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CHUCK: I’m Chuck Moran with Online Video Mastery, and I’m excited to be joined today by Sara Clayborne. Sara is the owner and founder of Charlottesville Ballet, a marvelous academy here in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I’m excited because Sara and I talked a month or so ago about some of the techniques that she’s been using on Zoom to teach her students, and I was inspired by the different tips and tricks that she’s come up with in response to the COVID outbreak. So I’m looking forward to diving into those tips and tricks with Sara.
So Sara, why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit about your background, your bio, and then how you got into creating Charlottesville Ballet.
SARA: Thank you so much for having me. I am Sara Clayborne. I’m the co-founder of the Charlottesville Ballet, along with my business partner, Emily Hartka. We founded the organization in 2007 to see if it were possible to really live out the mission of health and wellness within the ballet world. It’s pretty typical in the ballet world for lots of unhealthy habits to come up. And so, we wanted to see if it would be possible to start a company with a more holistic approach within its mission.
I am originally from New York. I grew up on Long Island. I went to high school in Manhattan at the Professional Children’s School. I danced professionally in New York before moving to Richmond, Virginia, and I had only intended on staying in Virginia for one summer. I wanted to get out of the city and see what life was like.
Upon living in Virginia for just those few short months, I realized that people were — not that people are not nice in New York because they’re lovely people, that’s all my family — but people are so nice. The cost of living was so much less. And there really was a wonderful, beautiful thriving arts community. And so, as I was dancing as a trainee of the Richmond Ballet, I was also teaching here in Charlottesville, and I was familiar with Charlottesville because my brother and my sister-in-law attended the University of Virginia. I knew that Charlottesville was a very cultured community, but I realized that there was no professional ballet company here. And so Emily Hartka, who was a roommate of mine — we also waited tables together while we were dancing in Richmond together — had planned to attend the University of Virginia.
We decided we would do a case study to see if it were possible to have a healthy ballet company. We were both very young at the time and had nothing to lose. So we had nothing to start the company but also, at the same time, it was very little risk. We were already waiting tables and working several jobs. We had a lot of grit and passion for what we were doing and wanted to see if it were at all possible to start something new.
In 2007, we started the company Charlottesville Ballet, a nonprofit organization — we’re a 501(c)(3) — with three main components. We have our professional company of dancers that come from all over the country, and some even from abroad. They’re professional dancers, which is hard for people to sometimes understand. They are at the highest level of their career. They audition to be paid by the Charlottesville Ballet to perform throughout Central Virginia. They are really high-caliber artists.
In addition, we have Charlottesville Ballet Academy, and lots of our professional company dancers (our performers) teach at our academy. So, it’s a unique advantage that our students have — to have professionals that are actively performing or have recently retired from the stage, or even those that have been retired for a long time. They’ve had professional performing careers teaching, and those classes are from age one-and-a-half. But I think our oldest student is 90 or 92.
The third component of the organization is the outreach and engagement program. We call that Speedy Moves. And that’s where we go into public schools and do our “Chance to Dance” program. We go to The Center here in Charlottesville and serve senior members of our community with free programming. And we have a “Movement for Parkinsons” class that is a free class we offer for anyone with any sort of movement disorder and their caretakers. And those are free programs that we do throughout the community.
So we have lots of different prongs of the organization. It’s been an exciting journey. All of it, really, with the mission of health and wellness — to see if it was possible to really treat our dancers with a healthy, holistic approach of not having one body type, one aesthetic, one look that is needed for the dancers. We just want healthy, fit dancers of all backgrounds.
CHUCK: And all ages, too. Wow. Well, first of all, I have no idea how you get all that done. I don’t know when you sleep.
I wanted to ask you to dive a little bit deeper into the unhealthy stereotype that you were fighting against. I can see why you’d be motivated to change that. What are some of the characteristics of that stereotype that you wanted to change?
SARA: Actually, my business partner, Emily Hartka, is very open about her history with eating disorders. She suffered from eating disorders for about 10 years before founding Charlottesville Ballet. And some of that, I think, has to do with the culture of ballet and the history of how it evolved, especially in our country. There is a very, very strict aesthetic for most ballerinas in our country, and even abroad, that it is an aesthetic that is really only possible for a very select few to achieve in a healthy way. And so, we wanted to see if it were possible to not decrease the level of technical ability of artists, but allow for more diversity in body type,size, and shape and do that in a way that is authentic — especially to the women who are coming to dance, to do this career in a way where they can be truly artists and using their bodies in a way to express movement, emotion, and a story.
