Kelli Leighton has a long career of award-winning choreography under her belt, but one of her greatest professional accomplishments to date might be keeping her Folsom dance studio open and operating in a year with so many obstacles.
The Leighton Dance Project offers classes in ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop and more to dancers of all ages and experience levels. Most importantly, it continues to offer classes while strictly adhering to health protocols necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak.
Before the pandemic hit, LDP had 525 dancers attending 135 weekly sessions in its studio space just outside of downtown Folsom.
“We were seeing our highest numbers and then COVID hit us hard,” Leighton said. “I think I lost 50 percent right away.”
She attributes the drop in enrollment to the uncertainty everyone felt in the moment. Last March, parents weren’t sure if their kids would be able to continue dancing, or how it would work if they did. A lot of them weren’t even sure if their own jobs were secure, or how they would have to adapt to a world in lockdown.
But the team at LDP didn’t take much time to make their minds up about the future. It was only a day later Leighton’s staff of 15 instructors came together virtually and committed to making it work. By day two, they were already exploring innovative ways to teach their performing arts from a distance.
ADJUSTING AND READJUSTING
“The first thing we did was prerecorded content,” Leighton said. “My teachers came in for like 10 hours and just recorded instructional videos.”
Leighton thought the shutdown might be temporary at first. Everyone did. After a few weeks, they went for a more long-term approach. They created Google Classrooms, registered Zoom accounts and purchased new equipment.
“At that point we couldn’t even be in the building,” Leighton said. “We were in that big lockdown. So everybody taught from home, their garage, their bedroom. Kids were dancing anywhere they could find space.”
The only thing that has been consistent for LDP in the last 10 months is change. The dance studio had to alter their approach dozens of times.
Jenni Anderson, who in past years taught hip-hop as well as adaptive dance for special needs students, had just begun a new role as the dancer success coordinator. Her intent was to create more time for her to pursue a nursing degree, but the job got a lot more complicated as she took the lead in navigating the business through ever-changing safety restrictions and regulations.
“If we stuck with one schedule for four weeks, we were pretty lucky,” Anderson said.
She and her team reworked the calendars constantly as the pandemic stretched out over months. Students were allowed back into the studio when California’s color-coded tier system permitted it, but were then forced back home when Sacramento County changed tiers again.
The group sizes that were allowed indoors changed too, when they were permitted at all. On top of that, each genre of dance required a different amount of space for the dancer. The LDP team taped boxes on the floor for each individual depending on the style of the class and the group size.
“Normally what we feel safe and good about is actually a little more strict than the guidelines,” Anderson said. “So we’ve kept our students more than 6 feet apart. Our boxes are bigger than that. And we have kept them outside as much as we possibly can, even in the cold, which they are troopers to do.”
DANCING INTO THE NEW NORMAL
One of the few options that LDP has been able to offer without change is Saturday morning ballet classes in Lembi Park, located across the street from the studio. They also built three outdoor spaces in the parking lot behind their building by setting up temporary flooring and pop-up tents. However, many students would prefer to be back inside the studio.
Parents like Kristin Cerni, whose daughter Ava trains about 18 hours per week with LDP’s Teen Company program, understands that urge.
“Any dancer wants to be in the studio all the time. They want to be in there as many hours as you’ll possibly let them,” Cerni said. “That’s obviously not an option right now, but Kelli has done a good job getting them in there whenever she can. And when she can’t get them in the studio, she’s very good about making good connections online.”
The instructors are on the same page. Alyson Meador, who has been teaching dance for 40 years, found tap to be particularly tricky. Zoom calls have a built-in function to eliminate background noise. The instrumentation of tap shoes gets caught up in that filter.
“The camera is on my feet. They’re trying to watch. They’re trying to listen,” Meador said. “But I can’t really hear what they’re doing because it cancels out, and they can’t clearly hear what I’m doing.”
She found it best to record herself teaching, send a video to her students, then wait for the dancers to video themselves and send it back. She is looking forward to teaching tap in person again once it is deemed safe, and has felt comfortable with the small groups she has interacted with thus far.
“Everyone is in masks,” Meador said. “We clean their hands. We take their temperature. All staff does that. We fog the room after every class. Honestly, I have not felt uncomfortable at all.”
Meador also noted that she is the most senior member of the staff, and knows the risks that come with that. She has taken additional precautions and even set aside a walled-off area inside the studio for when she wants additional space.
It hasn’t been easy for the students or the teachers, but it has been rewarding. Those rewards were on clear display in shows held in June and December.
DRIVE-INS AND LIVE STREAMS
Dance programs run in seasons, with timing often similar to a school year. Each LDP season builds to a recital in June, and to lose that just months away from the finish line was too much to consider.
So they went with a good old fashioned drive-in.
They chose the themes and assembled costumes. Their team put down a makeshift floor and decorated the outside of the building. Each dancer was assigned a performance time and group. Each student and each parking spot were numbered. Each parent’s car would line up across from their dancer.
“They literally would drive into our parking lot, drop their dancers off, pull into their parking spot,” Leighton said. “It was like 10 minutes. Then they would get in their cars and drive off.”
The recital took two whole days outside in the heat of June. But despite the strange circumstances, parents loved the final product.
Sonja Duckett, whose daughter Olivia dances with the junior company, says it worked out perfectly.
“For her group it was circus themed, so they had a big top. And then each car was also encouraged to kind of make a tailgate decoration,” Duckett said. “So when the dancers are dancing they see their family and they see their decorated car.”
Brenda Carmichael’s daughter Annie was was thrilled to be a part of the holiday event in December. LDP live streamed a “Winter Wonderland” show with dancers from every age group.
“The studio sent out a great communication with soft copy programs and specialized links to each of the shows,” Carmichael said. “You knew what time to watch it live and then you could get the customized link afterwards so you could watch it again or send it to grandma so she could see it. So it was really impressive.”
A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
Leighton is proud of what her team has accomplished. She says they have probably worked harder in the last 10 months than they did in the previous seven years.
“I think the biggest thing is we just are trying to be a bright spot in a time that’s tough,” Leighton said.
Season 8 of LDP, which began in August, is appropriately named themed “Shine Bright.” While all classes are currently online or outdoors, they plan to ease back into the studio when it is safe.
“I had two main goals when COVID hit,” Leighton said. “One was I wanted to keep my staff at their normal pay. That was huge for me. A lot of my staff have been with me from day one, so they’re like family. I knew I wanted to keep them employed and at their same rate if I could. And also keep kids dancing as best we could.”
By all accounts, Leighton has succeeded on both fronts. Meador says that she lost a side job teaching dance at a senior center almost immediately, but LDP never stopped.
“All that we were willing to do and the changes that were made and the work that was put in to keep us employed has been a saving grace in my world,” Meador said.
And while enrollment took a big hit at first, it has been steadily climbing back. Leighton says she now has about 350 dancers and counting. The parents see the hard work being done behind the scenes, and they’re sticking it out with LDP.
“They’ve just gone above and beyond, making sure that not only that the dancers are getting instruction, but that the families are also engaged,” said Carmichael. “It’s been such a blessing to have that for my daughter when so many activities have been eliminated or reduced to hardly anything.”