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Covid-19 takes toll on NZ ballroom dancing: major competition called off, studios worried

"It's time for New Zealand dance studios to get bloody creative and think about how we're going to manage this going forward," says Empire Studios director Claire Baxter-Cardy.
ballroom dancing coronavirus threat

The New Zealand ballroom dancing community has been forced to postpone one of its major international competitions and some dance studios have lost as many as half their students as a result of coronavirus. Other studios are resorting to online classes to try and keep student numbers up.

The sport, which has been hugely popularised in New Zealand thanks to the reality TV show, Dancing With The Stars, has been hit particularly hard by Covid-19 because it combines all the ingredients a virus needs to spread – close contact and large gatherings of people.

One of New Zealand’s largest annual international dance competitions, the Kiwi Classic, has been postponed. It was scheduled to be held at Easter.

The event attracts hundreds of dancers from all over New Zealand, as well as from abroad.

Kiwi Classic organiser Kingsley Gainford explains, “It’s a shame but it’s necessary. We can’t get the international dancers or judges who normally come from the States, Asia, Russia and Australia. The ones who want to enter… with the 14-day isolation [period when they enter New Zealand], it’s not going to work.”

He predicts that all other competitions in New Zealand will follow suit. A lot will depend on whether new restrictions on mass public gatherings will be introduced by the government, Gainsford claims.

The next major national dance competition in New Zealand is the New Zealand Open Dance Championship, which will be held, if all goes to schedule, in October.

Meanwhile many dance studios are experiencing dwindling class numbers – some have fallen by as much as half – and others are resorting to running classes online just to keep their numbers up.

Gainsford, who is also the director of North Shore, Auckland dance studio, North Shore Dance Centre, says he’s seen a drop-off in student numbers among children but not adults.

Students are being encouraged to stay away if they’re not feeling well and extra hand sanitiser is being provided for dancers. Extra hygeine measures are being put in place around the studio, he says, such as door handles being bleached more regularly.

“Dancing is something that people enjoy and it’s a stress release so we’re taking the stance that people need to try and keep dancing and keep their normal schedule of dancing but at the same time take precautions,” he says.

“With this industry, telling people to cough into your elbow doesn’t work because the ‘girl’ dancer has to put her hand on the man’s elbow.”

Ballroom dancing has been hugely popularised in NZ by the reality TV show, Dancing With The Stars.

At Just Dance NZ in Botany, Auckland, student numbers have halved says the studio’s director Min Fang.

“Most of our students are children and about 80 per cent of those students are Asian. Their parents are panicking and they’re pulling them out of class,” says Fang.

Meanwhile, at Empire Studios in Grey Lynn, Auckland, director Claire Baxter-Cardy says she fielded three panicked phone calls this morning from dance teachers who hire out her studio. Two went on to postpone their salsa classes.

She’s encouraging students to stay away if they don’t feel well and family members are being asked not to enter the studio so that only the dancers and teachers are coming and going. Hand sanitiser must be used on entry and exit of the studio.

The dance teachers have also started running online classes.

“We’ll continue to operate until it’s a government mandate not to operate, but we have set up an online classroom environment,” she explains.

“We’ve set up a programme called Movitae where students can go online and look at dances. It’s something we already had in place and which we used around show time so that anyone panicking about their show dance could go online and look at their dance. But now the other teachers and I are filming ourselves doing warm ups and warm downs… so that anyone at home who is in self isolation can still dance.

“I’m also trying to figure out how I can utilise Tiktok as it’s a medium our teens and tweens are already using,” she says.

Skype lessons will be added to the mix.

“Long term, if the government decides that schools have to close down we will take our entire classroom online.”

Last year’s runner-up Laura Daniel will be a judge on Dancing With The Stars NZ in 2020, but there may not be a live audience this year.

Baxter-Cardy says that “a lot” of studio directors are “panicking about going under”.

“I’m a member of the New Zealand Dance Teacher Network Facebook group and a lot of people are worried,” she says.

“The dance industry and the arts industry in general is already a challenging one and you should already have strategies in place like income protection. I have, so I know that if we need to halt at least the bills would be paid. I think for a lot of people in the arts industry most are living from pay cheque to pay cheque.

“Everyone is talking about the hospitality industry but the arts industry will be impacted just as greatly and we won’t have the reserves that the tourism industry has, or the level of support.

“This could be horrific, so it’s time for New Zealand dance studios to get bloody creative and think about how we’re going to manage this going forward.”

Meanwhile, this year’s Dancing With The Stars reality TV show is also under scrutiny, with MediaWorks yet to confirm reports that this year’s show will be audience-free.

Laura Daniel, who was a runner-up in the 2019 season, will be one of the judges, but we are yet to find out more about the show, which now seems shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty.

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