Photo courtesy of Dare 2 Dance.

By Nyemah Gillespie | Dare 2 Dance

CAMDEN — The devastating impact of COVID-19 on the physical health and economic wellbeing of our communities has been well documented. Rarely discussed, but equally important, is the impact of lockdowns and social distancing on the mental health of our young people. 

Anyone who has ever been a parent knows that our kids have limitless energy and need to feel connected to their peers. Zoom sessions and video games just don’t cut it. They crave real human interaction and a chance to get off the couch and move.  

It’s on us, adults, to develop creative, safe, fun, and supportive environments for our kids so that they can feel connected again.   

I run a dance studio in Camden called Dare 2 Dance. I want to share what we’ve done to create a safe environment in order to demystify the process and encourage other businesses and nonprofits to do the same.   

First, the obvious: masks. If you’re inside, you wear a mask. Period. I’ve heard so many adults argue that it’s impossible to expect kids to wear a mask. I tell those people that I have a toddler at home. Kids quickly adjust to new expectations if you hold them to it. Adults have a much harder time wearing masks than kids because it feels so unusual. But remember, for young kids, practically everything is already new and unusual! For older kids, just remember that even if they look older, their brains are wired differently than ours. All you have to do is make wearing a mask seem “cool” and they’re sold.

Now, you might have to make some adjustments to make sure the marks don’t impact your program. We learned the hard way that when teachers wear a mask in loud environments, they tend to strain their vocal chords. To make sure teachers aren’t screaming to be heard, we have purchased wireless microphone headset amplifiers.  

Tuition for Dare 2 Dance in Camden. Photo courtesy of Dare 2 Dance.

Next, social distance signage. The key to holding kids to high expectations is to make it easy for them to be successful at it. A vague direction like “don’t get too close to people” won’t work. You need clear signage for where exactly they should be at all times. In dance, a dancer is always aware of his/her “spot” anyway, usually identified with electric tape. In the current environment, all that’s changed is that we made the spots further apart and added a lot more signage! We have signage everywhere: to mark our stars’ spots, to identify sanitation stations, waiting places, and locker room assignments, and as reminders to practice social distancing and wear your mask. 

Finally, practice. You can’t expect kids to follow new rules and procedures without explicit instruction and practice. Remember your first day of school in elementary school? You learned where to put your bookbag, how to get the bathroom pass, what to do if you need to use the pencil sharpener, etc. There won’t be too much dancing in the first session of Dare 2 Dance classes this fall. Instead, kids will practice the new safety routines. I know they’ll get the hang of them quickly, and then we can move on to passés and pirouettes.  

None of this is easy. It takes work. But for the sake of our kids, we have to do it.  

At the end of August, we had online registration for our September session at Dare 2 Dance. Not surprisingly, there was overwhelming demand. In Camden, camps and student activities have been closed. Schools are starting virtually. It’s unclear when any sense of normalcy will return.  

Dare 2 Dance displays social distancing rules. Photo courtesy of Dare 2 Dance.

Parents are understandably desperate for more youth programming. Kids are desperate too. They just often express that desperation in ways that aren’t obvious to adults.  

As a city, we need to show our kids that we are listening and we are here for them. 2020 has been a really tough year so far, but a new school year means new beginnings and new opportunities for kids to be kids again. At Dare 2 Dance, we pledge to do our part to make this happen. Our new motto for this season is simple: “We Dare 2 Prepare, Practice, and Prevent.”  

NOTE: Nyemah Gillespie, a lifelong Camden resident, is the founder of Dare 2 Dance, a dance school catered to stars ages 3-18 interested in Ballet, Tap, Jazz and Hip Hop.

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