Looking ahead to a return to dance classes

In the first of two features that look ahead to studios reopening, David Mead talks to Danceworks general manager Lesley Osman about what class might look like when classes resume.

At last! Today, the government announced that gyms, indoor pools and dance studios will be able to reopen from July 25. Although some companies and even at least one vocational school have found a way back into the studio, albeit with severe restrictions, and while many studios and teachers, have been doing a fantastic job offering classes online, it’s something we’ve all been waiting for, even though there are still a lot of things to sort out.

Rest assured that studios want to be open for classes just as much we want to be in there dancing. There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes but while studio managers and owners can look at what has been required of sport and community venues, and at what reopened studios abroad have needed to put in place, they have been working somewhat in the dark as they try and plan for reopening safely, and in a way that is commercially viable. Even though we now have a date, there’s a lot of guidance to be worked through.

Danceworks in Lodon's MayfairPhoto Danceworks
Danceworks in Lodon’s Mayfair
Photo Danceworks

Lesley Osman, general manager of Danceworks in London, explains that it was the first time the studio had been closed in 40 years. “This has been a very challenging time both financially and emotionally as it is for everyone in the industry.”  Right now, she says she is busy trying to figure the future, guessing what guidance or regulation might come, and working through modelling different scenarios.

She says that open dance classes at Danceworks should be back in August, hopefully early August, but there are still a lot of people to speak to and a lot of things to sort out. “So, we can’t make any promises but we will announce a reopening date as soon as possible.

A first step comes on July 11, when Danceworks reopens its Natureworks therapy centre two days a week and hosts a few private lessons. Lesley recognises that while the therapists are all keen to get back, there is likely to be caution around coming in for treatment. “A lot of people are desperate to see a physio or an osteopath and are desperate to come but will they want to use public transport if they are not local?” she wonders. “But so far the response has been positive”

When dance classes do resume, they are going to be different. In many senses, the various issues in the studio itself are the easiest to solve. Things like limiting numbers of dancers, adapting class to allow for at least a certain amount of social distancing, changing the content of class so that it’s less anaerobically challenging, and allowing a gap between classes for extra cleaning, sanitising barres, and so that groups of dancers meet as little as possible, can all be done with a bit a creativity. With ballet, the usual formal structure of the class helps too.

Numbers in class will be strictly limited with prior online booking and payment will be required. Whatever personal details and contact information are needed can be collected at this stage too. Like many businesses, Danceworks is going to become cash-free and as with pubs, being able to contact everyone present should someone subsequently become ill or is tested positive is going to be important.

Some German studios also require dancers to complete a questionnaire on personal health, symptoms and travel arrangements, and acknowledge a broadly worded waiver. The norm in Germany is also for a booking cut-off time, with no same day bookings allowed.

Hopefully, we'll soon be making our way along Balderton street againPhoto Danceworks
Hopefully, we’ll soon be making our way along Balderton street again
Photo Danceworks

At Danceworks, Lesley says they have measured carefully and can get twenty dancers in Studio 10 with social distancing in place; enough for the teachers and studio to not make a financial loss. “It actually allows 2.4 metres each, so it’s more than current social distancing guidance. But, obviously, the teacher is going to have to make some adjustments to their teaching. You can’t have everyone gathered in a corner waiting for their turn to do pirouettes or grand jetés across the studio. It’s just not possible. The teaching style will have to change a little bit.” But it’s likely most dancers will need to build up before attacking grand allegro full out again anyway.

To avoid people being face-to-face, at the barre it’s likely that everyone will have to face the same direction, so some people will have to start on the left. When it comes to centre work, each dancer will be restricted to their own space, as will be required with other genres. Lesley explains that the studio floors will be marked out accordingly.

One of the biggest problems in reopening theatres is not how do you space in the auditorium but how do you get what audience you have in there safely in the first place. Remember that many are old buildings with cramped public areas. It’s much the same for dance studios.

Of Danceworks, Lesley says, “We are lucky that we have a big reception area but what we also have are some narrow corridors and a narrow staircase down to our changing areas. Essentially, when we reopen under the Covid-19 protocols, people will not be able to use the changing rooms or the lounge. We won’t be allowed to provide stretching areas. That will have to become part of the class.”

She went on to explain they will create a one-way system, using the main door for going in but that at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to the first floor for exiting. Dancers will be asked to arrive only immediately before class and to leave immediately afterwards. “It’s the same with Natureworks. For safety we have to insist that people can’t come with friends and family unless they are taking part in the session themselves; and they can’t stay in the building. They have to come in, do their class or session, then go straight out again.”

What the class timetable might look like is still very much up in the air. For a start, it’s still unclear which teachers will be available given some have gone back to home countries. Like dancers, some may also have pre-existing health conditions that may make them think twice about returning just yet. What is certain is that there will be 15-minute gaps between classes to make sure there’s no crossover and for surfaces to be sanitized.

Following the practice commonly adopted in France and Germany, face masks are likely to be required in all public areas but not in the class itself. There will be wall-mounted sanitizer dispensers and staff will have appropriate PPE.

“It’s not the friendly environment that our dancers are accustomed to coming to. It’s not going to be easy,” Lesley admits. Equally, it’s hard to disagree with her when she says that, despite the likely restrictions, going in to take class in the studio is going to be better than trying to do it in your bedroom or kitchen or lounge.

What of online classes, many of which have been very popular? Lesley says Danceworks will be livestreaming some classes. “People around the world have been taking classes with our teachers, which is fabulous, and we would like to continue to offer that. And it will bring in extra fees for teachers, and the studio.”

Although not yet knowing when the studio could reopen fully, Danceworks has still been busy planning their respected two-week Ballet Summer Intensive, which this year will be online and will include classes for various international time zones. The roster of guest teachers is impressive and includes Misty Copeland, Marianela Nunez, Steven McCrae, David Hallberg, Alexander Campbell and Samara Downs plus eight dancers from The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet.

Lesley says that while some people will be understandably cautious, her belief, her hope, is that people will be keen enough to come into the studio again to make it worth opening. With fingers very firmly crossed, she hopes that will be open again sometime in August. “But who knows. If the government leave giving a decision and guidance until late July, it’s going to be very difficult but we are raring to go. The word ‘unprecedented’ is greatly overused, but with this it’s true. I’ve been here ten years. I’ve dealt with many things, but never anything like this.”

Keep up with the latest news from Danceworks by visiting https://danceworks.com/, from where you can also find links to booking current online classes; or via the Danceworks Facebook and Instagram pages.

In a second feature looking at studio reopening, David Mead talks to Pineapple founder Debbie Moore. Coming soon!