Morton Street Dance Center students danced their way through COVID

By Beverly Richards,
Especially for the AFRO

At Morton Street Dance Center (MSDC) you will find a plethora of dancers of all colors and sizes. Diversity and inclusion have been cornerstones of the center since its inception 30 years ago. “We come in many different shapes and forms, and everyone can move,” said Donna L. Jacobs, director and founder of MSDC. “I wanted [dance] be accessible.”

The youngest students learn creative movement and audition, which provide a fun introduction to ballet and modern dance. Mature dancers receive technical training in classical ballet, pointe, pre-pointe, modern, tap, jazz, hip-hop and African dance.

But in early 2020, dancing ground to a halt due to COVID. “When the music changes, the dance also changes,” says an African proverb. That’s exactly what Jacobs did as the pandemic shut down the country. She turned around. “It was undoubtedly one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make running the school,” she said.

A Grand Jet gives a dancer the feeling of flying. (Photos courtesy of Morton Street Studio)

For Jacobs, her professionally trained teachers and students, dance is essential, necessary. Dancing, she explains, is the best preparation for life and is “150% essential. It gives children so much context for their lives. You will learn about yourself, about discipline, about the art, about entrepreneurship, about leadership, about working with others and colleagues and a sense of mastery. It shows where you stand in relation to the world and how good you are at something,” she explained of why her decision was so difficult.

But with what she knew, closing was the right choice. At the time, Jacobs was working for a local health care system and had early access to information on what to expect and what was to come in terms of the impact of the pandemic. Believing it could take two to three weeks, it made the decision to close in mid-March 2020 before much information was forthcoming. “At that time, hardly any of us knew how big the scale was. But I didn’t want to be the center of an outbreak. I didn’t want our children to get sick. And at the time, we thought it was a disease that affects, or is expected to affect, older people.”

Determined not to be deterred, Jacobs and the MSDC faculty went to their students’ homes. They shifted to an online paradigm. “Zoom was a whole new thing for most people back then. It took us a while to get the equipment and figure it out.” Once up and running, Jacobs placed two teachers in each class so one could teach, one watch and maintain the level of training. “I didn’t want them to lose their technical skills that they were working on.”

Little ones snuggle up in preparation for the next step. (Photos courtesy of Morton Street Studio)

Jacobs also knew that staying connected through dancing would help keep her students’ morale up. Some, she shared, had no other children to talk to and needed to stay connected. “The impact of COVID and the impact it has had on families and children from a mental health perspective, their loss of being able to go to school and be with people has been amazing.”

MSDC is a stepping stone for students to dance professionally. “In fact, one of our students has just returned from dancing at the Kennedy Center where he danced for several weeks under the tutelage and choreography of one of Alvin Ailey’s former principal dancers. She’s a senior in high school, and she’s danced with college seniors.” Many of Jacob’s students have completed undergraduate dance degrees. Others use it as a recreational tool. “But most don’t let it go. That’s what I did. I practiced law. I’ve worked for a large university system in healthcare, but I’ve always come back to it [dance].”

Jacobs and her team care deeply about the children and are always looking for new ways to improve service delivery. Your dancers will be taught the precise movements of ballet and how to move fluidly and effortlessly. And when asked which ballet movement best describes MSDC, she replied, “The Grand Jete.” It’s a big, spectacular jump where you try to stay in the air with your legs apart. That’s great!” As are the dancers, who hail from Morton Street Dance Center.

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