever – that they had a good experience. 

“We have an amazing staff that are very enthusiastic and love the kids and have just been very excited to keep in touch with them,” she proudly adds, “So that’s our goal, to keep in touch with them and try to keep them excited about their dance training and gymnastics training.”

Check out The Academy of Dance and Gymnastics on their website.

The Art of Interacting Online

Ballet Virginia

Words by Louise Casini Hollis
Photos by Patrick McCarty

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR News is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

Lisa McCarty, Children’s Program Director and Marketing Director for Ballet Virginia has been working hard from her home in Norfolk to reach out and continue to teach her students online.  “As quickly as we could [we] got busy making videos,” says Lisa, “and sent the links out to our students. That was before they put all the serious restrictions in so we’d invite a couple of kids to dance with us and do a little class and I think a lot of people appreciated that. Then we went onto Zoom 2 or 3 weeks ago… That has been very successful.”

Ballet Virginia was established in 2008 by Co-Artistic Directors Janina Michalski and Suzanne Lownsbury and past president Hope Paryzek, “to create a classical ballet academy for Hampton Roads that offered high quality training and professional quality performance opportunities,” notes Lisa. They have locations in Norfolk and Virginia Beach that serve just over 400 students. A little over 200 students are tuning in online to continue classes. Lisa explains, “especially at the beginning we did a lot of social media at first – like every day – we’d do a post like ‘Turn out Tuesday’” [on Instagram]. Currently, they are focusing their energy on their students by posting the class schedule on their website, Facebook, Instagram and by email. Lisa also sends out a newsletter once a week. 

Between teaching all age groups at Ballet Virginia, and being an adjunct professor at ODU,  Lisa has “all different ages, but the thing that I noticed the most when we did the videos and when we did the first week of Zoom, I watched myself which was really hard, and was surprised… You don’t get the in between texture of a person so you have to make sure that you come off really positive, because there were moments in the videos where I looked like such a mean person when I was really just thinking. So I’m making an effort to be more positive, and to smile more and to speak more clearly and slowly.” Lisa adds, “I’m trying to interact and say people’s names a lot because they need that right now.”

McCarty greets students on Zoom
McCarty greets students on Zoom as they arrive to their digital dance class.

The arts, especially for young children, not only offers a form of expression, but an opportunity to find camaraderie with their peers. Lisa fosters this in her classroom, and has found a way to extend it online. “I always try to open the Zoom meeting 10 minutes before we dance so that everyone can talk…This is like a touchstone for them. And I’m just paying more attention to their mental health, I think, and thinking about something we’ve always taken for granted before – that they can come up and give me a little hug, or I can pat them on the back or interact with them. So it’s really made me more aware of the preciousness of human interaction, and I’m trying to convey that over the screen. When I get back to the studios I’m going to keep that in my head a little more… You can see at the end of the class they’re standing a little taller and they’re a little more engaged, happy children.”

Teaching from home offers physical challenges as well. For example, there’s the space constraints. “We can’t leap across the floor because people are doing it in their kitchen,” so Lisa has responded with more compact combinations. She also incorporates everyday household objects such as chairs or her dresser to substitute for the barre (editor’s note: see the featured photo). “I don’t want anyone to think, ‘Oh I can’t do it because I don’t have a barre.’” She adds, “I think it’s really important to show the kids we can carry on.”

Finally, Lisa says of this experience, “I never want to do it again!  It’s exhausting!” The challenge is understandable, as noted in a BBC article by Manyu Jiang, video conferencing causes cognitive dissonance making your brain work harder to “process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.” The faculty of Ballet Virginia have found that keeping the combinations a little more simple not only helps the students, but themselves. “One Zoom class is like teaching 2 or 3,” observes Lisa, due to the amount of energy exerted trying to reach her students through a screen, rather than together in the studio.

But there is a bright side to going online. A former adult student who now lives in Pittsburgh has been able to join the adult class. “Everybody was excited to see her,” Lisa notes of the fellowship the dancers share. Other former students as far away as Japan have also expressed interest in rejoining their old studio to take advantage of online class instruction. And because they don’t have the space constraints of a studio, the academy has been able to invite their students to attend more than one of the scheduled classes for their age level. “Tons of them are coming!” notes Lisa, to be a part of “something that is meaningful.”

What does the future hold? Ballet Virginia hopes to bring Sleeping Beauty to life in August at The Sandler Center starring their professional company. The show had been slated to run April 4th and 5th. They also hope to hold their summer programing because “the kids need the stuff they love,” adds Lisa. This past season was the premier season for their professional company, and they are eager to carry on.

You can find more information about Ballet Virginia’s Company and Classes on their website, or find them on Facebook or on Instagram