We felt like it was something that was lacking in the ballet world. I think there’s definitely a trend for this, but it wasn’t at the forefront of any of the places that we had been working or training.
And so with Emily having those eating disorders…with me, I started ballet later in life. I had always danced, but it wasn’t my primary thing until I was older. Most young ladies start when they’re about five or six, and I wasn’t really serious with it until I was about 13. I believe that I was able to sort of escape those things because that aesthetic wasn’t ingrained in me from when I was very, very young.
And so, we wanted to just see if it were possible to create an environment where there’s a new norm for the ballet world and specifically, for our students because if you’re raised in an environment where there’s a particular aesthetic that you need to achieve, or you feel that you need to achieve — it may not even be openly expressed that way, but that’s what you’re constantly seeing — then, you’re going to gravitate towards achieving that, especially since most ballet dancers thrive in competitive atmospheres and are perfectionists. It creates a perfect storm for injuries and disordered eating. And so, it was really important for us to at least make an effort to try to see if we could change.
CHUCK: That’s quite a story. I’m struck with the parallel of female gymnasts encountering disordered eating and injuries. It’s being surrounded by all that imagery, right? You’re a little girl and all you see is this particular body type, and there’s only a couple of ways you could achieve that. And being able to break away from that is a very inspiring and noble mission that you’ve been on.
So, when you want to recruit the professional dancers, tell us a little bit about how you did that. How did they sort of glom onto this idea of a healthier body type, healthier aesthetic for teaching dance to younger people?
SARA: Originally, the dancers that we recruited were just friends of ours that we knew were tired of the traditional ballet life and wanted to join us in the process and the journey of seeing if it were possible. And we were a brand new company with very little funding. So I think that they were all willing to take the risk to see if it were possible to make this work. This is our 13th season, and I think they all have really embraced that mission. I think we’re all still learning because the world of ballet does have a strict aesthetic. And also, in general, our culture for what we expect women to look like is very hard, and it’s hard to break from that aesthetic and desire for ultra thinness and not actual health.
So, we’re working towards that in the company. The teachers both dance and teach for us, and I think they’re inspired by the kids that they teach. I think it’s amazing to see how the kids can really embrace a mission when they’re taught from the ground up, from three years old.
I really believe that everybody that teaches here at Charlottesville Ballet Academy — I always say this to them, that when you sign up to teach, you sign up to be a role model. They’re setting an example, and all of our dancers are amazing athletes. They are teaching young women, but young men too, that ballet can be for everybody. And it’s more about health, wellness, and strength than about achieving a very narrow aesthetic.
CHUCK: Very cool. So, obviously, until COVID came along, other than the outreach program, the academy portion was all at your facility. So tell us a little bit about the facility — do you have several different studios that you work in?
SARA: We have a space that is about 4,500 square feet upstairs, and then another 2,500 square feet downstairs. We have five total studio spaces varying in size. We’ve been in this location for about seven years now and love it. When COVID hit, it was definitely a shock to everybody and everything that we knew within our business.
CHUCK: I bet. So, just to detour really quick — I know you’ve got some dancers in their nineties in your outreach program, but onsite, what were the age groups?
SARA: They start at one-and-a-half, and I believe we have some adult students that come to our studio that are in their eighties, actually — a big range.
CHUCK: That’s a big range. Okay. So all of a sudden, COVID hits. You get the word that the Governor’s basically shutting down our in-person facilities in the state. And even if that were not the case, I know you wouldn’t want to put your students at risk, nor your instructors, nor yourself. So, that had to be a huge shock to the system. Tell me a little bit about the shock and then, how you began to recover from that.
SARA: Yes, it was Friday, March — Friday the 13th. I’ll never forget the day. I’m not usually good with dates, but that was the day we officially knew that schools were closing. We knew really on that Thursday, the 12th that we were going to have to make a change, a shift, and at least pause. So, that was the day that we decided we were going to be closing the academy. We originally, like most schools, would close for two weeks. From there we thought, okay, it’ll be two months. And then, we’re almost six months in. Now, we’re finally reopening, but it was definitely a shock to us.
