Monterey County Dance Theatre Artistic Director Jan Harkness (left) guides students through the initial steps of an outdoor dance class Aug. 13 at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds in King City. (Photos by Sean Roney)

SALINAS VALLEY — Monterey County Dance Theatre found an outside-the-box solution to teaching dance to area youth by taking lessons outdoors.

Last Monday, Aug. 10, was the first day students from throughout South Monterey County gathered at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds’ Steinbeck Square in King City, and the dancing has continued with frequent classes limited to 12 students per lesson.

The outdoor venue operates differently than the dance studio due to Covid-19 health protocols. Students check in one-by-one after being dropped off by their parents, wash their hands, then space apart to have 10 feet of distance between each other at all times.

Dance student Melanie Garcia from Soledad washes her hands before entering the class area at the fairgrounds.

Jan Harkness, artistic director of the Dance Theatre, said the group experienced multiple shutdowns and had to figure out a solution to continue dance education.

First, they had to close their building on March 16 due to the general closure of nonessential businesses, then were allowed to reopen June 19, but had to wait until the studio was outfitted with new gear, such as sneeze guards and contactless soap dispensers, to be in compliance with the protocols.

The dance school reopened July 6 and was able to operate for five days before being forced to close again when Monterey County’s status on the Covid-19 watch list triggered a state-order shutdown.

“We then were without a place to dance until I talked to the county, and they said, ‘Can you find an outdoor location?’” Harkness said.

And that’s precisely what she set out to find.

“We’re highly appreciative of the Salinas Valley Fair, and TJ (Plew), and the Monterey County Dance Foundation for allowing us to find a place for the children,” Harkness said.

Fourth-year dance student Noemi Guillen of Soledad said, “I’m really happy that I got to get out here again because I was really bored in the house and I really like ballet.”

Fellow dancer Dylan Villasenor of King City, who said she is also a member of the local 4-H Club, agreed.

“I think it’s nicer out here because there’s fresh air and nature,” Villasenor said. “I’m very thankful that they managed to get this spot. I’ve actually been practicing at home still.”

Dylan Villasenor (right) follows dance lesson instructions during an outdoor ballet class conducted by Monterey County Dance Theatre at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds in King City.

There are challenges that come along with practicing outdoors, such as the lack of studio floors and equipment. Rather than a wall-mounted ballet barre, the students use folding chairs. Jumps and spins aren’t practiced due to the nature of dancing on a cement audience area for the Steinbeck Stage.

“Our shoes get torn and it’s a lot hotter,” Guillen said.

Harkness had a pair of torn dance shoes to show as an example.

“We’re using socks and we have another shoe besides a ballet slipper they are adjusting to,” she said.

Street shoes and jazz shoes with light soles are also alternatives.

“We’re training at about 3/4 of what we would normally do,” Harkness said, referring to the limitations of outdoor classes. “We’re on strength building,

developing musicality and continuing on with the basic techniques.” She added, “We’re limited right now, but we’re happy to be dancing,”

Outdoor dance lessons continue indefinitely for the Dance Theatre, as its ability to return to the dance studio relies on Monterey County receiving an all-clear from the state regarding its status on the Covid-19 watch list. To do that, it would require getting the infection numbers under control for 14 days, which hasn’t been the case in weeks as the infection rates continue to climb.

“When we get off the watch list, we’re back home,” Harkness said. “That’s my hope and then we stay off the watch list so we don’t have to leave it again.”

Monterey County Dance Theatre currently has students from Soledad, Greenfield, King City, Bitterwater, San Antonio and San Lucas.

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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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