COVID-19 limits access to ballet training

At home and in the studio, ballet students are facing challenges ranging from technical Zoom difficulties to leaping and stumbling over furniture, as they continue their education during the pandemic.

Ballet dancers around the world have transformed their homes into mini ballet studios, but imagine preparing for a triple pirouette only to run straight into your desk.

Some students are fortunate to live 15 minutes away from their studio where they can work with their teachers in person — 6 feet apart with a mask on. Other dancers have no choice but to continue ballet virtually from their cramped bedroom spaces.

For Sahara Marquez, a 14-year-old aspiring ballet dancer, training from her home in Tijuana, Mexico is the only option. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sahara and her mom drove an hour-and-a-half across the border daily to her ballet studio in San Diego. She has not been back to the studio since March’s shutdown.

“[The studio is] what I miss the most,” Sahara said via a Zoom interview. “Staying in my room doing ballet is okay, but it’s not the same.”

Egle Spokaite, Sahara’s ballet teacher at the Ballet Institute of San Diego, said over Zoom that online classes through the platform can be effective with the right preparation. Spokaite helped Sahara transform her bedroom into a mini ballet space complete with a marley floor, the flexible vinyl flooring needed for avoiding injuries, and a ballet barre.

Sahara said she spends hours every day in the corner of her room working on technique. Her dream is to become a professional ballet dancer one day.

“I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else,” Sahara said.

Students like Sahara who do not live in close proximity to their ballet studios are experiencing limitations in their training.

As a predominantly European art form, the classical ballet world has an ongoing issue of underrepresentation and diversity. Rachel S. Moore, president and CEO of the Music Center, said through Zoom that the issues stem from income disparities, access to good ballet training, and lacking role models on stage for children of color. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, she emphasized, and the pandemic is only exacerbating the situation.

“The classical dance world is not representative of our broader community at all,” Moore said. “We need, as an art form, to be relevant to the 21st century, to tell the full story and not just the singular story of the past.”

In Mexico, Sahara’s mom said that the closest professional ballet training is a three-hour drive south from where they live. So, for aspiring dancers like Sahara who are looking for serious ballet education, it is necessary to cross the border. Sahara and her mom have been commuting to San Diego since she was 8 years old, she said, and many of her peers from Tijuana have to do the same.

“Over in Mexico, there were a lot of things in terms of technique that we were missing,” Sahara said. “We wanted to know more — if there was something other than ballet in Mexico.”

Although Sahara is receiving the pre-professional training she was looking for from her teachers in San Diego, she is unable to practice the same at home.

With online classes, the most a dancer can do from home is barre work, which includes foundation, alignment and basic technique. But in order to execute turns, big jumps, or traveling combinations, it is necessary to be in the studio, Spokaite said.

“If there is space, there is freedom to move. If there is no space, then it’s static,” Spokaite said.

“The dynamic of the dancer is one of the most important things.”

Sahara said she has experienced various technical problems with Zoom classes. The video freezes often, and other times the music cuts off, she said. A couple of times during flamenco class, she and another student were not able to hear the music and had to base their dancing off of the movement of their teacher’s hand clapping. When it was time to begin dancing, the teacher asked them why they were still standing. “We can’t hear anything,” Sahara exclaimed.

Sahara said she misses the hands-on physical corrections she receives in the studio. Many of the exercises, such as across-the-floor jumps and turns, have to be simplified because the teacher can only give verbal corrections through the screen.

“It’s not something you can correct visually,” Sahara said. “It has to be physical — the teacher places your arm up or down.”

Spokaite currently has three students from Mexico, including Sahara, who take classes through Zoom. She said she has noticed students who are unable to go to the studio struggling with their emotional health, explaining how students often experience emotional downs from missing the social aspect of ballet, which can affect their learning and ability to absorb information.

“We’re all humans, and these emotional waves, teachers can feel it,” Spokaite said. “I would like to help more, but I can’t because of this situation.”

Even for students who have access to a studio, keeping up ballet training through social distancing is not easy. Ballet businesses are struggling as some young dancers lose focus and interest. Sara Viale and her husband own Ballet Arte in Solana Beach, Calif. and she said they have lost about 80% of their students since March. Only the more serious students have the dedication to stick with training online, Viale said in a Zoom conversation.

“Not everyone has a mansion, not everyone has many computers, not everyone has the possibility to be on Zoom,” Viale said. “And like with every activity, not everyone is doing it with their heart, with their passion, so the moment there was no more studio, no more ‘teacher with the whip’ in front of them, it was too much to handle.”

For the more serious students, Viale said, she and her husband decided to open up the studio for private lessons. They keep all the doors and windows open, use air purifiers, and disinfect the studio multiple times a day, she said.

“We are lucky in the sense that in other places of the world, those things are not possible,” Viale said. “Once they were done with their classes, they could not go in the studio anymore, that was it.”

Fifteen-year-old Russian ballet dancer Tamara Bobkova is one of Viale’s students fortunate enough to come into the studio for 2-hour private lessons once a week.

“While the teachers are still only able to give corrections verbally, it helps that Tamara is able to see her teacher’s reactions immediately in the studio,” her mother, Alyona Bobkova, said

She acknowledges her daughter’s privilege of being in the studio.

“We are very fortunate,” Bobkova said. “I know lots of her friends who live in different states or different countries who don’t have this opportunity.”

Outside of her private lessons, Tamara converted their family’s condo living room into her ballet space for Zoom classes. Her ballet barre is a black shelf built into the wall and she has two computer monitors — one where she can see the teacher and herself, and the other where she can see the entire class.

But practicing at home and practicing in the studio are completely different experiences. When Tamara arrived at the studio for her first private lesson in April, Bobkova said Tamara felt dizzy and overwhelmed by the large space, ballet barres, proper floors and mirrors. She was unable to execute her turns in the same way as she was able to at home.

The teachers and students are trying their best, Bobkova said, but practicing ballet at home is just not the same as in the studio.

“It’s hard to do this beautiful art virtually, and teachers cannot express even one-third of their emotions because they see how kids are struggling from far away on Zoom,” Bobkova said. “They feel completely helpless.”

Spokaite said the most difficult aspect of a young dancer's education during the pandemic is not being able to perform. Onstage, there is a special feeling and vibration of the air, she said, which cannot be experienced otherwise. For Sahara, performing is the most enjoyable part of ballet, and she said she hopes to return to the stage as soon as possible.

“She has a strong character, she is a fighter,” Spokaite said. “She’s doing the best she can.”