Like many parents, Sally Malay watched closely as Monadnock Region schools announced their reopening plans for the COVID-19 pandemic last month.
But rather than their effect on classrooms, Malay was concerned with what the plans would mean for the schools’ makeshift studios that the N.H. Dance Institute, where she serves as executive director, uses for its classes every year. Due to the strict safety protocols in many of those plans, NHDI will conduct its programs outside of schools this fall for the first time, she said.
Earlier this month, the Keene nonprofit, which offers youth dance programming with no experience necessary, opened registration for weekly classes at Stonewall Farm in Keene and Camp Spofford in Chesterfield. The 10-week fall lineup — for children from grades 1–9, with classes for various age groups — will begin Monday, to coincide with National Arts Education Week, Malay said.
Registration for the classes costs $120, which she said will cover operating costs at the new venues.
NHDI instructors traditionally lead dance classes during the school day for students at Monadnock Region elementary and middle schools through its “residency” and Year-Long programs. Malay said more than 4,000 children typically participate in the institute’s programs each year.
She explained that NHDI felt it was important to offer its arts education programs this fall, despite area schools’ COVID-related restrictions.
“It is driven by the desire to serve our mission of teaching life skills through the joy of dance and music during this pandemic that is restricting our ability to be physically present in schools,” Malay told The Sentinel in an email. “Arts education directly benefits a child’s social and emotional well-being as well as their physical health.”
Nikki Tommila of Fitzwilliam, whose 11-year-old daughter, Katelyn, is a regular participant in NHDI programs, praised the institute’s decision to hold fall classes. Tommila said Katelyn had assumed they would be canceled and was disappointed because this is her last year to participate in the year-long program, which typically draws several hundred students and culminates in a final performance at Keene State College’s Redfern Arts Center.
“I’m really excited they’re doing this,” Tommila said. “[Katelyn is] very excited to have that opportunity and to be able to dance.”
Malay said the fall courses will comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The institute will limit class sizes to ensure that students are spaced at least 8 feet apart, will choreograph its dances to prevent physical interactions and can use outdoor spaces at both venues, according to Malay. She added that NHDI will conduct daily health screenings, including temperature checks, for instructors and students, all of whom will be required to wear masks while they are not dancing.
Malay acknowledged that losing the organization’s residency programs means it could be inaccessible to some children, but said the fall lineup was designed to accommodate students from schools with hybrid schedules that combine in-person and remote learning.
Tommila, who typically helps coordinate NHDI programs at Emerson Elementary School in Fitzwilliam, said she may be working during Katelyn’s fall classes, in which case Katelyn would carpool with a friend.
“There might be some students who aren’t able to go because of an [in]ability to get to these classes,” she said. “But … it’s great that NHDI was able to figure out a way to still get dancing and movement into their routines.”
Malay said the organization’s experience this summer, when it hosted a series of outdoor “pop-up” classes and its annual Summer Intensive program, both of which used similar safety measures, informed its plans for the fall. She noted that there were no positive or suspected cases of COVID-19 among students at the two-week Summer Intensive.
Tommila added that Katelyn, who participated in all five pop-up classes and the Summer Intensive, was initially nervous about not knowing the other dancers and wearing a mask during the courses, but said she “loved every minute of it.”
“It was so well-organized, and they had such great safety procedures,” Tommila said. “I have no worries at all with NHDI. They did a fantastic job this summer.”
In addition to COVID-19 safety protocols, Malay said NHDI is grappling with an existential challenge.
The organization may face a loss of more than $30,000 by the end of the 2020–21 school year if it cannot offer in-school programming this spring, she said. She explained that the school hosting the institute’s Year-Long program typically helps cover some expenses, as do registration fees from the program’s participants.
Noting that NHDI will launch its annual fundraising campaign this week, Malay said it is “in need of significant financial assistance to be able to continue to operate.”
She added that the Year-Long program is slated to begin in January 2021 and that NHDI is unlikely to resume in-school classes until then.
“Our goal is to persevere and remain in good standing with the mindset that we will be ready as soon as schools can open their doors to us once again,” Malay said.
For more information about classes and registration, visit NHDI’s website at nhdi.org/nhdi-camp-spofford-stonewall-farm.