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Arts & Life
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for everyone in Kansas City in ways we don’t even understand yet. KCUR is documenting those changes, one by one, through our individual stories. Share yours.

Young Kansas City Dancers Adapt To Studying Via Zoom As Arts Groups Pivot To Virtual Classes

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Laura Ziegler
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KCUR 89.3
Savanna Williams, 12, focuses on an IPad on a small plastic table as she follows her instructor teaching a jazz routine. She's in her second week of the five-week Ailey Camp.

Savanna Williams was psyched to go back to Ailey Camp for a second summer. She also studied with Ailey during the school year and shares her passion for dance with many friends she's met there.

When she heard camp would be forced online because of COVID-19, she was not happy.

“When we started going into quarantine I was like, 'How am I going to do dance?'" she says. "My first priority was dance."

As arts organizations in Kansas City lurch toward a reopening, we’re beginning to get a sense of the specific challenges the virus has created.

Some galleries and museums are already welcoming visitors, where crowds can be controlled and other protective measures enforced.

This is harder for performing arts. For dance, in particular, there is a range of options.

The City in Motion School of Dance will invite students back for classes starting Monday. The company has reduced class sizes to eight and shortened the length to keep students and staff safe.

The Kansas City Ballet, like the Friends of Alvin Ailey, is only offering virtual classes this summer.

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Laura Ziegler
Before her jazz class, Savanna does a rigorous set of warm-ups, guided via Zoom by her instructor, Kennedy Banks. The exercises go faster than usual because classes are shorter.

Space to move

"A one, two, three, legs up," jazz instructor Kennedy Banks snaps through the IPad, as the students warm up before they dance. The exercise portion of the class would make the toughest athletes grimace, even though it has been abbreviated to accommodate a shortened schedule.

Savanna is lucky to have an empty room with a hardwood floor. She doesn't have siblings that get in the way of her class. Her mom is there to coach her along.

In dark socks, Williams swoops her arms down toward the floor, bending to the right and to the left like a willowy piece of wheat in the wind.

"Right, left, left, right, left, right, right left, draaaage step, draaaag step," the class continues at a frighteningly fast pace. "Kick-ball-change and down."

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Laura Ziegler
Jazz instuctor Kennedy Banks is watching to see if each student is picking up the fast-paced dance routine. She asks each student to give a thumbs up, thumbs down or "maybe" signal to let her know if they need to go over the routine again.

Savannah groans in frustration as Kennedy's full face is on the small screen, perusing each student's performance as she scans the group in "gallery view" on her computer.

More than dance

Ailey Camp isn't just about jazz, ballet or movement.

Students work on social and emotional skills, what it's like to go to arts performances. Campers write in journals and share what they've been feeling. They help one another out.

Today, they're revising their haikus.

They have a set amount of time to make their revisions, which stresses Savanna out. Her mom, Nicci, leans over to help her. The bell rings, signaling the time is up.

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Laura Ziegler
Williams finds the non-dance parts of virtual Ailey camp difficult. It's hard not having an instructor walk around to see your work and offer suggestions. Questions are asked in the online chat room, which closes when the instructor moves on.

Everyone is now going to be asked to share. Savanna feels bad she only has her seven-syllable line done.

Then, there are technical glitches.

"Ms. Campbell stated that I froze," came the voice from the IPad. "Ms. Edwards said I froze."

"Yep, and you're freezing now (for me,)" Savanna says to no one in particular.

"It seems to be a struggle because she doesn’t understand the instructions they provided,"says Nicci Williams. "She's having a hard time with the connection."

New for everyone

Before Ailey Camp began, families came from as far away as Topeka to pick up materials: a T-shirt, a backpack they would have used had they come to the studios and instructions about how to connect to zoom.

"Will the email with the link come directly to Zoom?" asked Britanee Merritt, whose son King was going to be a first-time camper.

Artistic director Tyrone Aiken explained that Zoom comes to an email account which will open with an invitation to join a meeting.

Merritt looked confused.

"I'll be a learning experience, definitely," she said. "It at least gives the kids something to do while the places to go outside are limited."

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Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Tyrone Aiken hopes students will still get a lot out of summer dance camp. He says he also hopes to use some of the new on line tools to reach a geographically wider audience in the future.

Aiken acknowledges the coronavirus has taken something away from summer camp: the chance to be in the same space having the face-to-face interactions so essential to the arts.

But he says it's also created an opportunity.

"Four hours on zoom can be exhausting," he says. "(This is) using the arts as a tool to learn how to deal when you're tired, frustrated, trying to figure something out with a group, but alone."