“I know we will make it work, whatever we have to do,” said Benicia Ballet owner Teresa Taylor. “We’ve been put through the ringer these last few months, but we’ve always danced through it – literally, we’ve danced through it.”

 

Owner Teresa Taylor

As the soft sounds of a piano melody fill the crisp air around them, 10 teenagers in Benicia Ballet’s advanced class are at the barre warming up, gracefully performing a routine before ending on ‘pointe.’

They remain on the tip of their toes as the music plays on, making the advanced move look effortless.

It is a symbolic nod to 2020 and the continued resiliency of Benicia Ballet. While this appears a routine class for this local dance school, it is anything but one.

Instead of performing in tights, the girls wear sweaters and masks. The bright lights on the stage are a stark contrast to the darkness that surrounds them in the chill air outside.

The school built an outdoor stage and dance floor in response to COVID-19 restrictions, and while it has worked well in the fall, the drop in temperatures and the rainy season ahead has everyone wondering if the cover will hold.

“I know we will make it work, whatever we have to do,” said Benicia Ballet owner Teresa Taylor. “We’ve been put through the ringer these last few months, but we’ve always danced through it – literally, we’ve danced through it.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Benicia Ballet has never closed its doors. During shelter-in-place, instructors led classes over Zoom. Even in July, when the school unexpectedly lost its lease at its old location and had to move to its new facility on Military East, the virtual classes never stopped.

“Our community here is incredible,” said Taylor, a Benicia Ballet instructor since 2017 who took over as owner this summer, amid the pandemic. “Students were showing up to dance in their kitchens, in their bedrooms, their living rooms. Over time, they became their own little dance studios. And over the spring and summer, as all the Zoom classes continued, they kept coming.”

Behind the scenes, Benicia Ballet’s leadership team continued to be proactive in response to the COVID-19 restrictions. Plans had been made back in the fall of 2019 for former owner Margaret Kenrick to sell the business to Taylor, and Taylor was determined to see that happen, even with the struggles from COVID.

Meanwhile, Benicia Ballet applied for and was awarded grants through both the city of Benicia and the Solano Workforce Development Board’s LOAF program, and Taylor utilized free business advising from the Solano SBDC.   When she found out the school was losing its space in Benicia’s Historic Arsenal Park, it was the SBDC that connected her with a commercial realtor.

“When we found out we were losing our location at the Benicia Arsenal, I called (my SBDC advisor) and said ‘you remember that worse-case scenario that could happen? It happened’. He put me in contact right away with a commercial relator. It was such a gut wrenching experience and they were both great to us.”

As challenging as it was to lose that studio – the school had been located at the Benicia Arsenal since it opened in 1986 – there were silver linings. Their new location was a dance school for 20 years, already included two studios, and has a giant attic that has been transformed into Benicia Ballet’s costume wardrobe.

The school had recently put a new professional sprung floor down at their old location, and Taylor and her husband, John Metellus, took it with them when they moved to the Military East building at the end of July. COVID-19 restrictions prevented the ballet students from being able to rehearse inside and Taylor and Metellus had an idea. They knew it would take collaboration though to work.

Behind the new location was a parking lot that belonged to the business, Jazzercise. Jazzercise, like Benicia Ballet, was not allowed to have classes indoors.

“I emailed the landlord next door and said, ‘we have this dance floor and we’d love to share it with you,’” Taylor said. “We built the stage in the parking lot, and Jazzercise now uses the floor in the mornings and Benicia Ballet has it in the afternoons, and we share it on Saturdays. Benicia Ballet Theatre, our sister organization and non-profit, donated the canopy that covers the floor.

“My husband put the whole thing together,” she added. “He did the lighting and the canopy, and he even put up mosquito netting when the mosquitoes showed up!”

The school planned to begin outdoor classes in early September, but smoke from the fires kept them on Zoom for another two weeks. Once the air cleared, students and families eagerly returned. Some families prefer remaining virtual and a camera, computer and TV on stage allows all instructors to livestream and record their classes.

Every dancer who arrives for class has their temperature checked and sanitizes before going on stage. The barres on stage are cleaned in between use. All students and instructors are required to wear masks.

These added steps do not phase the young dancers. They are all so excited to be back. Warmups begin with “Pure Imagination” by Gene Wilder and the students are at barre and ready to go.

“You go out every night and you see them having such a great time, it really is something special,” Taylor said. “It’s still so new and a little out of our element. Dancers normally rehearse in just leotard tights and now they are out there in sweatpants and jackets. But everyone comes together, and they all work so hard.”

Taylor, who grew up dancing in Oregon, said the outdoor studio and its ambiance reminds her of the ‘Ballet in the Park’ events in her hometown.

Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Benicia Ballet is still dancing through the hurdles and making the best of the situation before them. The ballet school has performed The Nutcracker every December since opening and this year will be no different.

The dancers rehearse for The Nutcracker every Saturday and a videographer has been hired to film the performance, which will be available virtually for families and the public to watch on Dec. 26 at 2 and 7 pm. Click here for a direct link to the ticket page. 

 

Looking back over the last year, even with the challenges, Taylor is thankful she took that giant leap when she took over Benicia Ballet.

“This has always been my dream, since I was 19 years old,” she said. “This has been my plan for almost 40 years! I remember my husband told me, ‘if you don’t do it now, you’re always going to wonder.’ And I’m so glad I did.”

For more information: www.beniciaballettheatre.org

 

(Photos courtesy of Benicia Ballet and Peter Lichty)

 

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