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The first of its kind in the Greater Seattle Area, the Seattle Dance Alliance was established last week when a group of local dance education organizations formed a coalition to collectively navigate a new era of dance teaching informed by COVID-19. Initiated by choreographer, educator, and Studio Director Marlo Martin, the Alliance includes ten Seattle dance businesses, schools, and collegiate facilities including eXit SPACE School of Dance, Dance Fremont, Spectrum Dance Theater, Cornish College of the Arts, Cornish Prep, Dance Educators Association of Washington (DEAW), The Northwest School, Seattle Academy (SAAS), Velocity Dance Center, and Rainier Dance Center. In an act of collaborative solidarity, directors and representatives from each facility gathered virtually on May 20 for the first of many round table discussions on safety, wellness, and transition strategies as Governor Inslee’s Stay at Home Order lifts in phases.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Dance Alliance.

The meeting started with a discussion of safety regulations and its implications for dance instruction. Dance-specific research about COVID-19 (specifically offered through the National Dance Education Organization [NDEO] and Dance/USA) regarding exposure time, ventilation, aerosolization of viral particles, and social distancing were central elements of the discussion. “We know [now] that duration of exposure is as much of a factor as the number of people in a room,” Cornish Dance Department Chair, Victoria Watts states. Contact transfer is viable, but more and more research has shown that aerosolization is the primary means of transmission depending on ventilation, number of people in the room, and how heavily they’re breathing. This poses obvious concerns for dance directors; the need to limit cardio activity, class sizes and floor work, shorten class times, eliminate prop-sharing, rotate in-person students, and lengthen/stagger transition times were all agreed upon as potential – even crucial – strategies across the board. Gridding off the floors and barres, using forehead thermometers, and administering BLOCH’s B-Safe Face Masks were discussed as well along with the challenges of each.

Even with these safety precautions, Watts advised that at the end of the day every safety measure is only “one component of a multi-pronged approach to minimizing risk, knowing that we can’t obliterate risk… There isn’t a risk-free way of returning to the studio. The risk free way of dealing with dance in the fall is for all of us to stay in our kitchens and our bedrooms.” But dancers will always want to dance and the city will reopen eventually. So the question of how to balance those risks with the knowledge that the dance community persists – reliant on movement for physical, emotional and psychological well-being – permeated amidst the discussion.

For private schools with integral dance programs such as Seattle Academy and The Northwest School, the transition back into the classroom poses its own challenges. Strategies for the fall will be tailored for each institution at large by well-informed administrators, but may not be set up to best accommodate dance classrooms. So questions surrounding the duration that sixth graders can be expected to sustain dancing in a mask and whether dance classrooms can transition from unventilated basement studios to rooftop soccer fields were central to their side of the conversation. As Maya Soto, the dance faculty representative for Northwest pointed out, “we need to be at the forefront of these decisions and making recommendations to our program directors and administrations so that decisions don’t trickle down and not work for us.” In terms of curriculum, many of the questions that arose for private school dance faculty arose for others at the meeting as well, generating a single overall sentiment: dance education has to look different going forward – different in terms of methodology, yes, but also in terms of content and accessibility. There may, for example, be less of a focus on floor work, traveling, and performance and more of a focus on creative practice and theory. The way dance educators  teach will have to look different, but what they teach may have to as well.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Dance Alliance.

Yet as more questions and challenges arise, the Seattle Dance Alliance intends to work collectively, continue to meet virtually, circulate ideas and research in a shared document, and engage in follow-up discussions specific to teaching beginners on a virtual platform. At a time when for-profit businesses are struggling to stay afloat, Martin wants the alliance to shift studios away from viewing each other as competition and move towards creating a culture of mutual support and cooperation:  “I’m a firm believer that there is no competition in the arts world,” she says. “[This] is a special opportunity for us to band together and show our Seattle Dance Community that we actually are all in this together. Not only figuratively, but in action and in support of each other.”

In addition to the Alliance, dance schools have relied heavily on individual donations and generosity to get through the pandemic. The burden of COVID’s disruption has been immense, forcing institutions to invest in new technology, sanitation, ventilation, teacher training, and PPE in order to keep dancers safe and their doors open. While the Alliance will serve as a key bridge between leaders in our community, donations, generous sliding scale payments, and vocal support of fundraising remain some of the best ways to aid the Alliance moving forward. “[If we] keep supporting each other, then we [will] have a deeper, richer, more full arts community in Seattle,” Martin reminds the cohort. “It only makes sense to gather together.” In that spirit of gathering, the takeaway was clear: Seattle dance may be facing unprecedented obstacles, but its leaders and educators are determined to get through this together. And get through it they will. “We are creatives,” says Martin. “So we’ve got this.”

Seattle area studio owners or directors interested in joining the Seattle Dance Alliance or looking for more information on the group or how to support it, can email Marlo Martin directly at Donations to nonprofit organizations/schools associated with the Alliance can be made through their individual websites: Dance Fremont, Spectrum Dance Theater, Cornish College of the Arts, Dance Educators Association of Washington, The Northwest School Dance Department, Seattle Academy Dance Department, Velocity Dance Center. To support small businesses:  purchase a gift card to gift or donate from eXit SPACE and/or email Rainier Dance Center for contribution options.