American Girl Connects with the Big City through Virtual Dance Education: A perspective from a homeschooling Mom during Covid-19

Magnolia Burke, Age 9 | Photo © Todd Burke, July 2020

Introduction: My name is Emily Burke, and my husband, Todd, and I, are parents of four children. We live just outside of a small town in Eastern Washington State, on two acres in the country. Though we homeschool our children, they are all involved in many activities. Magnolia, my youngest at age nine, is our dancer. 

AWB: How did Magnolia get started in dance?

E: Like many babies, Magnolia showed love for music and began creative movement as an infant. She continued to express herself through dance as she got older, and began asking to take classes when she was three years old. She was five before we were able to enroll her in dance classes at a local studio, beginning that year with a pre-ballet class. That first year she danced as an angel in the studio’s production of The Snow Queen, and seeing her beam on stage, I became fully committed to supporting her in any way that I could.

Magnolia Burke, Age 8, Little Red Riding Hood | Photo © Todd Burke, June 2019

AWB: What is it like to home-school your daughter and support her desire to become a Ballerina while living in the country, away from the big city? 

E: Our oldest daughter, Izabelle, was just a toddler when she was diagnosed with Autism and Epilepsy and shortly after, we made the decision to homeschool her and have continued to do so with our other children. I could not have foreseen how helpful this would be for Magnolia, but it gives us flexibility that is invaluable for her training.  

It can be a challenge to pursue the arts in a small town but we are grateful to have multiple dance studios and an amazing theater at our public high school. I really could not be more proud of the productions that have been put on, nor grateful for the opportunities Magnolia has had.  

Last year, her desire to push harder towards her goals in ballet led us to seek out a private instructor in the city nearest us. That meant a significant cost in resources, both of finances and time, so we had not been able to get her there as often as we would have liked. We were just beginning to explore the possibility of supplementing her in-person lessons with some online, when the pandemic hit.

Magnolia Burke Family: Clockwise from upper left: Izabelle (18), Todd, Emily, Annika (15), Magnolia (9), and Oliver (13) | Photo © Todd Burke, July 2020

AWB: In what ways has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your family?

E: We have been incredibly lucky, relatively speaking, with the COVID-19 pandemic. My husband’s job is our sole income but he is a software engineer for a utility company and is able to do his work entirely from home. Having been homeschoolers already, we were not impacted when schools were closed, but we have missed our local library terribly. Magnolia has become quite proficient in digitally downloading books from various sources – a wonderful resource for a bibliophile like her!

In January, the entire family got terribly sick with some kind of non-flu virus. It may have been COVID-19, but tests for that were not being done in our County at that time. My husband developed pneumonia and was hospitalized in the Acute Care Unit of the hospital for several days, and months later now, is still experiencing a terrible cough and chest congestion. His doctor has advised that he take every precaution to not be infected with COVID-19 with his given symptoms and health issues. Magnolia’s siblings, as well as myself, all have autoimmune disease, so the need to do what we can to stay safe is taking priority over all else. The kids’ activities have all taken the biggest hit. Our 15 year old daughter, Annika, just returned to competitive swimming practice, with very strict precautions in place.  Magnolia and her brother, 13 year old Oliver, have been able to continue their Taekwondo training online.  

In the beginning, Magnolia would diligently go out to her studio and go through the exercises and barre work her private lesson instructor had given her. She was able to take some zoom and youtube classes with her local studio, as well. Eventually, the local studio decided to stop doing online classes, and her motivation began to waver. I began to look into other online class options and those have made all the difference for Magnolia to continue her training.

Magnolia Burke, Age 9 | Photo © Todd Burke, July 2020

AWB: What drew you to the Art Without Borders Virtual Program?

E: From the beginning, I was very impressed with the Art Without Borders New York organization. The idea of Magnolia being able to take classes with dancers of the New York City Ballet seemed too good to be true, and I was honestly quite intimidated. I was not sure if Magnolia had high enough skills to manage in a class of this caliber. I spoke with the Founder and CEO, Iskritsa Ognianova and she was so helpful and encouraging. We decided to try a class and it was the best decision I have made in a long time!

AWB: Do you feel Magnolia is able to get the training she needs through online classes?

E: There are certainly challenges with online classes, but I’ve seen the teachers step up to the technical challenges, and Magnolia learn to take a deep breath while the connection glitches and then start in wherever the class is at, as soon as it recovers. There are inevitably interruptions and challenges in any format, and thus far, any downsides to the online classes are more than made up for by the prodigious opportunities. With tools like Zoom, she is able to hear and see her teachers demonstrate, just as she would see them in person. The instructors are then able to approach their own screen to get a good look at the students, give feedback, and then watch those students take corrections and improve. If needed, I adjust the camera to ensure they can see her at whatever angle is needed. The amount that Magnolia has been able to learn and improve in the past few weeks of online classes has been astounding. This “virtual” method has provided concrete advantages that will benefit Magnolia far beyond this pandemic.  

