Masked and socially distant, students at Dance Center Evanston continue their passion for dance. Photo from Dance Center Evanston

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Since opening in1997, Dance Center Evanston has been a pillar of Evanston’s arts community, and is proving to be a model of resilience and tenacity during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite daunting challenges, founder and Director, Béa Rashid and her staff of 22 have remained focused.  They have persevered towards goals of offering excellent and personalized dance instruction to pre-school through adult students in a safe environment – and providing both high quality remote and in-person options for dance students.  Their safety-first protocols and planning have resulted in a significantly modified site, additional staff training and safety protocols so that more than two-thirds of their pre- COVID students have resumed dance classes.

DCE’s current scheduling model incorporates both in-person and online instruction; and in alternate weeks half of the students in each class are meeting in-person while the other half are having virtual instruction.   Ms. Rashid said, “We returned to offering in-person [smaller] classes after Labor Day, and kids are thriving.  And our teachers are very happy to be back to work after the mandated shutdown in March.  It’s been a godsend that DCE received government assistance via the Paycheck Protection Program and the Small Business Administration, to keep our employees’ salaries and benefits intact during the shutdown and to assist with rent and utilities.”

Modifying the nearly 1,500-square-foot dance facility in Evanston Plaza, the shopping center at Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue, required considerable planning, time, energy and financial investment. 

Changing four of the rooftop HVAC units to a bipolar ionization system improved ventilation.  Directional signage that eliminated two-direction traffic throughout the building replaced the couches, tables, and chairs in hallways.

To provide a safe distance between students, staff marked all the floor space with colored tape, offering each student a nine- or ten-foot personal space. 

Ms. Rashid said that to reinforce social distancing and to reduce the number of people in the building at any given time, some areas in the studio were closed:  drinking fountains, dressing rooms, and the waiting room where parents formerly waited and where students hung out, snacked, or did schoolwork between their dance classes.

“One of the best investments was outfitting each of the classrooms with upgraded technology,” said Ms. Rashid.  “Acknowledging that part of our classes will be online experiences during this pandemic, we bought a large-screen TV for each of the six classrooms.“

She said all the teachers needed to figure out how to teach dance –  an art form dependent on person-to-person observation and total body involvement – when at times half of the students and teachers are in separate rooms.  The classrooms’ large screen TVs allow students who are dancing via Zoom from home to see whole bodies in motion, rather than just head shots of the students during in-person dance instruction.

“Really, we want what we’re doing to be the gold standard of care,” said Ms. Rashid.  “We take students’ temperature when they arrive,  have hand sanitizer throughout the building, require masks,  sanitize classrooms between every class session, and even provide personalized zip-lock bags of dance props to students to lessen potential infection spread.

“If a dancer or staff person does test positive for COVID-19, everything here would need to shut down for some time.  Teachers are trained and prepared to return fully to online teaching if they need to, but it would be a disappointment for us and for most of the students. “ 

Bridgett Piacenti, the mother of a sixth-grader and eight-year veteran of DCE, said she had confidence that Ms. Rashid and her staff would puzzle out how to make it all work during the Pandemic. “I figured that if anyone could do it well, it would be Béa,” said Ms. Placenti.  “She’s very experienced, is a planner and a good business woman; and she crosses all the ts and dots all the i’s. She has high expectations, starting with the fact that the girls are required to always dress like dancers, including putting long hair into buns. “ 

Ms. Piacenti said her daughter Prima experienced flagging interest in dance when the studio was offering only online classes.  “I had to prod her a bit, and she didn’t have quite the same zest as before COVID, when classes were all in-person. Now she really looks forward to her every-other-week of dance instruction that’s in-person, and has a much-improved attitude about the Zoom classes.”

Béa Rashid is not finished planning; she and her staff are working on how her students can perform for the public during Covid. October is Moving Forward  month featuring the Evanston Dance Ensemble and the younger Evanston Dance 2 who are performing in basketball courts, an outdoor parking  garage, and a park. Information about these performances is available at www.evanstondanceensemble.org/ede.

And she is working on a bigger plan – to possibly use a large Evanston parking lot as the outdoor venue for DCE’s   annual mega-size recital in late spring. 

Fingers crossed.