RANDALLSTOWN, Md. — On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July, families sat in folding chairs arranged in socially distant clusters in the half-empty parking lot of a strip mall.
No one was under the impression that it was an ideal spot for a dance recital.
The backdrop behind the small, makeshift stage was a gas station and Maryland Route 26. The sun beat down so hard that audience members unfurled umbrellas in between routines. When one young dancer, lifting her body up from a bridge, pulled her hands from surface of the stage, she winced as if she had accidentally touched a stovetop.
Still, that the students were onstage at all was enough for Kaniesha Reeder, the owner of N’Ferno Performing Arts Center, the studio putting on the show. During the four months of the coronavirus lockdown, Ms. Reeder held onto hope that she would be able to find a way for her students to have their annual recital.
“We have survived Covid and we have gotten these babies onstage,” a triumphant Ms. Reeder told the audience at the start of the show.
In March, as the pandemic accelerated in the United States, the professional dance world contracted. Spring performance dates for dance companies were struck from calendars and soon fall shows were canceled too.
In the world of amateur dance, the pandemic was just as earth shattering. At dance studios across the country, regular classes went virtual, dancers found stand-ins for the ballet barre in their homes, parents demanded refunds for tuition, and one question loomed large: What would happen to the annual recital?
Among students of dance, the recital is much more than just a performance. It’s the culmination of a year’s work and a social event: Dancers do each other’s makeup and nervously practice their steps before the curtain parts. Families gather to hoot and holler for their dancing relatives and deliver bouquets of flowers.
When the pandemic hit, some studios made swift decisions to cancel their performances, while others held virtual ones they knew could not compare to the adrenaline-filled, sequin-covered excitement of the real thing.
But others dug in their heels and resolved to find some way to put on their biggest show of the year.
In Randallstown that meant renting a 24-foot-long stage that could be set up outside, designing socially distant seating and buying a slew of protective tools, including no-touch thermometers, air purifiers and portable hand-washing stations.
“I refuse to let this virus stop me from having this recital,” said Ms. Reeder, who opened her studio 12 years ago.
When it came time for the dancer to perform, they walked single file to the stage, all wearing masks with their glittering costumes. An adult collected their masks before they took the stage, and after they bourréed in tutus to a track from “Tangled” or performed a regal modern routine to a song from “The Lion King,” the masks went back on.
“They work so hard, and I really enjoy seeing them onstage,” Ms. Reeder said. “This is something I feel like that they deserve.”
Across the country, many dance studios are struggling to survive. Some are seeing an exodus of students who can no longer pay tuition because parents have lost jobs or don’t see the value in virtual rehearsals. Studios must continue to pay teachers to conduct Zoom rehearsals, send in rent checks and fund the socially-distant recitals.
They are mostly relying on loyal students who are willing to pay during this tumultuous period of online dance classes. And the prospect of a live performance in the near future can help keep students invested and give them something to work toward.
Gina Siciliano, who teaches early childhood ballet for Integral Ballet in Merrick, N.Y., was intent on preserving a human connection over Zoom with her students, who range from 2 to 8 years old. Ms. Siciliano was tasked with preparing the young dancers for a reimagined recital that would involve dancing in full costume and makeup in a public park.
A primary concern for teachers has been making sure that students’ off-site training doesn’t result in injury. And Ms. Siciliano knew the risk: In a Zoom rehearsal from her living room in May, she was demonstrating a simple sauté when she tripped and broke her ankle.
“I was wanting to dance fully so the students could feel my energy,” she said. “I guess I was overzealous.”
So, in the park on a day late in June, Ms. Siciliano’s students wore street shoes rather than ballet slippers with their purple sparkling tutus and hair-sprayed buns to prevent tripping in the grass.
The show — Integral Ballet called it a pop-up recital — allowed students a chance to perform choreography they had started to learn months earlier, when the word coronavirus was not part of the common parlance.
Parents wearing masks stood by their parked cars watching a group in bright yellow raincoats and knee-high boots performing to “Singin’ in the Rain” under the hot sun, with white clouds and a blue sky behind them.
A class of teenage dancers wearing long white ballet skirts had resigned themselves to doing single pirouettes, rather than doubles, on the uneven grass of the outdoor stage.
For Ballet Folklórico México Danza, a studio that teaches traditional Mexican dance to children and adults in Hayward, Calif., the big performance dates are not until fall. For now, the school is navigating the challenges of socially distant rehearsing for roughly 120 students of all ages while trying not to make too many assumptions about what the world will be like in October.
That month, the dance school is planning to hold its Día de los Muertos show; in late November, it plans to perform its Mexican “Nutcracker” — a show the school is determined to put on, even as big companies like the New York City Ballet have had to cancel their “Nutcrackers.”
For Ballet Folklórico, operating during a pandemic has meant cutting in-person classes to no more than a dozen per class from 25 or 30. The dancers, who returned to the studio in mid-June, rehearse six feet apart, guided by red tape on the floor; staff members sanitize the bathrooms and doorknobs between sessions.
René González, a co-owner of Ballet Folklórico, seems particularly well equipped to run a dance studio during the pandemic. In March, Mr. González retired from his career as a technician at Alameda County Public Health Laboratory, and transitioned full time to managing his dance school. He has stayed in contact with his former colleagues to monitor coronavirus cases in the area and understands that if cases spike in the county he might have to close his studio again and move classes online.
“If we have to shut down, we have to,” he said. “We can’t be selfish.”
Mr. González said the high school where they perform the Día de los Muertos show will likely want audience members to be separated by two seats; even with a dramatically reduced audience capacity, he said he would hold the shows.
A significant challenge posed by Covid-19 is couple choreography, an important part of traditional Mexican dance, with the women in their billowing, brightly colored skirts and the men in wide-brimmed hats and charro, or horseman, suits. For now, Mr. González said that couples dancing is out — as is choreography that involves the young dancers holding hands and rotating in a circle.
“We’re not getting in circles, we’re not touching hands,” he said. “I don’t know when we’re going to get back to the normalcy of teaching dance.”
When the Ohio governor started allowing gatherings of fewer than 50 people, Barb Coman, the co-owner of NorthPointe Dance Academy, set out to devise a way for a recital to happen. Ms. Coman’s solution was to roll out rubber flooring on the asphalt parking lot in front of the studio.
For seven days in late June, the academy, in a suburb of Columbus, put on a regimented, socially-distant recital. A dozen dancers at a time performed their numbers in a 15-minute time slot. They danced in taped-off squares, six feet long, in which they could safely kick and jump out of range of their fellow students. Each was allowed two guests, who sheltered under separate 10-foot-long tents.
There were no stage wings for exits; instead, the youngest dancers ran straight off the stage and into their parents’ arms.
The moratorium on touching meant that any choreography with lifts or partnering had to be modified or mimed. But, as Ms. Coman said: “At some point it really wasn’t about the choreography. It stopped being about that and turned into, just let those kids dance.”
While the new recital structure made it easier on the parents (they didn’t have to pay for tickets or sit through an hour-and-a-half of other people’s children dancing), it was much harder on the teachers, who worked, at times, 12-hour days in the studio’s parking lot to make the recital happen.
Studio owners like Ms. Coman in Ohio and Ms. Reeder in Maryland feel exhausted and overworked in a way that reminds them of the early days of opening a dance studio. But as they hear about other dance studios shutting down altogether because of the pandemic, they’ve decided that they’ll do anything to keep their doors open.
“Everything is 10 times the work for way less money,” Ms. Coman said. “But our business is still afloat.”