Many of this morning's students outside the "GMA" studios with the five teachers in the front row. Chava Lansky.

How Taking Class With 300 Dancers in Front of the "Good Morning America" Studios Reminded Me Why I Love Ballet

At 6:30 this morning, I exited the subway in Times Square and walked towards the group of dancers gathered outside the "Good Morning America" studios. The moment I entered the fray, any lingering early morning grogginess disappeared; the energy in the crowd was palpable. By 7 am, the time that "GMA" goes live to millions nationwide, over 300 dancers of all stripes had gathered, and class began.


Last Thursday, the dance world exploded in response to "GMA" host Lara Spencer's flippant on-air remarks about 6-year-old Prince George's love of ballet class. The ballet community objected not only to the continued stigmatization against male dancers, but to a public figure bullying a child for doing what he loves. As the news spread, dancers took to social media to share their anger, their personal stories of being victims of bullying, the benefits of training dance for boys and to call for a response from Spencer.

Though Spencer posted a generic apology to her personal Instagram page last Friday, it did little to soothe the nerve her comments had struck. She later conducted an interview with influential male dancers Robbie Fairchild, Travis Wall and Fabrice Calmels, which "GMA" aired on today's show.

Fairchild and Wall, joined by Alex Wong, Sam Quinn and Charlie Williams, built on the momentum by organizing and teaching today's impromptu ballet class. In a rallying cry shouted into a megaphone before pliés began, the leaders stressed that the aim of the class was positive, designed to put the stigmatization of male dancers on a nationwide platform for the first time.

One argument raised in the past few days against Spencer's actions has been that dance training is undeniably beneficial; a change.org petition with more than 35,000 signatures so far is urging "GMA" to use its immense resources to produce a segment on just that. While moving in a mass of 300 dancers this morning, I was reminded of just a few of those benefits.

Discipline

In their opening remarks, the class' leaders read a message that Mikhail Baryshnikov had shared for the occasion, including the line, "Ballet taught me everything I know." As dancers of all ages, dressed in everything from sneakers and sweatpants to leotards and pointe shoes, dutifully stretched in the chilly morning air, I was struck by the incredible work ethic that ballet imparts on its students. These dancers voluntarily left their homes before sunrise to get themselves to Times Square (a place I try to avoid at any time of the day) to take class on a concrete plaza riddled with potentially dangerous columns and sculptures. And better yet, they seemed unfazed, exhibiting complete focus and pausing only to laugh at the absurdity of their makeshift studio.

Chava Lansky after class

Caroline Shadle, Courtesy Lansky

Confidence

Ballet forces even the shyest among us to put ourselves on display. Today, everyone, no matter their level of training, had an equal chance to present themselves. After class I approached 11-year-old School of American Ballet student Alex Stahl, one of the many young boys in attendance. He cautiously answered my questions before his mother, Heather Stahl, jumped in. "As you can see he's kind of a quiet kid, but he comes alive when he's in class and when he's dancing," she said. "That is why he had to be here and be a part of all of this."

Collaboration

The five teachers came up with combinations together, excitedly building on each other's ideas. This sense of collaboration reminded me of a central tenet of ballet: Before a dancer can become a star, they have to learn to be a part of the group. This idea extended to every aspect of this morning's class: When the back few rows of dancers couldn't hear what was being said, participants closer to the front would turn around and translate, shouting the steps or demonstrating with their hands. When the sounds of the pianist were drowned out by drilling from a nearby construction site, everyone jumped in, clapping and singing in rhythm to allow the final groups to finish their turn across the "floor" (sidewalk). As 12-year-old Julian Correa, a student at Ballet Hispánico, told me, "This brought male dancers together and made us even stronger, believing even more in each other and in ourselves."

Community

The ballet community may be small, but it's shown itself yet again to be mighty. An ephemeral art form, its preservation is deeply reliant on intergenerational communication. It was thrilling today to watch young students dance so closely to their idols. During grand allégro, New York City Ballet soloist Harrison Coll partnered a young School of American Ballet student, lifting him high off the ground in a grand jeté, much to the delight of both dancers. "This all brought me back to when I was a kid; I lost a lot of friends for doing ballet," Coll said later. "You're forced to be brave and resilient. This seemed like an opportunity to inspire those younger boys who are going through that."

At the end of the class, I touched base with Wong, asking him what the organizers were hoping to get out of the class. "More than anything this was just kind of more for us, for the boys who heard those comments or didn't even hear them, to feel that support from so many dancers," he said. "We just wanted to make it something special to show the support in the dance community."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021