AWB: What positive aspects do you think may come out of this overall experience?

E: I worry about the performing arts community and the challenge they are all facing, but I do think they are reaching people they may never have been able to reach before. As someone who has not been able to attend many live performances, or travel to an arts mecca like New York, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that have been presented to enjoy the performing arts online during the pandemic. Programs like “The Shows Must Go On” via YouTube, The Seattle Symphony’s broadcasts of past performances, and these Ballet classes through Art Without Borders New York, have all brought the performance arts into our personal homes, and it has honestly been the most magnificent gift.  

AWB: What is Magnolia’s current dance space like at home?

E: In the beginning, she would take her online classes in our living room – after some furniture shuffling and with many video-bombs by our cats and dogs! I even got rid of some furniture to make that transition easier!

Eventually, we got an Internet connection working in the shop we have on our property. The previous owner was a builder, and his business operated out of that shop, which also had a room dedicated to painting doors and trim. We have allocated that room and used some savings given to Magnolia by a very generous relative, to install plyometric rubber flooring over the concrete, with marley vinyl over that. My husband installed a couple of mirrors and we brought out a moveable barre that Magnolia had purchased with Birthday and Christmas money the year prior. Now we have a little studio that we’ve named, “The Yodajo” – for yoga, dance, and a martial arts dojo.

Realizing this method of learning was going to go on for the foreseeable future, we recently expanded the flooring area to 10 feet by 15 feet, purchased a higher quality webcam, and added a television so the view of her class is a bit bigger and clearer then the eight year old laptop we use for streaming provides. Our older two daughters both love to draw and paint so they are adding their personal artwork on the walls of the Yodajo over time, so it is a bit of an art studio, as well. There is one last surprise – a tiny, LED disco ball, for family dance parties!

Magnolia Burke, Age 9 | Photo © Todd Burke, July 2020

AWB: Has this experience brought you closer as a family?

E: While we are being cautious with our health, this experience has shown my family that we are tough and resourceful. The kids have all found creative ways to keep pursuing the things that are most important to them. Though it has been tough at times, we have settled into our extensive time at home and found creative ways to spend our time, and we are grateful to have each other and our home.

AWB: How do you think your family will move forward following the hopeful end of this pandemic?

E: It already feels as strange to think of life after this pandemic as it did to face the changes when we were first thrown in! I would imagine that the transition into a life a bit more like we had in the past, will be quite gradual. I hope that we will all be a bit stronger, more resilient, and appreciative of each other and the gifts that we have. Beyond that, I am hopeful that Magnolia will be able to continue to have the special opportunities to pursue her dreams like she has been given thanks to programs like Art Without Borders New York and their wonderful teachers.  

AWB: Do you expect that Magnolia will continue training online? If so, what benefits do you think could come from that?

E: I certainly would like this pandemic to be over tomorrow, but do hope that she can continue training online. She would definitely want to see her dance friends in person, and be able to perform on stage, but we will absolutely prioritize her ability to continue taking classes this way as long as they are available to her.

We had spoken to her private lesson teacher of the possibility of her auditioning for the summer program at the School of American Ballet next year when she will be old enough for their Young Dancer Series in New York City, but if she were accepted, the challenge of funding the travel and tuition may be more than we can manage for many years. Being able to take classes of that caliber online, is truly invaluable for her. 
AWB: What are Magnolia’s future aspirations?

E: I am laughing as I compose this answer with her strutting into the room in some high heels, five sizes too big, with giant sunglasses, and more sass than can be contained in this small town!

Ballet is her foremost passion, and I believe she will always dance. The opportunity to perform is her drive, and she shows interest and promise in other forms of dance, as well as acting and singing. I have been fascinated to see these incredible dancers also show wonderful teaching skills. Magnolia recently made some videos posted on YouTube teaching a beginning ballet class for her young cousin in Germany who wants to learn ballet like her, so teaching is a definite possibility as well.

AWB: Do you see Magnolia on the big stage one day?

E: I know that it is an incredibly challenging and lofty goal for her to perform on the big stage one day, but I absolutely believe that she has the drive and talent to make it happen. I have always believed it takes an additional thing to make it in the performing arts:  the right opportunities. The past month of her taking classes through Art Without Borders New York has felt like the type of opportunities she will need. While I would never have wished for a pandemic, the silver lining may be the gift of these opportunities for her.