Dancing behind the mask

Miriam Gildea, Contributing writer

15 years ago a topsy-turvy, curly-haired, puff ball pranced into her first ballet class.

This little girl was me, and little did I know that what I once used to fulfill my child-like adoration of all things pink and glittery would turn into my lifelong passion.

For years, day in and day out I perpetuated my ardent love of ballet in the studio, following the traditional way of life many young dancers know. Then the pandemic consumed all known predictable patterns, throwing my life and the ballet world into a tailspin.

Luckily, however, through fierce determination, grit and tenacity the ballet world scrambled to find solutions and modifications to help keep this art form alive through these less than ideal times.

Like most of my generation, I suffered extreme disappointment from the lost dreams the pandemic propagated.

I watched as my school days, prom and graduation all at once fluttered up in the smoke of incinerated expectations, but worst of all, I saw my last semester at my studio disappear. The pandemic hit the day before the International Dance Acclaim and just before casting for our spring show, “Snow White.”

I started dancing at the Staunton Academy of Ballet when I was six years old, performed in 19 full length ballet productions, participated in 11 national performing evaluations, and engaged in copious local outreach programs.

My little studio was my second home and I never imagined my last days and performances would be stripped away from me. All was lost; all was thrown off course.

Luckily, amid all the confusion and uncertainty, my unfaltering passionate teacher Pamela McCray set out to find innovative ways for us to dance as safely as possible. Admitting to her own lack of technological expertise, we embarked on a rocky but eventually prosperous journey of Zoom-hosted ballet. Trading lovely marley-floored dance studios for unconventional home settings (like carpet and tile) was no easy feat for myself and the other dancers during COVID-19.

What once was the highlight of my social interaction and fuel for my artistic aspirations turned into long hours of isolated work staring endlessly into a computer or phone screen.

Yet, I overcame. As a performer, the necessity of flexibility is imperative, and I for one know that the experience of Zooming ballet not only deepened my appreciation for in-class ballet (like what I get to experience here at the Hurst!), but also enabled me with the tools to become more flexible in my dance environment and learning perspective.

Steps towards normalcy have been taken, but even now, all is not as it once was. No longer am I able to huddle in mass stretching puddles with my classmates, filling every square inch of waiting/dressing rooms with limbs, bags, bobby pins and hairspray.

As with the rest of the world I must work from behind a mask and respect the six foot distancing rule. While ordinarily in a dance class we all congregate on the sides, frequently infiltrating one another’s personal body space, now we stay within taped off zones and march through choreographed 6-foot entrances and exits.

My personal favorite aspect of dance classes ‘going across the floor’ is also on hold along with live performances and many other facets of the once typical ballet world.

Normal is still a far-off hope, but every dancer and instructor is doing the best they can to keep up training and provide opportunities.

Performances may be online and high-fives off limits, but as a community (socially distanced of course), the ballet world continues to innovate and produce athletic ascetic art through movement, in person or not.