Westside School of Ballet reopens with socially-distanced summer session

By Katherine Brubaker

Face masks are a new accessory of students’ ballet uniforms
Photo by Todd Lechtick

Summer dance intensives, hosted by dance schools and academies around the world, are a vital part of a young dancer’s training. For these intensives, dancers often leave their homes for several weeks to attend elite schools in pursuit of a career in dance.

But as a result of COVID-19, everything has changed this year. Many summer intensives — if they haven’t been outright canceled — have moved online, leaving students with a sliver of the physical training they desperately crave and need to prepare for dancing at the college or professional level.

Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, however, has decided to offer a summer session with in-person classes, which continue through Aug. 1.

To provide their students with in-person training, the studio has followed guidelines from the LA County Department of Public Health and instituted a myriad of cleaning and social-distancing protocols that are being strictly enforced at the school. Mizuki Sako, who runs the studio’s front desk, took me on a virtual tour and outlined the precautions being taken.

“Before coming into the studio, students must wait in line outside. We take their temperature one by one. We have a no touch sign in at the moment, so everyone signs in through Mindbody, which is the online format we have been using and that way no one has to touch anything and we can keep track of how many are signing into each studio,” said Sako.

Stations have been set up with hand sanitizer and Clorox wet wipes at the entrance of the building and at the entrances of each studio space. Staff make sure to wipe down all the common areas and studios before and after each of the classes. The studio has a cleaning crew that comes in each night and cleans all the spaces. There is also a long list of protocols on Westside’s website — limited class sizes, strict instructions on when, where and how dancers may enter the studios, and mandatory mask wearing while on the premises. All parents must sign a waiver on behalf of their children before they attend the summer session.

Dr. Richard Tahvildaran Jesswein, president of the school’s volunteer guild and parent to two dancers at the school, participated in advocacy for Westside’s reopening by speaking with the LA County health board.

“A lot of people perceived us as a gym or fitness center, which is not what we are,” said Tahvildaran Jesswein. (The Westside School of Ballet encompasses a studio space and non-audition ballet academy, while its sister organization Westside Ballet of Santa Monica is a pre-professional nonprofit dance company, which performs an annual production of “The Nutcracker” and a spring performance at The Broad Stage. Together, the two entities create the Westside Ballet community.)

The mission to open up the school again was in part out of necessity. “It was on the verge of not coming back,” said Tahvildaran Jesswein, “so we were able to open in the nick of time — this throws a lifeline to the studio.”

According to Tahvildaran Jesswein, many students were in need of dance classes being in-person again. “This is a second home for them,” said Tahvildaran Jesswein, adding that “[the studio] was getting reports from parents about kids suffering from depression.”

Twin sisters Jasmine and Kalea Harrison also found dancing at home challenging. “It was getting really hard because we couldn’t jump. Our floor was really slippery so it was really hard to turn, and we couldn’t really do pointe,” said Kalea. Jasmine continued, “we kept on kicking furniture. Also, on the camera, it makes it hard to see everyone because our screens are so small. Sometimes WiFi is bad and the teacher is cutting in and out.”

Though the summer intensive is changing up their normal dance class routine, students don’t mind the new protocols if it means getting to dance in the studio with their classmates and teachers once again or getting in-person instruction, which they might not be able to receive elsewhere.

Renée Spaltenstein is 17 and in Level 7 at the summer session. During the year, Spaltenstein trains at the School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City. She would have been attending Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer intensive if it had not been for COVID-19 causing her program to go online. Instead, Spaltenstein chose to return home for the in-person training. “I love [the protocols] — I think it is so important to be careful,” said Spaltenstein, who also trained at Westside before attending SAB.

By far though, the biggest change for dancers seems to be wearing masks while dancing. This difference, while seemingly small, has been a large topic of conversation at the studio. Sawyer Jordan, age 13, is in Level 5 for the Westside summer session. Jordan feels that the masks are necessary, though sometimes uncomfortable. “Depends on the mask — some of them are really thick and hard to breath in and some of them are looser and make it hard to spot. So there is some worry about them falling off and worry about being able to breathe — it’s really about finding the right mask. That’s the key,” said Jordan.

Though initially difficult, Spaltenstein excitedly explained the eventual benefits of the mask. “I know it may be a little hard to dance with masks, but it is so much better in the long run. I’m gaining a lot of stamina! Which is something I had difficulty with. The big jumps are getting easier with the mask on!” said Spaltenstein.

Seventeen-year-old Level 7 student Zane Tahvildaran Jesswein, son of Dr. Richard Tahvildaran Jesswein, described to me his own struggles with dancing while masked. “I sweat a lot, so the mask will get damp and I’ll have a lot of trouble breathing through it,” said the younger Tahvildaran Jesswein with a chuckle. But he’s also excited to be back dancing in the studio after spending months not wanting to disturb his downstairs neighbors. He lives on the second story of a small apartment building. “This is much better than the alternative of not dancing at all. Really sweet that Westside is open — they are one of very few. I have friends from Utah and New York, a couple in Arizona, and all of their studios are closed and they can’t do anything.”

Parents are also happy that their children are back in the studios. Nadine Harrison, mom to Jasmine and Kalea, felt that the space she had at home for virtual classes was not sufficient for her daughters’ training. “They weren’t able to get the same intensive training at home over Zoom,” she said, “our space at home is very limited. You need special flooring for the pointe shoes. So I only had a 10’-by-13’ piece of flooring and one barre. It really was not enough for two girls,” said Harrison.

Parents are confident that the protocols in place at Westside School of Ballet will keep their children safe. Katya Michaels, mom to student Aleena Michaels, explained why: “I know that there is a limit for the number of students they registered for the summer intensive, they have the masks, and they take their temperature at the entrance, so I honestly don’t feel that it’s any different than going to a grocery store,” said Michaels.

Caprice Walker is the Youth Artistic Director. Walker believes in the importance of in-person dance instruction and is happy to be back in the studio. “It’s been wonderful. It’s wonderful to be back in the studio with the students. There’s an energy when we are together that just can’t be replicated on Zoom. You try, but you’re reaching through a screen. Here, to have the children in person and to be able to make the corrections more directly, not that I can touch them, but I’m right there for each individual child,” said Walker.

When asked about whether or not the youngest children have been following safety protocols correctly, Walker explained that they had been. During this response, one father, Michael Guttentag, piped in on the Zoom call. “They’re dancers, they are well trained dancers! They know how to follow rules,” said Guttentag. Michaels also believes that the ballet dancers are more careful than their parents. “The kids are more stringent and more cautious about observing all the things — more alert, more aware of what they are doing. I have high confidence that the kids aren’t misbehaving,” she said.

Through this community’s efforts, it has been able to break down virtual barriers and come together again. Students and teachers alike depend on one another to be responsible in and outside of the classroom. They all understand the magnitude of the situation, as well as recognize that dancing with one another in-person again is a privilege.

Westside’s third and final summer session starts on July 20 and concludes on Aug. 1. Visit westsideballet.com/summer/summer-intensive-information to learn more or register for a current or upcoming session.