Ballet schools push for official pirouette on ‘unfair’ Covid restrictions

Private dance tutors forced to take classes on to Zoom fear students will give up

Ballet teachers Rita Linehan and Rebecca O’Brien Taylor (sitting) from the Metropolitan School of Dance during a Zoom ballet class. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Ballet teachers Rita Linehan and Rebecca O’Brien Taylor (sitting) from the Metropolitan School of Dance during a Zoom ballet class. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

“Alice, can you put the cat down now?” ballet teacher Miss Rita asks as music begins for pliés.

The young student is waltzing around her living room cradling her cat. Such are the opportunities for distraction when lessons are conducted via video link.

Movement is restricted to what can be done within a small space at home and what is visible to Miss Rita and her assistants on a Zoom video thumbnail.

Coffee tables have been pushed aside, rugs rolled up and younger siblings begged and bribed to stay clear of makeshift studios.

This is ballet class in the age of the pandemic.

The Metropolitan School of Dance, which operates from six locations across Dublin and Kildare, had been reopened for just a week when Level 3 restrictions came into force in the capital on September 18th.

“We were so excited about getting back to work,” school principal Maireád Langan said. “I had planned for the possibility of more restrictions and a return to Zoom; I just didn’t realise it would happen a week after reopening.”

While ballet teachers understand the need to comply with public health guidelines, many feel the industry has been unfairly treated or overlooked.

Outdoor sports training for school-aged children in groups of 15 can continue under Level 5, but in-person dance lessons are not permitted under Level 3. while gyms can remain open for individual training at that level. These, according to Langan, are “inconsistencies” .

“I don’t want to knock the GAA – they do a great job – but not everybody is interested in sport,” she said, while adding that some of her students would probably prefer to run around a pitch than point their toes at a screen.

Positive spin

Video classes were manageable for a while, but she did not anticipate sustaining the arrangement for months on end. As this term draws to a close, she is worried some students will choose not to enrol again come January.

“It is really important that I can give my students some form of continuity. If we are back to Level 3, I don’t know if they will continue with me after Christmas.

“As much as this is the passion of my life, this is also my business … I am trying to put a positive spin on this, but I really just don’t know what to do.”

The Irish Ballet Teachers Association (IBTA) was formed this year to push for over 250 private ballet schools and youth companies to be considered as education providers when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions.

The organisation is a necessary campaigning tool, according to its chairwoman, and owner of the Corrib Dance Academy in Co Galway, Phyllis Hayes, as dance teachers do not fall under the jurisdiction of either Sports Ireland or the Department of Education.

Unfairly penalised

Hayes says private schools are being unfairly penalised. Dance has been allowed to continue in school PE and in the youth work sector, under guidance published by the Department of Children, which “recognises the importance of the youth work sector” but explicitly excludes classes provided by private or commercial operators.

“We view ourselves as educators ... Recognising us under the educational framework, as is done in the UK, would acknowledge the specialist teaching we do.

“People seem to have no idea how many children we cater to. Arts are not getting the same sort of look-in as the GAA or gyms.”

She says there is “no scientific evidence to say that what we are proposing is any more dangerous than adults training at the gym … The problem is if we don’t open under Level 3 then we might not open at all”.

A spokesman for the Department of the Arts said the “impact of any and all restrictions for every sector, including dance, will be considered carefully” when decisions are being made by Government for restrictions after December 1st.