LINCOLN – The Brae Crest School of Ballet seems isolated from the rest of the world at its home compound on woodsy Sherman Avenue. But when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck Rhode Island in early March, not even the ballet dancers educated at the renowned school – home to the State Ballet of Rhode Island – could dance around the subject of social distancing and temporary closures.
The Brae Crest School of Ballet first closed its doors on March 13 and within three days, Executive Director Ana Marsden Fox was educating her dancers via livestream classes online.
“It caught on,” she said of the virtual courses. “Our dance community was trying to get something. Some people thought it was only going to be a week or two, as we realized we were going from one month to the next … it was difficult, like a teacher live-streaming to a classroom through a laptop.”
The closure of the Lincoln dance studio also offered Marsden Fox and her mother, 82-year-old Herci Marsden, the State Ballet of Rhode Island’s Artistic Director, time to take care of the little odds and ends that they’d been putting aside for some time.
“It started off that we’re closed, thinking for two weeks, we’ll paint the studio and clean, doing the things I’d normally do at the end of summer, but as things got worse with COVID and listening to what we would need to do, what is a guide as to being health-conscious, I said if we’re going to open, if our goal is July 6, we cannot have the entire group of kids we normally have that come to camp,” Marsden Fox explained. “It wouldn’t be safe.”
But for Marsden, the owner of the Brae Crest School of Ballet and a prima ballerina who started the ballet in 1958, the four-month layoff was particularly excruciating.
“She still teaches, she’s 82,” Marsden Fox said. “For her, staying home from March 13 until July 6, I mean, in her words, she says ‘I don’t want to die at home, I want to die in the studio.’ … She’s so passionate about teaching, like any teacher, but this is what she lives for.”
Since reopening earlier this month, Brae Crest has undergone significant alterations. The studio can accept no more than 14 students in each class at a given time, when normally they’d be able to take about 20. Markers are now placed on the bars to indicate where a dancer will stand, but, of course, ballet dancers don’t stand still for the duration of a class. Thus, if one moves right, all must move in that direction.
For the near future, class sizes will be limited and dancers must call in advance to make a reservation for a spot in the class. All dancers must wear a mask to class as well. Perhaps the greatest challenge has come from wearing masks during class, as Marsden Fox says that it has become something that teachers and their pupils have no doubt struggled to grow accustomed to.
“When I was giving classes during live-streaming, in talking to the dancers, I said we all are going to have to get used to a mask,” she explained. “People get out of breath breathing hard … I had to change my mask because it was wet, we kept experimenting on what would be the best mask to wear during dancing.”
“Some adults said they can’t dance with a mask, I said ‘OK, try it live-stream with me.’ Believe it or not, they found it to work. I think their love of dancing and being away from it for so long, they wanted it to work,” Marsden Fox later said. “My mother, I never thought she would go with a mask, because she told me she wasn’t going to, but I said ‘You’re going to have to, you’d not only upset your students but they’d be afraid to be anywhere near you.’ She said ‘OK, I’ll try.’ She started on July 6, gave the first class in the morning to all her adult dancers, they all did a fantastic job, they all applauded her.”
While Brae Crest School of Ballet is stocked with paper goods, hospital-grade antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray, and other cleaners, Marsden Fox knows that those products can only do so much once a person is inside the doors of the dance studio. She’s aware that outside the four walls of Brae Crest, the ongoing pandemic is still causing panic, sickness, and death on a daily basis across Rhode Island and the country.
“Everyone’s situation is different, some have family members that are undergoing cancer treatment, some have immune deficiencies, some have the elderly with them, that definitely affected their decision. Some pulled their kids out…” she said. “It’s not easy, my mom, when she was little, she was born in Croatia when there was a war, she had to get through the war, this is the uncertainty and scariness of it. So many people have passed.”
“It’s a process that I feel we need to do until we’re out of this danger zone. Who knows how long it’s going to be. One-third of our children may not be back until there’s a vaccine, so we’re working with students, but less of them,” Marsden Fox said. “We have a one-room studio and we are also missing our young community of students but whether it’s a little or a lot, we’re grateful to be in the studio and whoever’s here, we’re going to do what we can do.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette