Next Step Dance continues teaching through a “digital dance studio”

K-12 classes have moved online, and with them, extracurriculars are going virtual too. For more than a month, Next Step Dance in Kodiak has hosted a “digital dance studio” through Zoom, to keep almost 300 young students practicing choreography from home.

Mary Beth Loewen teaches a ballet class via video conference. (Photo courtesy Mary Beth Loewen)

Mary Beth Loewen has taught dance classes for the better part of twenty years. In Kodiak, her studio Next Step Dance boasts 280 students across ballet, hip hop, jazz, ballroom and other styles.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the studio to suspend classes, Loewen and her team of 14 teachers didn’t miss a beat, moving classes online to teach students through video conference.

“While we can’t do big leaps and combinations like we would do in the studio, we’re able to do a lot of strengthening and stretching and full ballet bars,” she said. “They’re making it work, even if nobody has a full dance studio in their house.”

The studio maintains 51 hours of virtual classes each week, and in some ways, Loewen said, they’re even busier than before the pandemic.

“You think you’re maxed out, but then you just get one more thing to do. And you got to step up and do it. We talk to our kids so much about personal excellence and resilience, and we are walking that walk right now,” she said with a laugh. “It is a lot of work.”

Dancing over Zoom comes with expected challenges — lags in the video feed, difficulty keeping kids from getting distracted by pets or siblings. To an extent, they miss out on the social component of interacting with their fellow dancers, but Loewen said, video conferencing helps them feel connected too.

I think that’s the thing they love most. Doing it on Zoom means that they can see each other, so they do get to interact,” she said, adding, “We all take a little bit of time, every class and talk about how we’re doing and what we’re up to.”

Students gather on Zoom for a dance class. (Photo courtesy Mary Beth Loewen)

Myla Woodley, a senior in an advanced ballet class, said she misses her friends, her part-time job at a coffee shop and the feeling of a routine. Dancing over Zoom, using her bedroom wall as a makeshift ballet bar helps, but it’s hard to feel like she’s improving.

“It helps you feel less stuck at home, if that makes sense. Like you are still working towards something. And it is nice to see your friends over Zoom,” she said. “But, the best way to put it is like you stay at a plateau, dancing at home. You stay at a plateau.”

Along with prom and graduation, the senior production of Frozen that Woodley was set to perform in as Sven the reindeer, was canceled. For Woodley, who’s planning to leave for college in Arizona in the fall, missing out on those last few important events is heartbreaking.

“It’s really hard to work your way towards that really big milestone without hitting all of the little milestones in between, like graduation and prom. And your last memories of all your classmates. So it definitely feels like I’m missing out.”

Amid the deep uncertainty in such a transitional period of her life, Woodley is still able to log in from her bedroom to meet her friends for ballet class each week.

Loewen is hoping that if things begin to open up more in the state, the studio might be able to start socially distanced classes outdoors, or even film the seniors’ recital and project it on the auditorium wall for the public to view like a drive-in movie.

“So that it doesn’t just kind of fade away,” she said. “So that we still get to acknowledge them and celebrate them.”

Until then, virtual classes are continuing for all ages.

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