As a Durham native, I like to believe that I’ve experienced every nook and cranny of the local Durham arts scene, even though that’s far from the truth. Since I’ve become an official Duke student, I’ve unfortunately had less and less time on my hands to get out and explore all that Durham has to offer. Not to mention that the pandemic has undermined the ability of Duke students and Durham residents alike to reap the benefits of living in such a vibrant local arts community. Nevertheless, there are still bountiful opportunities to engage with the Durham arts if we just look a little harder.
Ninth Street Dance is a studio located just off of Ninth Street in Durham. They have moved their classes online due to the pandemic, taking a toll on both the studio’s enrollment and staff.
“It’s been hard for everybody. We’ve been surviving… our class size is, I don’t know, cut in maybe about a third of what it was. We’re kind of just barely barely staying afloat,” said Bepi Pinner, owner of Ninth Street Dance and ballet enthusiast.
“A number of the teachers chose not to teach online because they were afraid of the technology, or didn’t like the idea. We have 20 teachers now, and before we had around 40,” said Pinner.
The pandemic has forced the studio to shrink under the continuous financial pressures posed by COVID-19 and the daunting task of converting a dance curriculum into a remote experience. All of their classes are taught through Zoom, so while it is a boon to see the students in real time, the teachers must teach, dance, play music and manage their Zoom camera at once. Despite these challenges, they continue to have a loyal returning base of students.
“We were enough of an institution before the pandemic that there’s a core group of students that are sticking with us,” Pinner said.
While I am indeed a Durham native, I never had the privilege of taking a dance class at Ninth Street Dance and becoming a part of this studio — that is, until this past weekend. I attended an intermediate ballet class taught by Jessi Knight on Oct. 31.
To make up for us dancers not being able to move in the same room together, the teacher made sure to demonstrate and talk us through each barre and center floor combination as many times as we needed. Even so, dancing in my small dorm room and learning through a screen was more difficult than learning in the studio.
“It’s not as fun, obviously. Teachers always have to think about what kind of space the students are in. We can’t do jumps, for example, because a lot of the students have a cement floor underneath their carpet,” said Pinner.
In spite of these challenges, I did really enjoy the classroom atmosphere; everybody kept their cameras on, so you could see the other students and the instructor dancing along with you. Not only that, but the teacher herself was extremely kind and understanding. While she did provide a structure to the class — barre work and then center floor work — she also made it clear that she knows everyone has their own spatial limitations, so just do what feels comfortable for you.
Many dance studios have already made the choice to resume classes in-person, but Ninth Street Dance has kept all of their classes virtual in order to ensure everyone's safety, despite the financial loss and the loss of the experience of being in the studio.
“I’m very conservative about going back in person, though. I’m not eager to do that and risk it, probably because I’m an older person and more at risk. I know some of the dance studios are holding in person classes now. Our space... the windows don’t open and the ventilation is terrible,” said Pinner.
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Preserving the safety of their students and teachers is clearly a top priority, and resuming in-person classes also poses its own challenges, such as wearing a mask while dancing and exercising.
The bottom line seems to be that each studio and performing arts center has its own set of considerations for deciding when and if to resume in-person activities, and each choice comes with its own challenges. For this reason, engaging in the performing arts during a pandemic has been extremely difficult, but there are still ways in which we can participate in and support our local Durham dance and arts community.