Duluthian Sarah Lundeen remembers the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown vividly. She was dancing with Superior Ballroom Dance at a competition in St. Louis on March 13 when she learned it would be her 13-year-old Johnny's last day of school.
"We actually left the competition early, right after we danced, because everything was suddenly changing," Lundeen said. "We weren't quite shut down yet, but it was the time where we knew that some things were going to change."
She had a ballroom dance lesson scheduled with the studio for that Monday. It was canceled.
Like many dancers who take lessons with Superior Ballroom Dance, the shutdown made a dramatic change in Lundeen's life. Normally she takes approximately 10 lessons per week at the studio. When the pandemic first hit, that number went down to zero. But slowly the dance instructors and dancers like Lundeen found ways to connect and continue to practice their very social activity through this time of social distancing.
Bridging the gap with Zoom
Superior Ballroom Dance instructor Rae Lyons also found the dramatic shift from seeing her many students every day to no one outside her house difficult.
"I went from seeing these fabulous people all the time to not getting to see anybody at all," Lyons said. "I think that was a rough transition for everybody. But so many students kept in touch and were incredibly supportive through the initial shutdown. We're really fortunate to have a fantastic community here."
Lyons and her fellow instructors started reaching out to students via the videoconferencing platform Zoom. They would check in with students to see how they were dealing with the shutdown and offer them specific exercises to continue to build dance skills.
Lundeen would often take short videos of herself practicing different dance choreography and would send them to the instructors for critique. She was able to hook up her computer to her big-screen TV to follow the instructors more easily. Nevertheless, she found the distance frustrating at times.
"We were three weeks in, and I said, 'I'm not doing this. I'm just going to wait until this whole thing is over,'" Lundeen said. "It was so difficult but I decided, no, no I wasn't going to quit. I want to dance. So we found a way to make it work."
Fellow ballroom student Kristen Anderson also found the Zoom lessons difficult at times.
"I'm not much of a Zoom person, but I liked still having a chance to continue to dance," Anderson said. "We'd do things like Latin aerobics classes, and they'd do their best to keep us engaged."
Anderson has danced with the studio for six years. She initially joined after completing the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon because she was looking for a form of exercise with a social component.
"Running is more of a solo exercise. It gets a little lonely," Anderson said. "I wanted to learn something new and meet with people."
To keep the social aspect of the dance community, Lyons and her fellow instructors would host weekly Friday hangouts on Zoom.
"I deemed it 'Fancy Fridays,' so I would get really dressed up, and we would all chat for 40 minutes to just catch up," Lyons said. "It was nice to help remind ourselves that the community is still here."
Moving things outdoors
When the stay-at-home order was lifted in the middle of May, the dance studio still took things slowly. The first step of reopening was to resume private lessons. But all private lessons were taken outdoors in various locations — from public parks to decks to gravel pits to North Shore parking lots. Dancers and instructors would meet up masked and maintain 6 feet of distance throughout the lesson.
"Normally, when you think of ballroom dance, you think about two people in a close frame, touching each other, doing a waltz or something," Lundeen said. "This was totally different. We'd do similar steps, but we has more leeway because we were doing open routines, all out of the frame and not touching."
Lundeen hadn't tackled this form of dancing much before. It required her to focus more on her individual footsteps and not rely on her partner to lead.
"It changed my dancing forever," Lundeen said. "I'd been very reliant on my partner and never wanted to dance alone. But now it's brought me to a whole new level of dancing. I can express myself and have fun alone."
It also pushed her to practice more. She'd dance on her back deck or in her living room. Eventually, her instructor Ben Welch took a video of their dance and spliced it together to make a short music video.
The studio also started hosting group dance classes again in June. All of these classes were also shifted outdoors, and students wore masks and maintained distance. Lyons made chalk X's on the ground of the parking lots where she taught classes to remind students to keep their distance.
"I appreciated the chance to get out of the house again," Anderson said. "I did a cha-cha class in a parking lot on the North Shore, and it was beautiful and so much fun to see people again."
Of course with outside lessons in northern Minnesota, the instructors did have to battle the elements. Lyons recalls having to take "two jackets, sunscreen and sunglasses" with her when she first started teaching lessons outdoors in the middle of May. She also quite often had to pack a pair of rubber-soled dance shoes in case the dance surface was especially rough.
"In the studio, we're used to the hardwood floor where it's easy to spin and turn," Lyons said. "Outside, we could sometimes find some smooth concrete, but usually it was asphalt, which is just a little rough to dance on. If your shoe doesn't turn, you can put a lot of tension on your knee. Having the right footwear sometimes makes a big difference."
The group classes have remained outdoors for the month of July, but private lessons have once again shifted back inside at the dance studio, albeit with the expected precautions. For the first time since the pandemic began, the studio held a group class on Tuesday where partners who have been quarantined together can dance together.
“Normally, we’d have the dancers switch partners to get used to dancing with other people, but at this time, we’ll stick to our same partners. But it’s fun to get back to that style of dance again,” Lyons said.
And Lundeen is back to having 10 lessons a week and is currently working an open dance routine for a future competition.