The Pandemic Pivot: How Sahara Dance Went from In-Person, to Virtual, to Hybrid
By Maddie Grant, Marketing Manager, Sahara Dance
This will be a familiar story to many of you reading.... In March of 2020, Sahara Dance was a busy, buzzing belly dance studio based in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington DC, attracting students from all over the DC-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area to its curriculum-based technique classes, its wide range of fusion and specialty classes, and its deep dive workshops with world-renowned dancers coming to town. We held 3 large performances across the city each year, with our signature annual event “Under a Desert Moon” held at the Greenberg Theatre at American University in April. That show alone had over a hundred dancers each year, including several student companies from beginner to advanced levels, a professional company (Raqs Sahara) and of course beautiful guest soloists alongside our professional-level company soloists. Conducting performance classes means managing costume purchases, stage makeup tutorials, and rehearsals outside of class hours… all of which created an intensely busy dance program all 12 months of the year. We also had an in-studio souk–a small shop in the studio where we sold Sahara Dance merch as well as veils, hip scarves, costume jewelry and all the accoutrements a belly dance student might need.
At first, nobody paid much attention to the early news about COVID-19, a virus that was just starting to make headlines in January and February of 2020. It was in the news, maybe a topic of conversation here or there, but nothing really directly affecting us. The first inkling that something might be more serious was when we got a call from the Washington Convention Center, where we were about to have a small performance as part of a large tradeshow which was taking place the following Saturday. The caller told us that several attendees of the tradeshow had caught the virus. The event had not been canceled, but the organizers felt they needed to inform us. Then students started calling with questions about holding the performance. A small number decided not to perform. We began to realize that, as organizers, we had a responsibility to help keep our students safe, and we quickly made the difficult call to pull out of the show. We had never (to my knowledge) had to make a decision to cancel before, and it was depressing and nerve wracking, though we felt some relief as the situation was so strange and uncertain.
And then it snowballed.
We had a full weekend of masterclass workshops scheduled for March 13-15, 2020. The guest teacher called and said she needed to postpone because COVID had hit her midwestern town pretty hard and a family member was at risk. We decided to postpone other workshops in March and April - at first, changing the dates by a month or two. Until a month or two passed and it was clear that we would have to either continue kicking the can down the road, or really consider shutting down. Meanwhile, our classes were continuing… but more and more students were asking us what we were going to do. And our big Under a Desert Moon show was coming up, in April…
We pushed the date of the show by a few weeks. And then American University, who owns the Greenberg Theatre, announced that they were shutting down all in person activities. And then, inevitably, came the difficult decision to close the studio to in-person classes and cancel the show.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we were researching how to conduct classes online… more and more people were getting used to using Zoom at work, and we thought… can we do this? We can do this! Rachel Kay Brookmire, Sahara Dance’s director, rearranged her living room, she bought a mixer and a variety of headsets, and we tested all kinds of Zoom configurations and settings. She came up with a slate of 2 evening technique classes per day, all taught via zoom by Rachel herself. And we made some substantial changes to the website, to accommodate new online classes, new rules, new processes… a new online souk, as well, to help keep things going… Rachel called the new program Sahara Dance Together At Home.
And the students took this all in stride! They gave us lots of patience and understanding while we figured out technical issues or raged at our crappy internet connections. But they kept coming! We set up four-week class series, priced by donation only. Rachel used our empty studio to set up recording space, and recorded some on-demand videos. Pretty quickly, several of our other teachers said they would be willing to try and teach remotely, including Leilah Moon, Randa, Gretchen, Jennifer, and Crystal… and we were able to expand the offerings and extend the class series to 6 weeks at a time, still by donation. We experimented with a movie night and some lecture classes, even a book club…!
“One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that the switch to online classes gave us the opportunity to try some new things. For example we added new class topics that worked in the shorter online sessions, and had events outside of classes like our fun book club discussions via zoom.”
Gretchen, Sahara Dance Teacher
Most excitingly, one of our teachers, Omoladun, who had moved to Colorado, was back on the roster teaching from her home in Denver, and we had a growing number of students living far away from DC back dancing online with us! We were even able to offer some one-off workshops online, bringing in community favorites like Esra Wardaa and Chudney. Things started to settle in to a comfortable rhythm over the next few months.
“It was a truly exciting time to be able to reconnect with long-time students and friends when classes went online. Dancers who had left the DC area years before COVID hit were returning to take virtual classes. Despite the technical challenges, it’s been an amazing way to keep the community together”.
Omoladun, Sahara Dance Teacher
We held our first online hafla, with some Developing Choreography student performances (recorded on video then played back over zoom for the hafla) - and we had our first full online performance with a multi-class, multi-level choreography to Unveiled by Raul Fernando (many lessons learned with that one, but that’s a story for another day). And we continued to get great feedback that our belly dance community was simply grateful to be able to keep dancing, even if their at-home spaces were not ideal and their kids and pets were running around in the background.
But the backdrop to all of this was still the idea that it was all temporary - that we’d wake up one day with lockdowns and restrictions lifted, and be able to return to our studio (which had been the home for Sahara Dance for ten years!!) someday soon. But eventually, by August 2020, it became clear that there was no end in sight - no miracle cure or vaccination that made everything go away. So Rachel had to make the heartbreaking decision to let go of the studio.
We told the teachers, one by one. We put all the dressing room furniture and the front desk up for sale on Craigslist. Things started to go out the door. The curtain backdrops came down, the belly dance pictures were taken off the walls, the faculty cubbies were emptied… and we turned the lights off and locked the door. Poignantly, our SD teacher Jennifer recorded a solo video in honor of Mahmoud Reda that ended with her walking down the stairs and leaving the studio, pausing to blow a kiss… More than a few tears were shed that day and when that video was shared…
But belly dancers are resilient!
It’s now just about a year later as I’m writing this article, in March 2022. By some miracle, the studio space was never leased and just sat empty for a year, so we were able to reopen in partnership with a local yoga studio. But this time, we are a hybrid studio with all new tech - all in-person classes are capped for social distancing, and all in-person students also have access to the zoom links provided for online students.
“Teaching belly dance via Zoom was an interesting challenge - my cats like to ‘help’ me teach and I basically had a full studio set up in my living room for a year and a half - but it was important for me to stay connected with my Sahara Dance students and it gave me the opportunity to reach new students that would not have been able to attend in person. I’m now adjusting my own teaching practice to accommodate both in-person and online students which is another learning curve - but I’m so happy to be back in our space on
Leilah Moon, Sahara Dance Teacher
We currently have a huge schedule of online and in-person classes, we were able to complete our 16th annual retreat in beautiful Costa Rica, and we are even planning our first in-person (but outdoor) show since 2020, taking place April 8 at the All Hallows Ampitheatre at the Washington National Cathedral!
We are prepared, should the worst happen again, to pivot to all online again, but we’re also SO HAPPY to be back together in person. Every returning student who walks through the doors the first time has the same teary but joyful look on their face - it’s great to be able to dance online but it’s just not the same as the energy you feel when dancing next to your friends. Yallah!