The year 2020 began with great promise and expectation for dance teacher Michelle Pieterse.
Her dance classes were jam-packed with eager students who were painstakingly training and preparing for months, for a much-anticipated World Dance Challenge Finals in Portugal.
Pieterse, the owner of the Michelle Leibrandt School of Dance studio, in Wonderboom, Pretoria, was incredibly excited for the European journey too, having worked endlessly with her students to get them prepared for one of the most exciting dance competitions in the world.
Within days of jumping on a plane to Portugal however, Pieterse and her students' dreams came crashing down as the Covid-19 pandemic put a halt to everything.
Now, not only did Pieterse have to deliver the bad news to her students that their much-anticipated trip to Portugal was cancelled, but there was also a big possibility that they could lose all their money invested in the trip.
What would follow in the next few months is a journey of struggle and resilience, as Pieterse battles to keep her dance studio open during the pandemic.
Several of her students began leaving the dance studio for a number of reasons, including new financial and economic limitations of the parents also affected by the pandemic.
“The studio was immediately affected by the lockdown,” Pieterse told The Saturday Star.
“Students dropped from 130 dancers to 55 in a matter of weeks after the lockdown was announced.
“Financially I could cover some of the studio bills, but couldn’t pay myself a salary or afford any of the guest teachers.
“I couldn’t force students to stay, but I had to do everything in my power to keep them.
“Out of the 55 that remained, not all of them could afford dancing, but I couldn’t turn them away.
“I had parents phoning me and saying, ’my child lives to dance, it’s all she wants to do, but I have no income, my business is in debt, I can’t afford dancing anymore, what can we do?’
“So I said she must stay, you’ll pay again when you can.
“Let’s at least keep our children motivated and positive during this terrible time.”
Pieterse had sleepless nights trying to figure out how to keep her studio open while also motivating her students.
Through prayer she realised the only way to instil hope and inspire them to achieve their dreams for 2020 is to give her students a platform to showcase their hard work.
So she came up with the idea of producing a film that will document her students' progress through lockdown as well as the battles and challenges she faces.
This has resulted in the birth of an inspiring documentary Pointe Shoes, Prayers and A Pandemic, which was officially released online in South Africa yesterday (Fri).
The documentary was filmed in September 2020 and produced, written and directed by acclaimed screenwriter/producer Ferdinand W Gernandt, with Pieterse as executive producer.
“I wanted to produce a film to tell my testimony of how God guided me through every obstacle I faced in 2020, and that through obeying and trusting in Him, it was possible to produce something good.”
Pieterse says the documentary is a story of hope and faith.
“It’s an intimate film showing the challenges and darkest of times I faced as a teacher.
“Students share how they experienced the global pandemic, their fears and struggles and we also look at it from a parent’s perspective.
“The motivation was to create a platform for my dancers to show their hard work and growth through a very uncertain year and pay testament of how God guided us to achieve one of our biggest goals to date.
“I wanted the dancers to see how they can inspire others with their talent, how they can be the change.”
She saw the film as an ideal opportunity to inspire her students as the pandemic had brought about several unseen challenges.
“The thing that got to me the most, was every email or phone call of students leaving the studio.
“It wasn’t just about the financial loss, but it was heart-breaking as a teacher to lose a student when you have invested so much time and effort into them.
“We are a family, and we were losing family members. Trying to stay positive was hard.
“More sadness came when all competitions, eisteddfod, annual show and exams were cancelled.
“Theatres were closed until further notice. The students suddenly had nothing to work towards.
“There was no platform or opportunity for them to perform anymore.
“Yes, there were a few online dance competitions, but only 15% of my students were solo dancers.
“There was no place for the rest.”
The pandemic also forced Pieterse to reinvent her training methods, as lockdown regulations made it difficult for her to operate normally.
“With the first three weeks of lockdown I wanted to keep students healthy and fit at home.
“We worked hard during the first term and the dancers could afford a short break from regular classes.
“I just wanted to make sure they kept moving.
“I focused on body-condition.
“So I gave them a fitness and stretching programme daily in the form of a fun video with funky music.”
“They were asked to send me videos of them doing the programme.
“The programmes were family friendly so all siblings and parents could join in.
“I also started sending programmes to individual students to record and send back to me and then editing the final video with them demonstrating – they loved to be featured and this gave my own body a bit of a rest.”
“To keep it interesting, I asked former students who have emigrated, to challenge our studio from their country with a fitness routine and vice versa.
“I made videos of throwing pointe shoes from one student to the other. All individual videos, edited into one.
“It was so much fun, but then the lockdown was extended and I had to find a way to continue more focused dance classes online.”
Having to teach dance classes online wasn’t easy however, says Pieterse.
“I had to upgrade the WiFi to a fibre line, get a new laptop, purchase online editing programmes to be able to make long videos for classes. I suddenly had more expenses, but less income.
“Dance is a physical art, so to teach over Zoom or video links was extremely challenging. All lesson plans had to be re-done. This took so much of my time. I had to take into consideration that most students do not have non-slip mats, sprung floors, ballet barres or space at home.”
“The class structure had to still have all the elements of the class, but I had to invent new ways of doing them to ensure my students don’t get injuries, fall behind on syllabus work or prevent bad habits from forming.
“Advanced dancers were easier to train, because they were already technically strong and understood corrections but when it came to the youngsters I had to really think out of the box.”
Pieterse says it was also a challenge instilling hope in her students when everything had fallen apart due to the pandemic.
“It was tough in the beginning,” she says. “I could see they needed something more to motivate them, but everything was cancelled and theatres were closed. What could I do? I cried behind closed doors and smiled in front of my students.”
“Close to breaking point, I sat at God’s feet in desperation for an answer, a breakthrough. I realised I needed to give them a platform to perform again. Something different. Not a stage and not a YouTube video.
“Then it was as clear as daylight – produce a documentary and share our testimony. “So when I shared with them the idea of Pointe Shoes, Prayers and A Pandemic it was like load-shedding had ended and all their faces lit up again. Passion started burning again, dreams came to life.”
Pieterse says she hopes the documentary serves as motivation to her students and other youth that anything is possible even when everything is against you.
“As a teacher, I wanted to show my students what they are capable of and give them a product that they can show their children one day. Show dancers that through their art they can make a difference and not just win medals at competitions.”
“This was the perfect time to show them how they are stronger together, working towards one goal instead of competing with one another.To share our testimony of hope and faith. Inspire and instil hope in every viewer.”
Despite the documentary only officially launching in SA yesterday, it has already garnered great attention locally and internationally.
The film has received its first official international festival selection by The Lift-Off Sessions.
Pieterse says she’s delighted by the feedback she’s received so far.
“Excited is an understatement. The students and myself (and the dance moms) are in awe of what Ferdi, Andries, Gavin, Marlee and Frans created.
“We are humbled by incredible feedback so far. All glory to God! Even prior to the release we have garnered great attention locally and internationally which is amazing.”
Pointe Shoes, Prayers and A Pandemic is available for free online screening worldwide for a limited period until March 1.
In order to view the film, pre-register online at www.andscene.live via “On Demand”