Saratoga Springs

Outlook 2021: Pair come together during pandemic to create dance school in Saratoga Springs

Dances during creative movement class, 3-4 year-olds, by instructor and owner Cristiane Santos at Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet
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Dances during creative movement class, 3-4 year-olds, by instructor and owner Cristiane Santos at Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook

Ballet students don’t just learn dance moves.

They also learn life skills such as teamwork and perseverance — attributes that have served former professional dancers Cristiane Santos and Joan Kilgore Anderson well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The women were co-directors at The Lewis A. Swyer School of the Arts at the National Museum of Dance until COVID hit and the school shut down. Out of jobs and eager to provide former students with a way to continue their dance education, they joined forces to create Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet, a nonprofit that provides professional dance training to preprofessional students. The school opened its first studio on Geyser Road in Saratoga Springs in September of 2020, then a second one, right next door, in November.

Dance histories

Originally from Brazil, Santos grew up dancing and teaching dance in her hometown of Porto Alegre. Professional dance career opportunities are hard to come by in Brazil, she said. So she moved to New York City, where she was accepted to the Dance Theatre of Harlem school. She joined the company’s Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble, through which she gave demonstrations at public schools around the country and taught movement classes in New York City Public Schools. After marrying, she and her husband moved to Cooperstown, then to Saratoga Springs.

Kilgore Anderson grew up in central Pennsylvania. After graduating with a BFA in dance from SUNY Purchase, she danced professionally with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, then with Philadanco, the Philadelphia Dance Company. She toured nationally and internationally with that company and taught master dance classes while on tour. After marrying, she moved to Greenwich.

Kilgore Anderson and Santos met in Saratoga Springs in 2012, and have worked together ever since.

Filling a void

After The School of the Arts shut down, Santos and Kilgore Anderson offered virtual dance classes as a way to stay connected to former students.

“That can’t replace real class by any means, but at least it was something,” Kilgore Anderson said. “I try to put myself in their shoes and how it must feel to have been without classes in person for almost a year. I would have been devastated.”

Eager to resume teaching in person, Santos and Kilgore Anderson banded together to open their own school. The endeavor took teamwork, discipline, balance and perseverance — all attributes they learned as dancers. They also credit the school’s strong start to community support, assistance from their families and students’ families, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of optimism.

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“You also have to be fearless,” Santos added.

Their new ballet studios were formerly an insurance agency and a martial arts studio. The transformation involved wall removal, floor installation, electrical work and a fresh coat of paint.

“Between the time we got the first space and opened was about two weeks. We just worked nonstop,” Santos recounted.

COVID protocols

When that first studio opened in September, half the classes were offered in person and half virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Once the second studio opened, the extra space made it possible for all classes to meet in person.

COVID safety protocols are taken seriously at the studios. Cleaning occurs between each class, temperatures are checked when students arrive and everyone is required to wear a face mask at all times. Class sizes are capped below Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Those for older children include no more than 10 students, while children’s division classes have a maximum of eight.

“We have everything marked out so they know where to stand, and when they go across the floor they go one at a time,” Kilgore Anderson noted.

The school also offers a virtual option for students who don’t feel well or are more comfortable taking part from home.

“Those students, we actually project them onto the wall,” Santos explained. “We have a projector connected to the computer, so that way they are more like in the classroom with us.”

Starting the school in the midst of a global pandemic was nerve-wracking, the women agreed.

“With COVID, everything is always so fluid and it’s hard to plan, so we always have somewhere between one to three plans for the future,” Santos said with a laugh.

Kilgore Anderson added, “We always joke and say, ‘Well, this is either the smartest thing we ever did or the stupidest thing we ever did.’ ”

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So far, it looks like a smart thing. When the school opened, there were 56 students enrolled. That number has grown to about 70. Students mainly reside in Saratoga Springs, but some come from as far away as Lake George and Colonie. Many of them took classes from Santos and Kilgore Anderson in the past, but there are also new students, especially in the 3- to 6-year-old age group, who are dancing for the first time.

Class offerings

The school’s children’s division offers a creative movement class for ages 3 and 4, pre-ballet for ages 5 and 6, and ballet one for ages 7 and 8. The preprofessional division offers ballet two through ballet five for ages ranging from 8 to 19, as well as an introduction to pointe class. There are also open classes in modern dance, contemporary dance and adult ballet.

Santos and Kilgore Anderson both teach, along with two other instructors, Lisa McBride and Leanne Sweet.

As children advance through Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet’s classes, they are required to attend more frequently.

“If you play baseball, you go to practice every day after school. You don’t get to go just on Mondays. You’re not going to see improvement that way,” Kilgore Anderson explained, noting that the ballet classes she and Santos attended in their youth also increased in frequency as they progressed.

“You are going to see improvement with consistency,” she said. “No matter what talent ability or what level, if the kids are all getting the same amount of class and the same structure behind it, they’re going to progress more evenly, as opposed to one child who comes five days a week and the other that comes once.”

Beyond technique

Dance education at Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet goes beyond proper technique. Students learn a variety of life skills, including teamwork.

“There can be solos within dance, there can be soloists, there can be principal dancers, but at the end of the day, in a ballet, everyone has to work together. They have to stay in line. They have to dance in unison,” Kilgore Anderson said.

Perseverance is another skill that serves students well in a variety of pursuits.

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“You may fall on the first day. Your pirouette may not turn out right, but if you keep at it, you keep working, you get better,” Santos explained. “When you’re an adult, maybe you decide to be a lawyer. You may not pass the bar [exam] on the first try but you keep at it and then you go ahead.”

Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet instructors emphasize positivity. Corrections offered in class are framed as learning opportunities for all students.

“When you’re watching a friend, you really pay attention and you are learning with them, with a focus on, ‘What is she doing well and how can I learn with my friend?’ ” Santos explained.

The teachers benefit from the classes as well.

“The kids are so dedicated and they have such a wonderful energy,” Santos said. “This last year has been really hard on all of us and sometimes, going to class, you feel a little down. Then you get to class and they are there. They are eager to work and it just lifts you up and you feel this hope for the future.”

Kilgore Anderson said sharing her love of dance with others is a fulfilling pursuit.

“This is more than just a job. It’s like a passion. So we want to share it and pass along these things that we’ve learned to the next generation.”

Success stories

Although it’s only been open for a short time, Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet already has success stories. One student has been accepted into the summer program at the School of American Ballet, which is the associate school of the New York City Ballet. Others have been accepted into summer programs at Ballet Academy East in New York City and Boston Ballet School.

Future plans

Starting July 12, Saratoga Springs Youth Ballet will offer a small, five-week summer program, which Santos and Kilgore Anderson said they hope to expand in future summers. Once COVID restrictions ease, they also plan to have live performances, including a December Nutcracker show, and outreach programs at venues including public schools and nursing homes.

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Categories: Art, Business, Life and Arts, News, Outlook 2021, Saratoga County

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