Liz Borromeo describes herself as one of those kids who would go out in the front yard with a record player and perform an entire musical for the trees.
At age 47, she’s a dance instructor at her own studio, an 1,800-square-foot space in the historic Providence Academy building in downtown Vancouver. But during a pandemic, teaching dance is not the same as it was.
“There’s no contact, which is tricky with the curriculum I work with because a huge part of it is partnering work and contact-based engagement,” Borromeo said. “I think the kids are dealing with it better than I am. All my lesson plans have had to shift.”
And that’s not to mention some students whose families could no longer afford tuition dropped out entirely; revenue dropped between 40 and 50 percent during the pandemic, Borromeo said. One factor was a rent increase that occurred when Borromeo’s upstairs neighbor, Mini Mozart’s Preschool, left.
“We usually had a spring performance that brings in revenue to push through summer,” she said. “We’re getting back, but we have seen an increase in costs. We’re not sharing space with the preschool, so our rent has increased. (We have) had to add technology and air purifiers and things like that. So revenue is down. Costs are up.”
When the stay-at-home orders were issued in March, Borromeo took to Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform.
“Zoom is great, I think, for lectures, but it’s a challenging platform for dance,” she said. “The day I get to delete my Zoom account will be a glorious day. I’m going to have a party.”
Currently, Borromeo teaches a combination of some small, in-person classes while others remain on Zoom. Instead of a traditional mask, she uses a clear mask that has a mounted piece secured at the chin, which helps hearing-impaired students.
“I have a portion of special needs kids and younger kids who were having trouble understanding cues and instructions, so it’s been a good way to help them be more at ease working with me,” she said.
The Columbian caught up with Borromeo to learn more.
What do you think drew you to dance?
I think music and dance and the arts are things that have always spoken to me. Also as a kid I have a particular challenge, and this is something I started having trouble with when I was 9 or 10; I have a problem with UV light sensitivity, so outdoor activities were sort of a thing that couldn’t happen for me. I get sick being outside for any period of time. We always had music at home, singing in the car and dance parties for no reason. I think it’s always been something that as a kid I got enjoyment out of, and it became something I was passionate about.
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How has the business changed since the pandemic started? We’re in a pretty unique time.
That is a pleasant word to use. I can think of a lot of others. So it’s definitely been a challenge. My studio is very small. We have a small community. I’m the only teacher, and so I run the curriculum. We got sort of gut punched back in March when the schools closed. As soon as that happened, I shifted immediately for the next week to shift to private lessons. We did that for about a week, then a stay-at-home order happened. It was heavy-research time for me. I had no idea what Zoom was, and I’m definitely not an expert now, but boy do I know what Zoom is. I did some prerecorded content and just reached out via email and sent dance prompts to my kids, trying to help them find ways to express how they’re feeling even if we can’t see each other. I brought as much of my curriculum as I could to Zoom. We have lots of very specific protocols; floors are marked for distancing. My descriptive vocabulary has had to evolve. It’s hard for a lot of kids. I am resistant to calling it a new normal because I don’t want this to be normal. But the resiliency of the community has been very clear. People have shown their ability to adapt and be flexible and still dig in and work, and I think it’s been really good for these kids’ mental health to be able to move their bodies. It’s a way to get some of these feelings out because there’s a lot of feelings going on right now.
Pandemic aside, what are some of the challenges you face in this job?
Working in the arts is an area that lots of people love. But the process is very work intensive. I think especially with performative things, like dance and music, you see on stage the product, created through hours, months, years of hard work. And I think sometimes there’s a misconception that it just comes out of thin air. I do a lot of continuing education trying to figure out the best pedagogical methods, making sure that I’m also making my dance-safe space where everyone is welcome, all dancing styles. It’s a huge part of my mission that we build community with dance. (I’m) always checking in on that mission and making sure that we’re being an inclusive atmosphere.
Historically has ballet been inclusive?
It’s definitely something that has come to light in recent times. I think the ballet world has struggled to believe that dance is for everybody — “body” being in capital letters. Just of where it came from and its history and the aesthetics that were accepted in ballet: everybody must look the same. I do see that the ballet world is working to open up more and understand that, number one. It’s not the only form of dance, and it wasn’t the first form of dance out there. Dance is a universal thing, dance from other cultures; all these things are uniting. It’s a language that we can all speak. I’m hopeful that ballet keeps moving forward. I think it’s a hard road for that art form that has existed in a particular way for many centuries. I mean it originated really in the courts in Italy. It was a form of etiquette, more than anything else, in its origins. You had to be of noble birth, of royalty in order to partake in it. It wasn’t until even later in France when it started to be codified of a technique of dance and movement that would be taught. It has kind of that sense of being very elite. That word is a loaded word, so being from that, I think it is a big journey to then find a way to open that up to other people.