Back to studio: An interview about dance before, during and after lockdown
When Natalie Hunt, founder of Mamparadance, moved all her dance and fitness classes online, she expected this to only last 3 weeks. Performances were scheduled and dancers continued to rehearse and prepare for the show online. Three weeks have turned into six months and she is now returning to studios and stages in London. She told DanceGr!st about running a dance company in recent times and how the pandemic has affected recreational dance and class schedules. She provides insights into the challenges that social distancing and reduced numbers of students impose, the plans for an emergency term and she shares an idea how the dance sector can survive and flourish again in a post-COVID-19 world.
What did Mamparadance usually do before the lockdown?
I was teaching dance fitness and dance for adults and juniors. There were at least 5 classes per day, but no classes on a Friday. I was teaching at 4 to 5 schools in London, and then I was teaching at Lamda, Sadler’s Wells, Urdang and a few other studios in between. Then there would be the dance foundation weeks as well and I did the dance weekends.
What changes did the lockdown bring?
We used to do two theatre shows a year and when lockdown started, we were about to do one of those. We were 3 weeks away and had two weekend workshops with one of the founding cast members of CATS planned. We had an awful lot on, and it got all cancelled and moved online. We tried to rehearse for the show online because everyone said it would be three weeks of lockdown and everything would be okay again. We later moved all the adult and fitness classes online too and have been going like that until now.
What made you want to go back to the studio now?
I wanted that satisfaction again. Online classes are not the same as being in the same room with students, all the creative energy and the fun of it when you’re together. That doesn’t happen on zoom. For the dance, I either would have said: “That’s it for the dance now or if you want to keep going, you have to go back to the studio.”
Why is now a good time?
The timing made sense because all the schools were coming back for the September term. It seemed like the right time to do it and we are very lucky that we are based at The Sainsbury Theatre at LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. We are one of the few companies to have access to a theatre at the moment. LAMDA were super supportive and keen to get us back.
Also, CATS was going on since December which is way too long for one show. We now want to get it done and then move on to something fresh, but in a positive way.
Which feedback did you get from your students about having studio classes again?
The dancers who had stayed all the way through lockdown online were super excited. Then we had the announcement by the government about restrictions and they all started messaging “Is it us?”, “Can we still go back to the studio?”
Quite a lot of my international students have left London and went back home. Others have disappeared when lockdown started and I haven’t heard back from them. I didn’t get any negative feedback or concerns either because only those that want to come back have reached out and they’ve been excited. But numbers have shrunk, and this is definitely a term which needed marketing whereas word of mouth was enough during previous terms.
What other challenges are there at the moment?
We got an extraordinary bubble situation now where I have to email parents about potential bubbles for all the children. I have a list: this child can be with this child, that child can only be with that child. It’s going to be really difficult for some of the juniors. I have two students now, one has asthma and she’s under 11, the other one is 12 and they’re trying to be really careful because of her grandma. I don’t know how that’s going to be. I have these two children in a big studio that are not allowed to be near anybody else. It’s an interesting one to manage in terms of making sure that they don’t feel isolated or secluded. Hopefully the joy of being back to dance will make up for it all.
What are the plans for this term?
Because all studio classes had been cancelled, the timetables have freed up in all the venues. LAMDA who were really supportive have offered us every free evening they had which has been amazing. We have taken up that offer and will be there whenever we can be. We have junior dance there, we got barre fitness and dancers technique and adult dance, Jazz, Commercial and Pom without Pom Poms, so not to worry about COVID.
We have gone back to Barnes which is where we started our very first classes in London. But Hammersmith bridge closing was another piece of excitement. That is a massive barrier for students. Some parents are now driving for hours to get their children to LAMDA.
Can you tell us more about CATS?
We have a two-day workshop with new students and original students. We are reworking the show because it has gone down from a cast of over 70 to now 24 that we are allowed to have. We are workshopping everything on Saturday 26th at LAMDA. Some of the students will bring their own choreography. I had given them homework for lockdown. We will work this into the show and they can start to see how you create a rich and varied number instead of just dance steps. On Sunday 27th we will practice on stage all day and we will bring the show on stage in the evening for a socially distanced audience.
