- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - It was a long night for Tommy Bettin.

His dance studio, Fred Astaire Dance Studio Richmond in Chesterfield County, would close after one final day of ballroom dance classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His mind would not shut down until he formulated a plan.

“A lot of people are living in a state of fear,” said Bettin. “To me, that’s what makes dancing more needed now than ever.”

“When you are dancing, your mind becomes more optimistic from your physiology,” he said, because one breathes deeper, improves posture and increases confidence when one stands straight.

The next day, March 17, Bettin shared his plan, The Social Distancing Dance Challenge, with students and instructors. Students would measure an area in their homes. Their instructors would choreograph a dance to their favorite song using this space. Classes would be discounted 50%.



The challenge culminates on Fiesta Night after the studio reopens. Students will perform the dances they learned at home and compete for prizes.

It was the “most extraordinary thing” to see their enthusiastic response. To see the “speed and certainty and ultimate levels of commitment,” said Bettin. “That’s what made it happen.”

Students were willing to adapt and the instructors were willing to make it work, he said.

Technology was not the only challenge. All six instructors - three married couples from the Ukraine - had to overcome communicating with accents. Since they were not in the studio, they could not physically show a dance move or arm motion to their students.

Kyrylo Kapustinskyi incorporated props during a recent virtual class. Shaking a pom pom in front of his laptop, he welcomed first-time student Georgia Brown. His goal was for her to “have fun.” Cradling his laptop in his right arm, he counted steps as he danced across the floor.

The studio continues to teach virtually seven days a week. The studio offers free group lessons Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m.; and La Blast exercise classes to dance music Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 12:45 p.m. on the Fred Astaire Richmond Facebook page via Facebook Live. First-time private virtual lessons are free.

As a result, out of 180 Fred Astaire Dance Studios worldwide, Richmond is teaching the most private dance lessons during the pandemic, up to 50% more than any other franchise.

The shutdown has also “brought us closer together,” said Bettin. Students stay in touch during weekly Zoom meetings with instructors. Ideas about costumes and choreography are shared.

During a recent meeting time, students surprised their instructors with a drive-by parade. Waving and blowing kisses, students in 20 cars drove past the studio entrance.

It was drizzling, but the instructors could read the signs: “We love you!” “We miss you!”

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