Rylee Slemp froze as the music started to end, foot pointed to the floor, until the dance teacher told her to relax. She quickly adjusted her face mask back to its proper place. It had fallen below her nose between pirouettes and leaps.
“It’s hard to dance with a mask sometimes,” Rylee, 14, said moments later, leaning against the ballet barre as she caught her breath at IndepenDance Studio on Southwest 75th Street in Gainesville. “I feel like I am inhaling it when I dance.”
The teacher, Mary Mele, 36, walked over and urged Rylee to rest and grab a drink of water.
“These kids are so resilient,” Mele, who is also the IndepenDance Studio’s owner and creative director, said afterward.
Mele has been dancing most of her life and a business owner since 2009, but just a few months ago she had to reconsider everything she knew about running a dance studio.
In March, when Alachua County reported its first COVID-19 case and schools and businesses began to close, she acted quickly to preserve the rest of her studio’s dance season.
“It was a fight or flight thing,” she said. “We needed to stay open.”
Hers is just one among several studios and dance groups across the region that have had to rethink how to continue offering artistic education and fellowship without spreading the virus.
Extreme Dance Company at the University of Florida went from about 30 attendees to about 10 after moving to Zoom classes this fall, said its president, Juliet Nero, 21, a senior zoology major.
Nero said the company canceled its spring end-of-season performance, joining dance groups doing likewise nationally, including the New York City Ballet deciding not to perform “Nutcracker”.
UF Health guidelines mandate that only two people at a time can be in the Extreme Dance studios in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. So an executive board member and a choreographer go into the studio and teach through a web camera, Nero said.
She said the company held a town hall meeting to see what its members wanted this semester.
“Everyone was very adamant about having just an open semester,” Nero said. “No level placement, just everybody dancing together and learning.”
Wanda Lloyd said her group felt the same way. A local elementary school teacher, Lloyd is the lead instructor for Smooth Flava Gainesville, a dance group that teaches different partner dance styles – including DFW swing and ballroom – to primarily Black adults in the area.
Lloyd said since many of her attendees are older and thus a sensitive age range for the virus, she decided to stop hosting in-person classes in March to avoid risking their health.
She held just line dancing classes outside and socially distanced on Friday evenings, first in her driveway at home and, once they became more popular, at parking lots and elsewhere citywide.
“We just wanted to do something to stay motivated,” Lloyd said. “We didn’t want dance to die here in Gainesville.”
At IndepenDance, Mele said her staff in March spent a weekend recording classes so students could keep learning. She knew, though, it was a short-term fix to a long-term problem.
Soon Mele began to think of ways to safely return students to the studio. Masks and social distancing are enforced. Each student must get their temperature checked by a staff member before coming inside – no one with one over 100.5 may enter. Parents cannot watch classes from inside the studio; instead, they can do so through Zoom from their cars or homes.
Mele said that wearing masks has been a tough adjustment for her dancers, especially those who spend hours doing rigorous training. And yet all of them are complying with the mandates.
“Everyone is doing it, because they want to dance, and they love to dance,” she said.
Sascha Owen works at IndepenDance and has three children enrolled there. While she feels bad about all the mandates, they all help to bring her some relief.
“It’s been comforting to me, as a parent, that my kids are going somewhere where they are taking the precautions,” Owen said.
Despite the changes in how the studio is run, Mele said student attendance is still 50-75 below what it was a year ago.
“That’s to be expected … so we’re very happy to be about three-quarters of the way there,” she said.