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  • Writer's pictureLouise Casini Hollis

The Art of Interacting Online

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Academy of Dance and Gymnastics

Words by Louise Casini Hollis. Images courtesy of the Academy of Dance and Gymnastics.

It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.

“It’s our 40th year of The Academy of Dance and I am determined that we have our recital [in some form]” says Linda Haas, owner and director of The Academy of Dance and Gymnastics. Founded in 1980 by Linda, the AODG has been a National School of Excellence Recipient in 2017, 2018, 2019 from the Association of Dance Competitions and Conventions which recognizes the studio with the Highest/Top Score upon the completion of Nationals. 

“The very first year we did a competition,” remembers Linda, “we went to Nationals in Myrtle Beach and I wasn’t that knowledgeable at that time, so we went to the thrift store and got costumes because I had half of them dressed like men and half of them dressed like women for the dance that we did. And we show up in Myrtle Beach and I’m sitting there and there are some of these schools – the one before us came out with this huge shell that opened up and a mermaid got out – and I’m sitting there going ‘oh dear’. I mean, our costumes did not have one rhinestone on them – nothing! But they were excellent dancers and so they got out there and did their number and they did such a wonderful job and they won over the people with the big shells. I mean I was just floored by some of these things because that was my first taste of getting into competition. So 40 years later, we continue on learning as we go.”

Older dancers from the Academy's Christmas Recital, they are in red dresses with white hats, all kicking.

And grown they have! Forty years later the company has grown into three studios located in Hampton, Denbigh and Yorktown that serve several hundred students a year. It was inevitable that Linda would found her own dance studio, even though she started out as a Sales and Marketing director for hotels. “When I was young, I would line people up in my neighborhood after coming back from my dance class, and my garage was my dancing school. I had barres and I put a mirror in there and I had a record player – you remember what that was?” laughs Linda. “And I would teach them all what I learned in my dance class that class day. So I think, you know, some people just have something in them.” As an adult, Linda continued to teach dance nights and weekends while doing her day job, and then only three years after founding the AODG she became a full time entrepreneur. Now she fosters the love of dance as a recreational activity for all ages and hosts a dance company for students who wish to participate in dance competitions at the national level.

“For me I think it’s great to go to competition, and I think it’s great to do well, but I think you also learn from not winning, too,” Linda says. “We want to teach children to be successful no matter what they do.” Academy of Dance and Gymnastics alumni have gone on to work at the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, on Broadway tours, Regional tours, regional theatres, theme parks such as Disney World and Busch Gardens, the Rockettes, and several Broadway shows including the current productions of The Lion King and Dreamgirls. Of course, her most notable student is her daughter, Tiffany Haas, known on Broadway for her performance as Glinda in Wicked.

Academy of Dance and Gymnastics alumni also include not only doctors and lawyers, but also parents and grandparents of current students. How has dance shaped these students? “It’s about life lessons,” shares Linda. “It’s about teaching them to be on time, teaching them to be respectful, teaching them to work hard. Which are all life’s lessons for success. So when we get letters back thanking us, saying all those were really beneficial to them in their journey it’s just refreshing.”

Young dancers at the Academy's Christmas recital, they hold up blocks that read "Merry Christmas"

Linda extends these life lessons during the holidays by giving students the opportunity to participate in their Christmas Extravaganza held every December at the Ferguson Center. “For over 25 years, every Christmas we do a big Christmas show and we donate all the funds to Operation Smile, and we’ve operated on well over 1000 children,” Linda proudly recounts. Linda got involved with Operation Smile when she found out one of her student’s baby sisters was being treated by Dr. William P. Magee, the Founder of Operation Smile. Through the assistance of volunteer Vonnie Wray, Linda was able to begin raising money for the organization. “These people are just so selfless in what they do – Dr. Magee and his wife – the things they have done have just been amazing, all over the world. That’s how I became involved. The more I learned, the more I wanted to help.”

Currently, all of the Academy of Dance’s classes are free to their students. “I just think it’s important because everybody’s suffering in one way or another right now whether it’s financially, or just I think for children [to have] all these things taken away from them – their school, their out-of-school activities – sports, dance, whatever, and I think it’s got to be a challenging time especially – not just for the young people but for their parents as well,” shares Linda. “I know that some people are really struggling and I want to be able to have everybody participate without the obligation of a financial burden.”

Academy of Dance and Gymnastics typically has class sizes of 10-14 students, but during quarantine they typically have between 8-10 students join them in their online Zoom classes. “We have found over time we have more and more students logging on for our classes,” notes instructor Emily Donston. Donston, who recently graduated from East Carolina University with a major in Dance and Choreography, grew up studying at AODG and now has the pleasure of teaching Jazz, Tap, and Ballet to the next generation of dancers. The academy also has a Google drive folder so that students can access their warm-ups and recital choreography and keep practicing at home. “Especially if they can’t log on for the live class,” adds Donston.

A dance student takes an Academy class on zoom.

Teaching online is a learning curve. “I wouldn’t say we’re fully adapted at this point,” Donston observes. “We are constantly making shifts, so we’ve been working on coming up with things that can be done in smaller spaces or with alternate floors because some of the things we would do in the studio can’t be done the same way at home.” The AODG teachers are also adapting to dealing with the sound delay that comes with using musical accompaniment online. For private lessons, students play their music at home so that they can hear better to compensate for the lag in sound from a Zoom feed. “So we’ve been adapting all the elements, not just what we’re teaching.”

“I would say it’s a lot more difficult in the arts to train on a computer, than it is hands-on in the studio of course, so that’s something that’s been very challenging,” shares Linda, “and I think also to keep the attention span with the younger ones because we have many props and things in the studio we can use to keep it exciting and fun for our younger students.”

Linda says their objective is, “to keep what we normally do…The main thing is we’re trying to keep them engaged.” Keeping students engaged in physical activities like dance is important not only for their physical, but also emotional, well-being. “Studies show that dance helps reduce stress, increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, and helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition,” writes Scott Edwards in his article “Dancing and the Brian” for the Blavatnik Institute of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Thus, dance offers a great outlet for engagement and stress relief as AOD students connect with their teachers and each other online.

“The most important thing is being able to have children see themselves in a positive light,” concludes Linda, “and just making it exciting and fun for them. Whether they end up being a dancer or a lawyer or a Mom – whatever – that they had a good experience.

“We have an amazing staff that are very enthusiastic and love the kids and have just been very excited to keep in touch with them,” she proudly adds, “So that’s our goal, to keep in touch with them and try to keep them excited about their dance training and gymnastics training.”

Check out The Academy of Dance and Gymnastics on their website.

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