We have an amazing staff of artists, but also administrators. Most of us wear two hats. We can do both — executive work and artistic work. And I think that’s also something that’s unique for our team and is part of the holistic approach that we offer. We immediately thought, “How are we going to do this? We can’t just stop classes. So what are we going to do?” And like a lot of other arts organizations, we shifted to Zoom. Zoom definitely saved us. It was definitely a struggle in the beginning, but it was a quick shift because we didn’t have a lot of time to transition. But that was our initial thought of how we have to continue these classes. We can’t just stop it for these kids, for the business, for all the teachers and artists. We need to continue in some fashion. So Zoom was definitely an integral piece of it.
CHUCK: That’s great. I would imagine your first impulse was to just do everything that we normally do in person. Let’s just put that in front of the camera on Zoom. So, is that a fair assumption that it was just like, Let’s take our classes and put them online. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? Is that the case?
SARA: That was exactly the case. We definitely knew it’s going to be very hard because we offered about 99 classes a week at the time. And we had only told our parents we’re going to close for two weeks. So we had 14 days to get everything online, to get communications out to parents, to explain to parents, to get the staff trained, to set up processes and procedures. We had actually less than 14 days because it took us a couple of days to figure out what platform we were going to use and make sure we were comfortable with that. So, we definitely knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we did know it was necessary because we could see very early on that it was going to be more than two weeks.
CHUCK: So, your schedule…was that fairly mappable over to Zoom? In other words, if you have an instructor that typically taught at 11:00 AM, was she able to pretty much say to her students that we’re still at that time, since you need to be in front of your computer instead of coming over to the facility.
SARA: Exactly. So, we set it all up in Zoom. We set different meetings as classes. We sent out Google Docs with those meeting links in them because lots of our students take multiple classes throughout the week. So, we had documents made per day with different links and sent out different passwords.
Immediately, we were pretty good about security use in Zoom. We always had a waiting room that had a liability statement posted there. As students came into the waiting room, they would see and read that. We also had the teachers verbally say it again. And then, we always had a password for all the meetings that we made.
In addition, we required the kids to always have their video on — one, because we need to correct them and see them and then, they also needed to have their name on the screen, so that would help us easily take attendance and a count, but that it was the right student in the right class.
CHUCK: Well, you did a lot of things very well, very early because the whole issue around “Zoom bombing” was really quite prevalent. And there are still organizations that are freaked out about Zoom’s “lack of security.” My impulse was to tell people who are worried about it to hang tight because of Zoom’s install base. They had more impulse and more internal directive to fix things than anybody. They were taking a beating in the press.
So, they started this 90-day, 256-bit end-to-end encryption pathway. They instituted the waiting room idea, the password right away. As far as I know, they’ve completed the 90-day encryption process with the advent of 5.0. To folks who are watching this who don’t have this, make sure you update because there are some cool new things in it in addition to additional security. So, that was really smart. And I can see how you were obviously directed because of the age of a lot of your students that you wanted to be able to protect the environment as well as you could.
Tell us a little bit about some of the challenges that you began to face when it’s obviously a different situation where you’re not in a room with a nice wooden floor, a barre, and mirrors. Now, you’re looking at little windows as an instructor. So as an instructor, you’ve got these little boxes with, what? A dozen or 16 of your students are in there at once. So what was that like to start teaching that way?
SARA: It was hard for the teachers, hard for myself, to adjust to that. Some of the leadership staff did some test teaching on Zoom and played around. I had some family members come on Zoom from New York and test it out with me. Okay, can you hear my tap shoes in the garage? Can you hear the music and the tap shoes? Can you hear me speak? We tested some things out before we then wrote it up in a manual, and brought that to our staff to share and say these are our best practices of what we think is going to work best. Little things about audio settings that you can fix in Zoom, background settings, things that will just make the dance experience easier, and easier to teach dance.
It was definitely hard for us. And again, I have amazing staff who were really good at the technology and very quick with it. We even had teachers that, as we were all starting to teach, came up with helpful hints. We had a lot of teachers that hooked up to their TVs, so they had a bigger screen to see. And that’s really helpful when teaching dance and teaching multiple students to be able to see as many bodies on the screen as possible. And then for a lot of the teachers, they did a great job teaching from home because they could really understand what the kids were dealing with. Some kids had parents cooking dinner in the background or a puppy dog running across the floor, and that was real life in the pandemic, being in quarantine at home.
