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Unbowed ‘Goddesses’ in Howard County renew their dancing together online

Misako Aoki, center, produced her first online ballet class on March 23 on Zoom.
Misako Aoki, center, produced her first online ballet class on March 23 on Zoom. (Sherry DiBari / Patuxent Publishing)

For nearly a decade, neither snow nor sleet nor waking up early on a Saturday morning could keep a group of women from their modern dance classes at the Howard County Center for the Arts. Known as the “Goddesses,” they ruled a seasoned generation of Terpsichores.

In fall 2004, Howard County arts advocate Gloria Friedman and physical therapist Bonnie Schulman gathered die-hard modern dancers (and a few seniors interested in stretching) at a studio run by Kathi Ferguson, then director of Howard County Ballet. Dance teachers from Goucher College, Towson University, Bowie State and Howard Community College were invited to teach a la Martha Graham or Alvin Ailey.

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With about a dozen regulars — the average age tipped 55 — the group was just as committed as the younger dancers from Ferguson’s ballet classes who checked out the “moderns,” though few stayed for the technique. Those who did were treated to 25 master teachers.

Goucher professor Juliet Forrest led the first sessions and inspired everyone to move their bodies in bold new ways. She taught once a month until 2012, a few years before her tragic death. Proper stretching routines were taught by dance therapist Carol Orth. A bit of Israeli folk dance with Barbara Supovitz, a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard Institute in New York City was taught, too.

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Around Halloween, the group learned Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” routine. Guest artist Kim Vetter taught authentic Congolese with live musicians in the studio. And the late Eva Anderson, a modern dance maven, shared her talent, philosophy, costume designing and tales of her African American heritage.

Teachers came and went, some moving on to other careers, and the deaths of Forrest and Anderson diminished weekly classes. Time passed, a pandemic arrived, and just last week, the Goddesses re-united, thanks to the magic of digital dance.

Currently hunkered in their homes, the Goddesses still dream of a live, human class when this plague passes, but Saturday mornings are now filled with email exchanges and smartphone tips. They’re dancing together virtually.

“Knowing that other Goddesses were in their homes moving their bodies in sync with mine, brought tears to my eyes,” said Friedman, from her Columbia home. “I felt so grateful to have the gift of dance in my life. To be sharing our Saturday morning tradition of years past, in the only way currently possible, brought me such comfort.”

Online classes not only fill the void of dancing but also the social part of the gatherings. The Goddesses may have turned in their tiaras but never loss touch completely. Towson University professor Jaye Knutson organized a group discussion after the online modern dance classes. Go to the Dance Place Facebook page for the class; the chat sessions will be conducted online via a WebEX conference site.

Zooming into dance

Misako Aoki produced her first online ballet class last Monday morning on Zoom, the conferencing app that has grabbed attention of teachers, artists and savvy tech folks. The Japanese-born ballerina/director trained at the Royal Ballet and this background powers her teaching. She did a test run last week with four students taking her beginning/intermediate class online with few glitches and lots of enthusiasm.

“I found that I can teach more details as if coaching each student … this is my strength,” Misako explained from her Ellicott City home. “Yes, it is limited, especially for jumps and turns, but I can still see what they are doing through the screen and can point out corrections.”

Misako said she felt nervous at the beginning but later thought it was almost the same as the studio.

“I did a company class and the dancers said they had learned a lot.” If you want to join a class, go to misakodance.com.

“This is a very difficult time for all small businesses, but especially for ballet studios,” said Svetlana Kravtsova, founder of L’Etoile, The Russian Academy of Maryland in Columbia. On a positive note, the feisty director is excited to start an online class for her students. If it works out on Zoom, she will add classes for the public at a small fee.

Kravtsova and her husband Vadim Pijicov are optimistic the school’s spring performance will still take place at the Jim Rouse Theatre on May 17. The couple has chosen the Glazunov Ballet, “Raymonda” with graduating senior Natalia Winik in the lead role.

Costumes have been sewn, sets are in the wings, everything is ready, but the coronavirus is here and things are on hold. Its DC Grand Prize Ballet Competition has been moved to Sept. 25-27.

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“We have many talented young dancers like Sasha Cheloff, Jeslyn Li, Lily Rhudy, Emma Pan, Charlotte Tettelin, Natalie DuCharme and many other beautiful ballerinas,” Kravtsova wrote in an email. “All of them are anxious to return to our school...at least we now have digital dance for classes and rehearsals."

For more information, contact russballet@gmail.com.

For those who prefer to take a class with no one watching, Rebecca Friedman and her partner Peter Commander invite you to join them at their Charm City Ballet studio. Local fans remember Becca Friedman as Columbia’s sweetest Sugarplum when she danced with the Howard County Ballet. She met Pete Commander, a popular teacher, at Goucher College and together they formed a company. Go to charmcityballet.com

In this unprecedented time of isolation, the Dancing Alone Together website is another source for the digital dance world.

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