What is the new project going to be about?
We are coming back to a Disney theme. Our next show will be in the spring. I have been saving Disney for an emergency term and this felt like an emergency term. We are coming back to all the fun and a feelgood theme. We already started a few pieces from Mulan and Hercules.
To what extent to you think that the dance sector will manage over the next 6 months?
I think the hunger to dance is there. That’s not going away both for providers of dance opportunities and performances, and for students. I think the availability of opportunity is going to be limited. People want to dance, and they want to move. They haven’t necessarily found it satisfying through lockdown because a huge amount of the dance experience is about being in the room with people, it’s that human connection, the expression, the creation, the feeling, there’s an energy that goes around the room when you’re dancing with people.
The people that have survived online have been in an online group of friends rather than dropping into classes. In real life you can drop into a session and still get that connection with people you’ve never met. There will always be the appetite for that. It’s a great way to meet people and make friends as well. People need to express themselves. They’ll find a way but it’s the same with everything. It’s not just dance, no one wants to live like this anymore.
What could be done to make the dance sector grow again?
The key to the industry coming through this is collaboration and coming together. It is often a very isolated career and you only come together with others for certain projects. You don’t often have that opportunity to have a confidante, a business partner or somebody to bounce ideas off. What I found during lockdown is both for fitness and dance that I had somebody reach out to me asking me to collaborate for online classes. We have been working together for the last 6 months. We have become brilliant friends, but we have never met and we really supported each other and helped to create an income for each other. Kate came to me and said that she needs to work, and I needed a ballet teacher. Collaboration is going to be super important for us to come through it. Something like DanceGr!st sounds really good as much as for the emotional support as everything else.
A recent Creative Industries Federation report suggests dance will not recover fully as a sector until after 2022. Does this match your experience?
There’s so many different sides of the dance industry. If you can’t put professional performances on for audiences, then the whole of theatre is struggling. That side of the industry is having a horrible time. If you then start to lose the venues because they can’t afford it anymore…and once a company is gone, that is taking an insane amount of time to build back up.
In terms of recreational dance, I think as long as the PM is letting people into the studio and you have a studio you can provide that opportunity in, people want to move and stretch and express. Whether the professional companies can keep themselves going by branching out into those areas, I don’t know. You gotta be positive though!
- CATS Weekend Workshop and Dance Production: 26th and 27th September 2020, 9.30 am until 6pm
- Junior Dance: Jazz Commercial, Contemporary, Cheerleading for the whole term (21st September until 4th December) Mondays and Tuesdays at 5.45 pm, Thursdays at 5.30 pm
- Adult Dance: for the whole term (21st September until 4th December) Mondays at 8 pm Jazz & Contemporary, Tuesdays at 8pm Commercial & Pom Dance
- Barre Fitness & Flexibility: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm
Times are subject to change.
In addition, there will be online classes every day which Natalie offers in collaboration with other dance and fitness instructors.
Dancer and choreographer Natalie Hunt founded Mampara Dance Company (MDC) in 2011, followed by Active Body Collective (ABC) and Barre Sculpt. MDC teaches adult and junior dance and fitness across London (Spirit Young, LAMDA, Sadler’s Wells, The Urdang Academy, The Place, Sylvia Young, Arts Educational and many schools) and now also online, with programmes including ballet, jazz, commercial dance, gymnastics, cheerleading, body conditioning, Barre conditioning, flexibility, wedding and partner dance and more. Natalie studied at The Urdang Academy in London and at The BRB Dance Exchange, qualified with ISTD and BGU, and has performance credits including with Diversions Dance Company, Dynamic Dance Company and for Tony Lundon.
Featured image: Taken during the performance “Oh What A Show” on 8th December 2019 at LAMDA. Hayley Bowman, Kelsey Williams, Nikole McGillvary, Navin Nair, Tamina Koehne-Drube, Becca Lam from left to right. (c) Sam Taylor.