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It’s time to dance again

Local studio reopens, following COVID safety plan

Dancers meet for the first class of the Dance Sanctuary on Monday. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

SARANAC LAKE — You could hear the music, voices and laughter through the open windows of the Dance Sanctuary on Monday night. The sounds traveled out the second story windows of Mandi Maiore and Vanessa Pillen’s dance studio to Main Street below, and it took a few minutes to figure out why they sounded so unfamiliar. Then you remembered the pandemic. It’s been six months since anyone danced.

Maiore and Pillen reopened their dance studio with Monday night’s junior and senior company class, a collection of eager girls in ballet slippers, leotards — and masks.

The girls were spread out, as they would be anyway given the wingspan of their outstretched arms. Pillen, in a pink shirt, black leggings and a black mask, started and stopped the music on her phone to give instructions and encouragement. You could feel the excitement and a low thrum of nerves as the dancers worked to get used to the movements again.

“So much of our world had to be flip-flopped,” said Pillen a few days before that first class, surveying the empty studio space. The hallway stairs and floor had been marked with routes and arrows. Signs reminding dancers of the new rules were taped to the walls. “You have so many moving pieces. The school system, kids who come from many towns and school schedules.”

“Nothing really is the same besides dancing,” said Maiore.

Dancers meet for the first class of the Dance Sanctuary on Monday. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

With dance studios falling in a vague area somewhere between gyms, indoor fitness and fine arts, Maiore and Pillen sought out advice from the village of Saranac Lake and from Empire State Development about how their studio was classified and how to reopen safely. They created and submitted a COVID-19 safety plan.

To help with organization and safety measures, the Dance Sanctuary will only open its Saranac Lake studio and not the Tupper Lake location, which the pair had been operating since 2018 in the Tupper Arts space, for the foreseeable future. The class sizes will be smaller — 12 to 15 students — so dancers can keep physically distant, and the studio will be thoroughly cleaned after every class. There will be temperature screenings at the door, no waiting room and no changing room. As with the Saranac Lake Central School District, students and their parents will have forms to fill out at home to make sure that no one has symptoms of the virus. The changing room has been converted to an isolation room for anyone who shows symptoms to stay.

The goal is for the safety measures to “become routine,” said Pillen. “Everyone’s on the same page,” she said, noting that between the two of them, she and Maiore have nine small children themselves.

“We’re in it with this community,” said Pillen, whose oldest daughter Ruby is in the company, though the rest are still too young. “We understand.”

“It’s not just a business opening up,” said Pillen. “It’s affecting so many community members.”

Mandi Maiore instructs dancers at the first class of the Dance Sanctuary on Monday. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

“We didn’t want to do it wrong and then shut down two weeks later,” said Maiore.

So the pair, who opened their studio five years ago, decided on a staggered start and a shortened season, which will end before Thanksgiving.

The Dance Sanctuary offers classes in ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, swing, salsa and other contemporary and social dancing for students of all ages. Their youngest student is 2; they’re not sure how old their oldest student is.

“We don’t actually ask them their ages,” said Maiore. “We’ve had dancers in their 80s.”

This fall the studio has a new partnership with Northwood School in Lake Placid. With the students from the school plus the additional interest from students eager to get out of the house and rejoin both classes and their friends, Maiore and Pillen have introduced a sophomore company.

“They’re done with virtual,” said Pillen of the dancers.

Both Maiore and Pillen say that they feel an enormous sense of gratitude for their community.

“Financially it’s been really tough,” said Maiore. “But people have come out of the woodwork to help us.”

An added hardship this year has been and will continue to be the inability to do performances, which are not only what the dancers work toward and look forward to, but are also the biggest source of the studio’s income.

When the studio started, it was with a scholarship fund so every dancer who wanted to dance wouldn’t be able to afford it. Proceeds from performances went to that scholarship fund. They were able to raise $13,000 in last year’s fall semester for the fund.

Now, said Pillen, “we’ll just have to get creative.” A virtual benefit is one option.

“No matter what, if the community is willing to dance with us, we’ll keep dancing,” said Maiore.

“I’m going to be wearing waterproof mascara,” said Pillen. “Being able to dance together offers hope.”

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