The teachers sort of had the same thing. A lot of us that have children had to deal with figuring out childcare or quiet time for kids while you’re trying to teach. It was a challenging experience, but as a collaborative team, we all worked together. We had weekly meetings, which were very beneficial for the team, where we were able to share those tricks and tips, and then added those into our handbook manual. That was a living manual. It was all online, of course, so we could constantly update.
CHUCK: Wow. It sounds like you figured out a lot of things and have been able to maintain that level of professionalism. So how about engagement? I hear again and again — I talked to a colleague this morning. She’s a professional educator and has her own classroom without walls that she’s building right now. And she comes from a background of brain science, and it was interesting listening to her talk about how — and you hear this in a lot of settings — how hard it is for kids to stare at a camera or stare at a screen and take classes when they used to have all the socialization that used to go on in the classroom. And yes, you don’t have the distractions of the other dancers near you, but on the other hand, you don’t have the camaraderie and the visual cues. So, on the subject of engagement and the difficulty of getting kids to pay attention in this new environment, what kinds of things have you found that work?
SARA: So, a few things. The first one is just acknowledging — we did this a lot in our staff meetings — just acknowledging what you said,knowing that these kids are — one, they were in front of screens, most of them for most of the daytime hours doing schoolwork. And then, this was usually their time to just relax and release and use their bodies. And now, again, we were asking them to be in front of a screen. So in the beginning of our classes, I encouraged all the faculty, even for our littlest kids, to have just a moment where they could talk to them. So they would prompt them with a question of, in this time where you’re stuck at home,can you think of one thing that you’re really grateful for? What was something amazing that you didn’t think you’d ever get to do? Maybe that was, you got to eat lunch with your mom who usually is working, or maybe it was, you got to sit in the backyard and read, do your schoolwork in the backyard. So that was one thing, just acknowledging that this is a different environment. We can’t hold kids or ourselves to the same standard that we usually have.
The second one was — and I did this a few times — taking them out of the screen environment. I did this for a contemporary class that I taught, saying, “We’re going to actually mute ourselves. We’re going to take ourselves off camera. I want you to go somewhere, find a safe spot.” It can be for a kid that lives in an apartment. I can be on your balcony. It could be just you opening your door on a little tiny step of your porch. It could be in your huge backyard with acres of land. I want you to go somewhere outside and just look around, and I want you to find five things that you’ve seen, write them down, and then come back and put your screen on and I’ll know you’re back. And then from there, they created movement to describe those five things. And then, we all collaborated on that movement of those things and made a whole beautiful story of it.
And I did get their consent to film them. We filmed in Gallery mode and it was beautiful to see what they all saw. First of all, they all lived in different environments. They come from different sorts of households — some very rural, some living in the city. And it was beautiful to see how they could collaborate even with a screen. And I think just getting them away from the screen was helpful to reset their minds and reset how they were approaching the classes.
So those are the two big things. The third one that we did, as far as engagement, was we offered, additional content. So the teachers would film a portion of the class because, you know, filming an entire class, hardly anyone wants to watch an entire ballet class. Again, even those that love ballet. There’s just a lot of correction time and downtime of students trying to perfect the movement. But we would film an adagio section of class where the students were really working on slow movements and sequence of movements. And we would film that section, and then email that to the students and their families with maybe some corrections, some positive reinforcement, or additional footage from professional ballet dancers doing similar movements and a YouTube link saying, “Hey, have the students watch this and mimic that dynamic of movement.”
So those were the three engagement things we found really valuable. And actually, it helped me in the process of teaching.
CHUCK: That’s really great. Where did you get the idea about sending them offscreen and outside and collecting the five things? That’s a neat idea.
SARA: Honestly, I think I was just tired of being in my basement or garage cooped up and I thought, let’s just see if there’s a way to get them outside and moving in a safe way because for ballet, you do need specific floor to do specific things and we wanted them to stay healthy, but then, the creative aspect of it, and especially for contemporary dance, it was just the perfect, perfect environment for them to leave — leave the computer for a second, and come back..
CHUCK: That’s great. So then, when they came back and — let’s say you’ve got everybody back now and all their cameras are back on, and they described their five things. What was the creative process? Did one say all five of the things that she found, and then you created something around that and then moved to the next one? Or was it more of a group activity?
