In dance, a pivot is a common type of move that dancers make. But this past year, pivoting has become much more than a physical turn on one’s foot – it’s become a way of survival – and often has been more virtual, than physical.
For Ballet U, a dance studio located at 411 Prairie Heights Drive, when the Safer At Home order went into effect last March, the school “pivoted” to starting virtual lessons March 15.
But that was not ideal, owner and director Stephanie Tollefson said, her total number of students is now around 160 whereas it was approximately 250-60 before COVID. When in-person Ballet U classes returned over the summer moths, she said, even with safety protocols and smaller class sizes, enrollment shrunk to 40% of pre-pandemic levels and is around 60% now headed into the winter months.
Though, she said she had quite a few students stick it out for 12 weeks last spring and she’s had a devoted following by enough students ever since to break even over this past year.
More than the loss of students, Ballet U students lost the ability to perform in the annual Verona Youth Ballet Nutcracker this year. And 2020 was to be exciting, Tollefson said, because after two sold-out years in a row at the old Verona Area High School, the performers looked forward to taking to the stage in the new high school.
However, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Tollefson had to make the difficult decision to cancel its plans for a 2020 Nutcracker performance.
She was determined however, to continue to dance, whether that from home or at the dance studio –making December 2020 “Nutcracker month” for students, no matter what.
“From a business perspective, it felt important to still have something to work towards to end the year – something to look forward to,” Tollefson said.
Verona Youth Ballet is an organization formed in 2005 to produce an hour-long Nutcracker performance featuring Verona-area child and adult performers – both amateurs and seasoned professionals. The organization includes many members from Ballet U, among other area dance studios.
Verona Youth Ballet is a nonprofit company run by Ballet U but open to dancers not with them. It was founded by Ballet U founder and former owner Charmaine Ristow.
Since 2017, the yearly Nutcracker has been directed by Tollefson and it has grown to become a fixture of Verona’s annual Hometown Holidays events. Last year 130 people participated, and Tollefson said she found a place for everyone in the production.
She said it had become a nice event for everyone to attend, even people who don’t like ballet – as this was not the full Nutcracker ballet, but an hour-long adaptation. For some people, it’d become a part of their holiday traditions.
While the other studios that form the Verona Youth Ballet went on to do their own thing, to still give her Ballet U dancers an annual Nutcracker experience – Tollefson had planned a much smaller performance at her studio with less than 10 dancers per group and just for the parents of the dancers to come see.
And she planned to record the dances to put together a video for the public.
But a need to pivot struck yet again when in November, a new Public Health Madison and Dane County emergency order meant Tollefson was not allowed to have any group classes or indoor group performances.
Then, it turned out under the order that the group at the dance studio had to be so small, they couldn’t have parents watch.
“I was ready to say forget it, but one instructor was devoted to the idea,” Tollefson said.
She switched back to virtual classes for a few weeks and decided to record her dancers outside in the parking lot.
Even that hit a snag, as the recording date originally set became a snow day that made it necessary to postpone recording by one more day.
Though, the snowy background worked out rather well for the parking lot performance of the Nutcracker, Tollefson said.
“Right after a snowstorm was not ideal – we were very cold – but seeing the dancers’ joy made it all worth it,” she said. “The dancing was bad, but the joy for dancing outweighed everything. It was a sweet and fun thing to document the kids who participated after sticking it out together. It will for sure be a Nutcracker to remember.”
Ballet U’s winter class season will begin at the end of January, postponed from its original start at the end of November.
Tollefson invested into new air filtration for her HVAC system over summer and said while at first she thought it would be hard to dance in masks, it’s just a part of what students do now.
When students have to practice at home – shelves, countertops and chairs replace ballet bars. But carpets and wood floors are not an ideal replacement for the studio’s special flooring, at least for serious dancers.
Tollefson said with everyone feeling so isolated, dance is good for children’s mental health.
She said it creates connection, opportunities to share, and time to talk with friends.
Even for some adults, it’s been a lifeline, she said.
“It’s nice to be that community for them,” she said. “Inspiring a lifelong love of ballet, that’s what we’re going for. It’s been fulfilling, even if not in terms of income.”