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Georgia Robinson, 14, practises on the roof of the Alberta Ballet School in Calgary.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

When the pandemic hit, it brought unique challenges to the Alberta Ballet School in Calgary, where students as young as 13 come from around the world to train.

The renowned school, with 35 international and domestic students living in residence, was about to put on a contemporary dance performance last March when they found out they would have to close down within 24 hours.

“There were a lot of nervous teenagers in residence,” said Ashley McNeil, the school’s director.

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In talks with the provincial government, the school decided that it would be best for all students to leave.

“Our team quickly pivoted to booking flights and making sure that they’re safe,” Ms. McNeil said. “It took us about seven days to get all the students home.”

The director and her team then turned their attention to supporting students through the rest of the school year. “When you train a dancer, what can be done at home?” she said.

Like much of the world, the school went in to “Zoom mode.” It started running both pre-recorded and live classes to accommodate students in different time zones. Safety protocols with strict cleaning and social distancing standards meant musicians and teachers could come into the studio to lead the online classes.

“The students were just so happy to see faces and they really preferred the live Zoom classes, even if that meant a class at 5 in the morning,” Ms. McNeil said.

Tatyana Carr, 19, had to return home to New Zealand once the pandemic hit.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

“It was nice to have that sort of three times a week on Zoom in the morning,” said Tatyana Carr, a 19-year-old from Dunedin, New Zealand, who joined the Alberta Ballet School in 2015. “It was wonderful to still be connected as a group, even though we were so disconnected.”

Grade 9 student Georgia Robinson from Calgary appreciated how the school kept students on track. The 14-year-old was even able to dedicate extra time to training during lockdowns. “Even though sometimes it was hard, I tried to calm myself and think, ‘Why do I love dancing?’ And then I would go back to that and then I would find the love for it again,” she said.

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Georgia Robinson, who has been studying at the school for three years, saw an improvement in her training thanks to the online guides offered at the start of the pandemic.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

After the government of Canada deemed travel to study toward a diploma to be essential, the school was able to bring all of its international students back for the fall semester. “We’re kind of feeling like we have our student body back,” Ms. McNeil said.

The pandemic forced the school to modernize their approach to teaching. “We were a bit old fashioned before,” she explained. “We work with a musician and teach our classes in person and there really isn’t a lot of need for technology-type skills.”

And it had another unexpected positive effect as well. “I think this crisis has definitely pulled our team closer together. Everyone was so proud of what we were able to do despite constant obstacles.”

Janet Tait, head of senior school, professional division, teaches a class. International students were able to return once the government allowed travel for diploma studies.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

In addition to ballet training, the Alberta Ballet School also offers an accredited Grade 7 to 12 academic private school.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

During the early stages of the pandemic, the school sent national and international students home and quickly moved to online classes and training. Now open, the school has started offering an Affiliates program and welcomed new students through this online platform.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Lexine Eusebio from Calgary practices with fellow students. When the pandemic stuck, 35 international and domestic ballerinas-in-training were living at the school's residence.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Students practice by Zoom while senior teacher Murray Kilgour instructs from another studio at the school.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Lunay Wepener from Edmonton practices while maintaining physical distancing.

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

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