Janette Harkness, director of Monterey County Dance Theatre, leads students through a dance lesson on March 31, their first day back together indoors since the original pandemic shutdown of the dance studio in King City. (Sean Roney/Staff)

KING CITY — Students from Monterey County Dance Theatre were able to return to their dance studio in King City to resume indoor practice for the first time in 380 days.

Director Janette Harkness called the past year “the roller coaster of all roller coasters,” as the statewide shutdown of indoor facilities in March 2020 forced the organization to seek outdoor venues. 

The dance studio conducted practice at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds from July to August, but the heat wave, area wildfires and ensuing air pollution meant such practices became impractical or impossible. 

They then practiced at property owned by Rava Ranches starting in September, but the second massive statewide shutdown meant they were again closed to even outdoor practice in December.

The group had 150 students at the beginning of the pandemic but is now down to an estimated 40 active students. 

Only 15 may enter the dance studio at any one time due to pandemic guidelines. Students who arrive have their temperature taken before they’re allowed in.

“We’re happy to have them back,” Harkness said. “It’s been a journey of tears and love.”

She said the outdoor locations were helpful in keeping students active with dance basics, but they couldn’t replace an indoor studio. The visual elements of seeing their own movements in the mirror helps students, and having the proper floor for jumps is essential for learning moves.

“Indoors, it’s quiet and we won’t have the tractors or horses or people walking by,” Harkness said, as her students came in to prepare for class in their private environment. “They can dance freely without people looking at them, until they’re ready to be in a situation where we’re performing.”

The closures resulted in the group canceling its spring production in 2020 as well as this year’s performance. The 2020 “Nutcracker” show was also canceled. However, the group did host a virtual performance with a streamed Christmas dance.

As for future shows, Harkness said coordination largely falls in the hands of King City High School for permission to use the Robert Stanton Theater. She also is awaiting more information from the county and state in terms of progressing through the pandemic tiers and eventual full reopening of indoor venues and performances.

“Teachers teach and that’s their lifeblood, to be able to help and guide children,” Harkness said while watching students return to the dance studio for practice. “For me personally to see them is amazing.”

Without active practices or performances, as well as a lack of registration times, enrollment has declined heavily in the past year.

“We’ve been crushed,” Harkness said. “We are starting almost from scratch.”

Another delay is in bringing back the youngest students, who haven’t returned due to safety reasons.

“We’re going to start with the kids that were outdoors first, bringing them indoors to see how long it takes us to sanitize between the classes,” Harkness said. “Then we’ll think about the littles. The littles are so special because they don’t understand masks and they want to touch and feel everything and they have the space to run up and give everybody big hugs.”

Harkness said those students may return by late April or early May.

She credited the community and acts of kindness with their being able to reopen and keep the dance studio going.

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Sean Roney is a freelance reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.


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