The Evolution of Dance Education during a Worldwide Pandemic

Boston Ballet School Staff

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

Reflecting on Boston Ballet School's early response to the pandemic and outlining the path forward.

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

EARLY RESPONSE to COVID-19: EXPERIENCES WITH VIRTUAL PROGRAMMING

When the novel coronavirus hit in March 2020, like many businesses, Boston Ballet School had to close all studios almost immediately. To continue providing high level dance education, our faculty, musicians, and staff quickly pivoted the learning model from in-person instruction to 100% virtual. While redesigning our curriculum to allow for virtual instruction, our focus remained on our commitment to provide the highest quality dance education possible. We sat down (virtually) with Dave Czesniuk, Boston Ballet School Managing Director, to hear his perspective on the past few months and what the future looks like for Boston Ballet School.

What was the springtime transition to virtual programming like?
Chaotic, frenetic, stressful, grinding; and ultimately some of the most inspiring work I have ever been a part of. While everyone worked tirelessly on one front to get our programs, buildings, and many areas of staffing shut down, they also worked with equal or greater fervor jumping into innovation mode to create an online ballet school almost overnight. I could not overstate how impressive the leadership, and dare I say sportsmanship, displayed by faculty, musicians, staff and all our students and families.

What resources have been available to students, and how have they been using them? 
The primary set of resources was a consistent level of care, compassion, and service for all student groups. This came to life in faculty pivoting to virtual teaching, via both live and recorded ballet content. More than that, it was manifested in a round-the-clock type of access that the students had with faculty and staff that I think really elevated the student-centered experience we aspire to provide. More direct advising and student service became possible, and even our contributions to important work with partners like Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Boston Public Schools, and the Lynch/Van Otterloo YMCA we advanced, and yielded quick new ideas about new directions we could explore together.

What challenges were presented during virtual programming?
The main challenge was the weight of a large learning curve that had to be worked through much more quickly than we would prefer. The pedagogy involved with online teaching and learning is captured in volumes of education curriculum, mostly at accredited institutions in graduate level programs. That our team was able to engage this learning curve and move along it so swiftly and effectively in a “grass roots” fashion is truly amazing. Furthermore, one could expect that one or two “stars” would easily grasp the concept and run with it, but we have a very large faculty and virtually all quickly ramped up their skill sets to make this happen.

Other challenges that were uncovered have had to do with fundamental system management. Knowing how to be prepared to avert a technological breakdown or security violations and making sure that even though the kids are learning from home that they are safe and secure, has been an added learning curve.

What opportunities were presented during virtual programming? 
The main opportunity before us is a wide-open, blue sea of possibility now that we have leapt into a multi-modal delivery model with our programs. I think access to ballet education, from all walks of life, all geographies, all social classes, has been advanced possibly decades by our team being forced to adopt new technologies and methodologies for program delivery. The acquisition of certain software/hardware resources is only a small piece of it. Evolving our culture and education philosophy to be inclusive of a sort of “anytime, anywhere” ethos is the real game-changer. From here on out, Boston Ballet School will be equipped to deliver world-class dance education programming in our studios, virtually live, virtually recorded, via social media channels, via mainstream media channels, and so on. The possibilities appear endless at the moment.

Photo credit: Igor Burlak Photography

LOOKING AHEAD: HYBRID PROGRAMMING

In August 2020 we started offering hybrid programming as Massachusetts allowed us to increase our in-studio capacity and after extensive surveying of our families and students. Hybrid programming combined our earlier response of virtual programming with programming in-studio at a reduced capacity. The goal of hybrid programming is to offer students a stimulating, yet safe, classroom experience that extends beyond the screen.

What safety precautions have been put in place to keep students, faculty, and staff safe? 
Boston Ballet School has leveraged its extensive, cross-functional network of relationships with public schools, private schools, international dance companies, local non-profits, and renowned medical experts to build its customized four-studio approach to insuring the health, safety and top-tier dance education experience for all involved. The past several months of research, needs assessment, and design lead us to believe we have a most comprehensive and leading approach to operating dance studios during the these most challenging times.

Daily health checks (in-studio and at home) have been implemented as well as the wearing of face masks, distanced spacing within studios, staggered arrival and departure times as well as a virtual livestream experience for those choosing to join remotely.

How many students will be allowed in-studio at a time? 
This will scale upwards and downwards, probably for quite a while, as the macro health environment shifts in the coming months. I believe our new health and safety protocols and procedures have us well prepared to scale up to our normal class capacities of 20-25 students at times when the environment reveals that it is safe to do so, but also to scale back to class-sizes of no more than 10 students and in worst case scenarios to quickly move our programming entirely online for periods of time when triage level cleaning and disinfecting must be employed.

In these unprecedented times, we understand that our learning model, and our expectations, will be subjected to change. Our priorities, however, are unchanged: we continue to prioritize the health and safety of our students, families, faculty, musicians, and staff. Our mission remains of highest importance, to inspire, develop, and sustain a love of dance in every student. Our plans for hybrid programming enliven this priority by offering in-studio time of a practical amount. We eagerly await the gradual reunion of our close community, albeit distanced.

Visit the Education page for our most up-to-date safety policies and to learn about our program offerings.

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director
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