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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Safely Pivoting the Arts for Kids and Teens

By Lisa Adams Walter

While “pivot” has become THE buzzword for nearly everything this year due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, families with children and teens have likely been impacted in an even more significant fashion. Parents and guardians have been forced to change everything up with their littles, while primarily staying put. In other words, they have had to pivot to engage, occupy, entertain and continue the development and education of their kids.

The arts world, locally, nationally and globally, has come to a screeching halt. Orchestras and choirs, as well as Broadway companies, and furiously famous musicians and bands, have not been able to perform. Travel restrictions, as well as bans on group gatherings, for health and safety have darkened stages around the world.

Interestingly, in the world of dance, pivot as a move is defined as such: A pivot turn (or simply a pivot) is a general classification for dance turns in which the performer’s body rotates about its vertical axis without traveling.

Bingo! That’s what we have all been doing, right? Moving around ourselves, without traveling!

Locally, arts education remains an important aspect of children’s lives. Napa High School Vocal Music Workshop Director David Ruane, who also teaches private piano lessons, notes the difficulty of practicing online via Zoom, but has found a way to pivot. “Zoom is much like a walkie talkie. When trying to teach 12 teens to sing a cappella online, it simply doesn’t work. We are in the process of implementing a new groundbreaking technology arising out of Silicon Valley that has not yet been used at the high school level. We believe that this will be a solution for distance learning with vocal music ensembles.” For his piano students, Ruane has used Zoom. If they now meet in person, they are masked, use separate keyboards and Ruane sits at least 12 feet away from the student, using a laser pointer to show placement on the piano keys.

Other arts activities have also had to pivot. Local theater groups and dance studios have both dramatically changed things up to accommodate their students and families, as well as remain in business.

Alex Blitstein, who founded and owns The Dance House Napa Valley, built his local business two years ago on the foundation of creating a safe place for his students to dance, dream and discover. Prior to COVID-19, Blitstein flew on 300 flights annually, working around the world with 10,000 dancers per month. When the pandemic hit, of course everything changed.

“Pivoting equals adaptability,” said Blitstein who had already been working around the world in excess of eight years on platforms including Zoom, Skype and FaceTime. When the crisis hit, he was immediately ready to go, on Zoom. “Overnight, Zoom saved us. The platform saved pretty much every industry.”

Continuing with his goal of creating a safe place for young people ranging in age from two to eighteen years and up, and building their sense of independence, Blitstein and his teachers got creative. Examples include virtual family dance parties, story times followed by dances that tied in with the theme of a children’s book, as well as advanced instruction for teens as well as pre-professional dancers, and those in the Dance House PEAK (Performance, Education, Acceptance, Kindness) program moved online.

State, county, and city laws and regulations have been clear, and Blitstein has been uncompromising regarding mask-wearing protocol in that masks must be worn by everyone at all times (with the exception of very young children two years of age and younger in the Leap, Twirl & Tumble class). Extreme attention to detail is in place, including a separate employee to sanitize restrooms and surfaces, HEPA filters and spaces mapped out and marked for safe social distancing for each dancer.

Now that in-person classes are allowed at a greatly-reduced level, both in-person and virtual instruction are available at Dance House. All guidelines are posted on the studio website, as well as on the windows around the physical studio location. No one other than students attending a class and teachers are allowed inside. Temperature checks, sanitizing, masks, and no street shoes indoors, are now part of the training.

“I have three-year-olds that come in to the studio, fully dressed in their tutus, wearing a mask, with their hands by their sides, getting their temperature taken, before entering. I am changing the trajectory of these children’s lives. I hope that when these kids move on and graduate, they will be grateful that we taught them what to safely do,” said Blitstein.

At Academy of Danse, also in Napa, DeeAnn Valine too has had to institute changes, “We do offer in-person classes and virtual, the majority of our students are in person.”

Adhering to Napa County Public Health Guidelines, the Academy of Danse lobby is closed to parents and siblings, temperatures are also taken, masks must be worn unless dancing (mask protocol is by personal and teacher preference). Valine allows one family member in to the studio lobby for students five years of age or younger. Full regulations are also available on the Academy of Danse website.

Cafeteria Kids Theater (CKT), co-directed by Olivia Cowell and Aimee Guillot immediately pivoted, moving all instruction online in March. “These are indeed bizarre times in theater and education,” they exclaimed!

As of now, all Cafeteria Kids Theater classes are offered virtually. Because they began early, the directors said, “This has afforded us terrific experience and knowledge of how to teach drama effectively to children and teens with this platform.” Options such as performance classes, musical theater, theater intensives, comedy camps and performance camps are virtually available.

At the Napa Academy of Performing Arts (N.A.P.A.), a youth arm of Lucky Penny, Program Director Karen Pinomaki reports that only virtual classes are being held. “We had hoped things would be more ‘open’ by now,” said Pinomaki, “But we are keeping the utmost safety at hand.”

N.A.P.A. offers a weekly class called “Zoom into Improv” for middle schoolers. It is ongoing, open for enrollment, and anyone can join at any time. “The participants love it,” Pinomaki added.

A virtual musical that was written specifically to be rehearsed and performed remotely for actors ranging in age from seven to 17 called “Super Happy Awesome Musical!” is currently in the works. N.A.P.A. will stream the finished production online the weekend of October 23-25 for a small ticket, or “pay what you can” per family, price. Each purchaser will receive a link to the show to watch at any time during those dates.

“This is a very timely and heartfelt musical that begs to bring some ‘happy’ news to the people, but it also speaks to the vulnerability and isolation that so many young people are experiencing with the sheltering in place and leaves you feeling that there is hope. Because each scene is written for one actor, we work magic during the post editing of the filming to bring a cohesive flow to the show,” Pinomaki added, “Our young actors are very excited to let their creative juices fly!”

Despite the challenges, kids and young people are still learning, performing, being resilient, showing up, following rules and being safe, yet still being creative, while finding their own passions and being themselves.

“Nothing is promised in life,” Alex Blitstein concluded, “If there is something in life that is exciting for them to do, I am going to continue to supply it, in a very safe space.”


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