The San Diego Ballet holds free classes for children and teens ages 6-18 on Saturday mornings at the City Heights Library Performance Annex. Zoe Marinello-Kohn talks about adapting this program to the challenges of this last year what its like to be a ballerina and dance teacher during Covid and how watching the future generations of ballet gave hope during this difficult year.
There was a crowd standing in anticipation in the community park that joins the City Heights/ Weingart Library, the Performance Annex and the busy intersection between the weekly farmers market and the bustling shopping center. On this morning the lawn was full of booths, decorations and community members embracing the the Love in City Heights theme on the day after Valentines Day 2020. The City Heights Youth Ballet class was comprised of ten children this morning and they had been learning and rehearsing a dance for the past month. Finally they were going to share their hard work with a real live audience! They were in their red sequined costumes and as we moved as a group from the Annex to the outdoor stage I wish that somehow I could have had a glimpse of the future so that I could appreciate and cherish the line of young, happy dancers holding hands. The simple acts of sharing space, rehearsing with a group of friends, seeing a smiling unmasked face; planning for the future with certainty. These are thoughts of the past. I have always tried to live in the moment as cliche as it sounds but having chosen a career path where most professionals retire before their forties gives one a unique relationship to time as being very valuable. I felt this fleeting feeling of the passage of time as I watched these brave young girls showing what they had worked so hard to learn. Confident and full of youthful energy, these girls made me optimistic for the future.
I never imagined what has transpired in this past year. And just like so many others, my world narrowed to the confines of my apartment and my studio space collapsed to the restrictions of my kitchen floor. Yet living through 2020 has given me a broader perspective what I have, what I had and how much I love my life as a dancer, teacher and a member of the performing arts community.
When the Library closed its doors the week of March 13th 2020, I like many of you thought that the shut down would last at most, a couple weeks. Canceling Saturday Morning Youth Ballet class, the Jazz class that follows it and the Teen Ballet class that rounds out the program was difficult. Realizing as the weeks went on that the Library had closed indefinitely presented itself with a much tougher dilemma. There were plans for a spring recital that had to be put aside and the idea of a summer program seemed more and more impossible.
I had never heard of Zoom until last year. My experience with video conferencing had consisted of less than perfect interactions on Skype. I have found however that the more one misses someone important to them the more hoops they are willing to jump through to keep in contact. I don’t recall the pivot point where Zoom became as mainstream in our culture as a daily commute to work but now a Zoom meeting seems second nature- as normal as shaking hands with a stranger used to be. Zoom became the solution to the problem of holding in person classes- the City Heights Library classes transitioned to online!
The Youth and Teen Ballet held its first Zoom Summer Program in July 2020. Teaching a hands on art form like ballet over Zoom is not ideal but having the opportunity to see the students again and even welcome new faces to the group warmed my heart.
As summer turned to fall the plans were made to transfer the entire Fall semester online. To create an accessible platform for advertisement the Youth Ballet class was listed on a free Eventbrite page.
The Teen class was also opened to include older siblings and adult family members of children in the Youth class who showed an interest. One girl who began her journey as a student in the Teen Ballet class has since transferred her training to the San Diego Ballet School. She began pointe this year and was a cast member of the San Diego Ballet’s acclaimed Drive In Nutcracker!
As the weeks and months went by I started to notice a dramatic increase of registered students and participants. What I found was that the page had taken the interest of not only our local community but reached beyond our city. Students had begun to log in from across the Nation. I started hearing children speaking with accents and receiving texts from parents at three in the morning as our classes reached across our borders and children began attending from as far away as England, Canada, Nairobi, India and the Middle East! As classes continued into the new year we have welcomed nearly 150 students weekly from around the globe.
I always begin class with the story of our Annex in our Library in City Heights because it is important for us to remember what brings us together- our community and our love of dance. I have embraced this temporary expanse of the program and I find a poignant beauty in our circumstances where we are confined and separated even in San Diego but we share this experience with others just like us on the other side of the world. I tell the class before we sit down on the floors of our makeshift studios to stretch (some in living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and garages) that this class is something that we gather to do in the Library Annex but since we can’t be there right now we want to share it with our friends who live far away from us. I want the children from San Diego to have a sense of pride knowing that they have something to share and I want all of us to remember that even as we come from all different walks of life we have something in common, our ever present yearning to be close to one another and the dedication, excitement and joy that we find in dance.