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Dancer struggles to hold onto passion during pandemic — and she's not alone

Dancing has been Emillee York's outlet for six years, but with classes moving online and performances cancelled because of the pandemic, the 18-year-old says she feels as though she's lost her "rock." Each lockdown sees more families deciding to pull their children out of dance, says an Ontario dance studio owner.

Brock research says dancers express frustration, lack of motivation in lockdown

Emillee York, 18, has been dancing for six years, but the Grade 12 student says the pandemic has made her lose her passion. With gyms closed, and sports leagues and art classes shut during Ontario's COVID-19 crackdown, many of the in-person escapes and interests that help people find happiness have been taken away. (Supplied by Tammy York)

Dancing has been Emillee York's outlet for six years. But with classes moving online and performances cancelled because of the pandemic, the 18-year-old says she's lost her "rock" just when she needed it most.

York is a Grade 12 student in Glendale Secondary School's performing arts program. With graduation coming, COVID-19 has shuttered the school and hopes of productions due to Ontario restrictions.

The classes she takes at Ancaster's Ballare Studio Dance, when they can happen, have largely been online. Competitions have also been cancelled.

Dancers tend to be goal-driven. They want to compete, they want to improve, and they don't find that the Zoom interactions help them do that.- Dawn Zinga, professor, Brock University Department of Child and Youth Studies

"After dancing for so long and not getting that final year, it was sad," York said.

"It really put a dent in the passion I had for it. It got to the point where the online Zoom classes that we would do for dance, I wouldn't even enjoy them, and I didn't really want to do it anymore."

She isn't alone.

During the pandemic, Ontario gyms closed, and sports leagues and art classes have shut, meaning the in-person escapes and interests that help people find happiness, accomplishment and expression have been taken away.

For York, getting on stage and dancing was a way to make friends, find community and a "breath of fresh air" that could clear her mind and lift her spirits no matter how miserable her day had been.

There was a point when the teenager considered trying to make a career out of her passion. But without a way to practise over the past year, she's lost her drive.

"It was like my last chance at really getting into performing arts and pursing them, and I kind of feel like I lost that chance to fall in love with it even more."

Mom says daughter's 'outlet for stress' lost

Tammy York, Emillee's mother, said it's been hard to watch her daughter lose her outlet for stress over the course of the pandemic.

It's "hit her [daughter] twice as hard," she said, pointing to her loss of school and dance, recitals and competitions.

"This is kind of her last kick at the can. I've seen it affect Emillee emotionally and mentally."

York's mother says her daughter's being hit 'twice as hard' as COVID-19 moved classes online, and cancelled recitals and dance competitions. (Submitted by Tammy York)

It's an impact Christine Campbell has seen among her dancers at Ballare.

The studio was expecting 150 to 175 students this year. Right now, only 10 to 15 attend online classes.

"They're not getting to have their social interaction with their friends. They're not getting … their home away from home," she said.

"Their activity is their second home and they're being ripped out of it. I think they're having a hard time understanding it when we've never had a case."

Lockdown impacts motivation: research 

Researchers from the department of child and youth studies at Brock, along with the St. Catharines, Ont., university's Dance Research Lab, recently studied the challenges competitive dancers and their families faced.

Profs. Dawn Zinga and Danielle Sirianni Molnar, who are both "dance moms" started their work before the pandemic, but said it's since become a "variable" that's affecting dancers.

Their work began with recruiting 226 pairs of dance students and parents to gather their experiences.

"They are definitely struggling with not being able to dance in the way they want to dance," said Zinga.

The study has shown the community around competition and classes creates a "dance family," but while online calls help, that social support is largely gone, she said.

"Dancers tend to be goal-driven," said Zinga. "They want to compete, they want to improve, and they don't find that the Zoom interactions help them do that because it's not the same level of training as when you're face-to-face with the teacher."

Sirianni Molnar said the pandemic has made if difficult for students to stay motived and focused.

One aspect she expects to "scream" from the research around COVID-19 is how important dance is to a dancer's identity.

In the meantime, Sirianni Molnar said, studios that have tried to maintain some sort of connection with dancers through video calls or classes, have been a "lifeline" for some families.

Dance school owner emphasizes safety 

Ballare has worked hard to keep students safe and stay open during the periods when provincial regulations have allowed it, said Campbell.

The studio has set up a COVID-19 questionnaire, temperature checks and sanitization between classes. Online forms are filled out to help with contact tracing, if necessary. During in-person classes, students wear masks and are kept at least two metres apart.

Campbell estimated that over the past year, she's been able to hold in-person classes in some way for five months, meaning business is down about 70 per cent.

Each lockdown sees more families deciding to pull their children out of dance, said Campbell. She worries about variants and someone testing positive for the virus, but is confident in the steps the studio is taking.

"I would never want to expose anybody to have that, but ... I'm seeing kids cry, and getting depressed and basically wanting to give up, and thinking there's no point to anything anymore, and losing their passion, and their love and their work ethic. That is heartbreaking."

The Yorks say they understand safety is the top priority. But after a year of living with COVID-19, they want officials to find a way to allow dance and other recreational activities to happen.

Emillee plans to continue dancing once the pandemic ends, but said she's no longer sure what role it will play in her future.

Just as she was beginning to feel confident in her abilities, "it just all got pulled out from underneath me."

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