SARA: Good question. The group that I did this with, they were between eight and 12 years old. They each pick their five things. They wrote it down and they could write it on, you know, on a phone, an iPad, a piece of paper. They brought it back in. The first thing that I had them do was create movement to those five things that they saw. I didn’t even ask them what it was that they saw. I just wanted to create movements so that they could easily remember the feeling behind it. What did the structure look like? How did this object move? Was it stationary? From there, they all did that without watching each other. And then, we broke it down where I spotlighted each student, and they got to watch each other read their five things in the order that they were going to perform them. And from there, we linked them all together and made a little video from it.
CHUCK: Oh, that is really cool.
SARA: I wanted it to be pretty unstructured, so I picked different music and let them decide what piece of music they liked the best. They did a little vote on it, and then we set it to music and it was beautiful. It was really beautiful.
CHUCK: That is really cool. And especially around music and performance, there’s been some amazing Zoom collaborations that I’ve seen — these choruses that start out with one image of one person who begins, you know, a cello piece or something. And then the rest of the orchestra comes in and suddenly, a hundred people are singing. It just makes your heart sing.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, Sara, to things that you’ve learned or how you’re going to be transitioning back? Let’s just talk about that. That’s a good question. I just thought of transitioning back to a split reality now. So you are moving back indoors, to a certain extent. Are you going to continue the Zoom classes?
SARA: We just officially reopened yesterday. We have lots of options now that we’re months into COVID. We have in person classes with very, very limited class sizes, due to the nature of the virus. Everyone is required to wear a mask and they are staying far, far apart. And we have our studio blocked out with tape to keep physical boundaries.
We also offer hybrid classes. In the past, we had about 600 students. Our enrollment has decreased since COVID, but to at least be able to serve the students that we knew wanted to come back, we knew there had to be a hybrid approach.
So, similar to how a lot of the public schools are working, we created — because it’s Charlottesville and UVA is here — we created an orange group and a blue group. And so the first week back, the blue students come in person and the orange students arrive to the same class. They’re just joining in online. When those classes are really big, we’ll have an assistant Zoom teacher that is helping correct the students that are on Zoom. The teacher in the physical location is still the one planning the class and guiding the class, progressing them through the curriculum. The assistant is another teacher, but they’re correcting the Zoom students.
And then, there are some classes where there’s less enrollment in those two color classes. So the teacher is both correcting students on Zoom and students in the classroom. So we call that our “hybrid” approach.
We have amazing, generous donors that donated TVs, laptops, web cameras, iPods, and all the devices you could ever dream of. They have supported us through the setup process, along with amazing staff. So each of our studios has a big TV, which I never thought we’d have in a dance studio.
It’s been amazing the first couple of days to see how those kids can react to each other, can walk to each other, can learn from each other. That’s our second approach.
And then the third one is that we do have some families that just don’t feel comfortable sending their kid in person at all. And we understand that and want to make it accessible to those families as well. And so we have some Zoom-only classes where they are just meeting online, doing the same Zoom process that we’ve been doing since March. So, three different options to hopefully make it as accessible as possible within a pandemic.
CHUCK: That’s pretty amazing. And then, how about the geography that you served,let’s say in February versus where you are now — has that changed dramatically in terms of your service area?
SARA: We had a few adults over Zoom that joined from afar, and we did have at least one student that had moved to Maryland that then joined us for class via Zoom. So not a huge growth as far as geography, for us. I think that’s because there are some amazing dance companies doing similar things in their hometowns. I think a lot of people want to support their local dance organizations and continue to take classes with them, but it has been really amazing to see, specifically for the adults, adults that feel more comfortable doing classes over Zoom. They can shut their camera off if they feel embarrassed about doing one step that they don’t feel like they’re great at. And so, we have had an increase of adults taking Zoom classes.
CHUCK: So, if people want to learn more about your organization and what you have to offer, where should they go?
SARA: We’re active on social media. We also have our website, Charlottesvilleballet.org. That’s probably the easiest place to find all our information, but we are on Facebook and Instagram as well. So you can visit there.
CHUCK: Well, Sara, thank you so much for your time. I really, really appreciate it. You are full of information, and hats off again to you and your staff for being able to recover from COVID shock to the extent that you have. I think it’s remarkable. It sounds like you’re really thriving.
SARA: Well, thank you. Thanks for having me.
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