Kelli Leighton has a long, award-winning choreographic career under her belt, but one of her biggest professional accomplishments to date might be keeping her Folsom dance studio open and up and running in a year with so many obstacles.
The Leighton Dance Project offers classes in ballet, tap dance, jazz, hip-hop and more for dancers of all ages and levels of experience. Most importantly, it continues to offer classes while strictly adhering to health protocols made necessary by the coronavirus outbreak.
Before the pandemic hit, LDP had 525 dancers attending 135 weekly sessions at their studio just outside of downtown Folsom.
“We were seeing our highest numbers, then COVID hit us hard,” Leighton said. “I think I lost 50 percent right away.”
She attributes the drop in registrations to the uncertainty that everyone was feeling at the time. Last March, parents weren’t sure if their kids could continue dancing or how it would work if they did. Many of them weren’t even sure if their own jobs were secure or how they would have to adjust to a locked-down world.
But the LDP team didn’t take long to get a feel for the future. It wasn’t until a day later that the staff of 15 Leighton instructors virtually got together and committed to making it work. On the second day, they were already exploring innovative ways to teach their performing arts from a distance.
ADJUSTMENT AND READJUSTMENT
“The first thing we did was pre-recorded content,” Leighton said. “My teachers came for about 10 hours and just recorded instructional videos.”
Leighton thought the shutdown might be temporary at first. Everyone did it. After a few weeks, they took a longer term approach. They created Google Classrooms, registered Zoom accounts and purchased new equipment.
“At that point, we couldn’t even be in the building,” Leighton said. “We were in this great confinement. So everyone taught from home, their garage, their bedroom. The children were dancing wherever they could find space.
The only thing that has been consistent for LDP over the past 10 months is change. The dance studio had to change its approach dozens of times.
Jenni Anderson, who taught hip-hop as well as dance for students with special needs, had just started a new role as the Success Dancer Coordinator. Her intention was to give her more time to get a nursing degree, but the job got much more complicated as she took the lead in navigating the business through ever-changing restrictions and safety regulations. evolution.
“If we stuck to one schedule for four weeks, we were very lucky,” said Anderson.
She and her team constantly reworked schedules as the pandemic spanned months. Students were allowed to return to the studio when California’s color-coded levels system permitted, but were then forced to return home when Sacramento County leveled again.
The size of the groups allowed inside also changed, where they were allowed at all. On top of that, each kind of dance required a different space for the dancer. The LDP team glued boxes to the floor for each individual according to the style of the class and the size of the group.
“Normally what we feel safe and good for is actually a little bit stricter than the guidelines,” Anderson said. “So we kept our students more than 6 feet apart. Our boxes are bigger than that. And we kept them outside as much as possible, even in the cold, which they are soldiers to do. “
DANCE IN THE NEW NORMAL
One of the few options that LDP has been able to offer without change is the Saturday morning ballet lessons at Lembi Park, located in front of the studio. They also built three outdoor spaces in the parking lot behind their building, installing temporary flooring and pop-up tents. However, many students would prefer to be back inside the studio.
Parents like Kristin Cerni, whose daughter Ava trains about 18 hours a week on LDP’s Teen Company program, understand this urge.
“Every dancer wants to be in the studio all the time. They want to be there as many hours as you allow them, ”Cerni said. “It’s obviously not an option at the moment, but Kelli has done a good job of getting them involved as soon as she can. And when she can’t get them in the studio, she’s really good at building great relationships online.
The instructors are on the same page. Alyson Meador, who has been teaching dance for 40 years, found tap dancing particularly tricky. Zoom calls have a built-in function to eliminate background noise. The tap dance instrumentation is taken from this filter.
“The camera is at my feet. They try to watch. They are trying to listen, ”Meador said. “But I can’t really hear what they’re doing because it cancels out, and they can’t clearly hear what I’m doing.”
She found it best to record herself teaching, send a video to her students, then wait for the dancers to film and send it back. She looks forward to teaching the tap in person again once it is deemed safe, and will feel comfortable with the small groups she has interacted with so far.
“Everyone wears masks,” Meador said. “We clean their hands. We take their temperature. All the staff do that. We cloud the room after each class. Honestly, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
Meador also noted that she is the longest-serving member of staff and knows the risks that come with it. She took extra precautions and even reserved a walled-up area inside the studio when she needed the extra space.
It was not easy for the students or the teachers, but it was rewarding. These awards were clearly displayed at trade fairs held in June and December.
DRIVE-INS AND LIVE BROADCASTING
Dance programs take place in seasons, with a schedule often similar to that of a school year. Every LDP season ends with a recital in June, and losing that just a few months from the finish line was too much to consider.
So they went with a good old fashioned drive-in.
They chose the themes and put the costumes together. Their team laid a makeshift floor and decorated the exterior of the building. Each dancer was assigned a performance time and a group. Each student and each parking space were numbered. Each parent’s car would line up in front of their dancer.
“They were literally going to walk into our parking lot, drop their dancers off, pull up in their parking spot,” Leighton said. “It was like 10 minutes. Then they got into their cars and drove off.
The recital took two full days outside in the heat of June. But despite the strange circumstances, the parents loved the end product.
Sonja Duckett, whose daughter Olivia dances with the junior company, says it worked perfectly.
“For his group, it was circus themed, so they had a big top. And then every car was also encouraged to do some sort of tailgate decoration, ”Duckett said. “So when the dancers dance, they see their family and they see their decorated car.”
Brenda Carmichael’s daughter, Annie, was thrilled to be a part of the holiday event in December. LDP broadcast live a “Winter Wonderland” show with dancers of all ages.
“The studio sent out excellent communication with soft copy programs and specialized links to each of the shows,” Carmichael said. “You knew what time to watch it live and then you could get the personalized link so you could watch it again or send it to Grandma for her to see. So it was really impressive.
A LIGHT IN THE DARK
Leighton is proud of what his team has accomplished. She says they’ve probably worked harder in the past 10 months than in the previous seven years.
“I think the most important thing is that we are just trying to be a beacon of hope in a difficult time,” said Leighton.
LDP Season 8, which began in August, is aptly called “Shine Bright.” While all classes are currently online or away, they plan to return to the studio when they are safe.
“I had two main goals when COVID hit,” Leighton said. “One was that I wanted to keep my staff at their normal salary. It was huge for me. Many of my staff have been with me since day one, so they’re like family. I knew I wanted to keep them employed and at the same rate if I could. And also make the children dance the best we can. “
By all accounts, Leighton has succeeded on both fronts. Meador says she lost a side job as a dance teacher at a senior citizen center almost immediately, but LDP never stopped.
“Everything that we were prepared to do and the changes that were made and the work that was done to keep us in the job has been a saving grace in my world,” Meador said.
And although registrations took a hard hit early on, they have steadily increased. Leighton says she now has around 350 dancers and is counting. Parents see the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, and they stick with LDP.
“They went above and beyond, making sure not only the dancers were educated, but families were engaged as well,” Carmichael said. “It was such a blessing to have this for my daughter when so many activities were eliminated or reduced to next to nothing.”
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