Dancing lightens up the faces of dancers at the Morton Street Studio in Baltimore. (Photos courtesy of Morton Street Studio)

By Beverly Richards,
Special to the AFRO

You can find a cornucopia of dancers of various skin tones and sizes at Morton Street Dance Center (MSDC).  Diversity and inclusion have been the cornerstone of the Center since its inception 30 years ago. “We come with many different forms and shapes, and everyone can move,” said Donna L. Jacobs, director and founder of MSDC. “I wanted [dance] to be accessible.” 

The youngest students study creative movement and pre-dance which offer a fun introduction to ballet and modern dance. Older dancers receive technical training in classical ballet, pointe, pre-pointe, modern, tap, jazz, hip-hop and African dance. 

But in early 2020, dancing came to a screeching halt due to COVID. “When the music changes, so does the dance,” according to an African proverb. That is exactly what Jacobs did when the pandemic shut down the country. She pivoted. “It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in running the school, hands down,” she said. 

A grand jete makes a dancer feel as if she’s flying. (Photos courtesy of Morton Street Studio)

For Jacobs, her professionally trained faculty and students, dance is essential, necessary. Dance, she explains, is the best preparation for life and is “150% essential. It gives children so much context to their lives. They learn about themselves, about discipline, about the art, about entrepreneurship, about leadership, about working with others and peers, and a sense of mastery. It shows where you are in relationship to the world and how well you can do something,” she said, clarifying why her decision was so tough.  

But with what she knew, closing was the right choice. At the time, Jacobs was working for a local health system, and had early access to information about what to expect and what was coming in terms of the effects of the pandemic. Thinking it might be two to three weeks, she made the decision in mid-March, 2020, to close before there was a lot of information. “Little did any of us know its magnitude at the time. But I did not want to be the center of an outbreak. I did not want to see our children get sick. And at the time we thought it was a disease that was impacting or expected to impact the elderly.”

Determined not to be deterred, Jacobs and the MSDC faculty went to their students’ homes. They shifted to an online paradigm. “Zoom was a brand new thing at the time for most people. It took us a while to get the equipment and to figure it out.” Once up and running Jacobs put two teachers on each class so that one could teach, one could watch, and the level of training could remain. “I did not want them to lose their technical skill that they’d been working on.”

The little ones huddle in preparation for the next step. (Photos courtesy of Morton Street Studio)

Jacobs also knew that staying connected through dance would help in keeping up her students’ morale. Some, she shared, didn’t have other children to talk to and needed to stay linked. “The effects of COVID and the impact that it’s had from a mental health perspective on families and children, their loss of being able to go to school and be around people was great.”

MSDC is a springboard for students to dance professionally. “In fact, one of our students just returned from dancing at the Kennedy Center for several weeks under the guidance and choreography of one of Alvin Ailey’s former principal dancers. She’s a senior in high school, and she was dancing with college seniors.” Many of Jacobs’ students have gone onto undergraduate programs in dance. Others use it as a recreational tool. “But most don’t let go of it. That’s what I did. I practiced law. I worked for a major university system doing healthcare, but I always came back to [dance].”

Jacobs and her team are dedicated to the children, always looking for what’s new and what can be improved in their service delivery. Her dancers are taught the precise movements of ballet, and how to move fluidly and effortlessly. And when asked what one ballet move best describes MSDC, she answered, “the grand jete.” It is a big, spectacular leap where you try to stay suspended in the air with your legs in a split. It’s magnificent!” And so are the dancers that hail from Morton Street Dance Center.

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