Lockdown story: COVID-19’s effect on an educational arts program

During the pandemic, Johnston’s Donna Tellier, Founder and Director of Johnston Dance and Performing Arts (J-DAPA), had to halt all programming for her students. With nearly all her efforts to keep her 14-year-old enrichment program alive meeting with frustration, concern began to grow about the survival of her after-school work in Johnston with K-12 students.

Her season usually consists of a fall and spring musical, and winter and spring recitals. The program specializes in working with young people who are interested in learning the technical aspects of putting on a show. They gain experience by learning from trained professionals. Her staff varies in age range and experience, she said. She added about her team, “We all have one thing in common – a passion to teach the arts and instill a love for performing in the hearts of all of our students.”

 DONNA-TELLIER
DONNA TELLIER

Heeding the call of economic hardship among RI’s arts community due to the pandemic, RISCA administered $1 million in Covid Relief Funds (CRF) to artists, professional arts education associations, and arts and culture organizations. The funds provided badly needed assistance to members of the arts and culture community who were suffering losses.

To fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on educational arts programs like Tellier’s J-DAPA, we asked Tellier to describe her experience.

Q: How has COVID-19 affected your work?

Donna Tellier: Unfortunately, due to COVID 19 we were not allowed to have our program in the schools. After careful consideration, I have decided to hold off on recitals until Johnston schools allow all regular indoor after school activities.

We started to hold virtual classes and rehearsals for our school musical Matilda. We were hoping to have a few weeks of free review classes, followed by an outdoor recital but ran into some liability issues. We tried to have a recital in a church hall but again, were faced with more liability issues. We even considered live streaming the recital on YouTube, but we were not able to find a location to record the dancers that was safe. Each potential plan that we came up with led us to a road block every time.

Q: Because of the pandemic, what changes and adjustments have you had to keep your program viable?

Donna Tellier: Personally, it breaks my heart that our students haven’t had the chance to wear their costumes and perform the routines that they worked so hard on, but the safety of our J-DAPA family is, and always will be our main concern. Rest assured, we will keep trying to make this happen as soon as possible.

I don’t know when after school programs will he allowed back in the high school, that is why, thanks to the RISCA CRF Grant, we have some help covering some of our losses. I was glad that our lighting technician mentioned that he heard about the grant on Facebook. Even with the incredible amount of support and donations that we have received during these very difficult times, J-DAPA is struggling to stay afloat.

I am looking for a new home for the program to continue. I am currently in the process of searching for a building to rent because after school programs are not allowed in the schools. I am hoping to find a place to hold classes and rehearsals safely and continue to offer classes at a low rate. If anyone has any connections or leads to a space that we could rent for little to no cost, please let us know.

Q: Can you tell us about you and your work in the arts?

Donna Tellier: As a young girl from a large lower income family I loved dance and theater and the confidence it gave me, especially because I was a very shy child. However, the cost of dance lessons and performance costumes were always too expensive for my parents, and therefore I was pulled from my love of the arts whenever my family couldn’t afford it.

I vowed that someday I would start a program for families like mine, for children like me. When my children started elementary school, I offered the idea of a dance and theater program to their school principal. Then, I presented our idea to the school committee, and we were approved.

In 1998, I started Thornton Dance and Performing Arts. All the money raised from performances and classes went back into the program to help make classes affordable for less fortunate children whose families could not afford dance classes.

In 2007, we changed the name to Johnston Dance and Performing Arts (J-DAPA) combining our Thornton program to create a fully inclusive program to the community and surrounding communities in Rhode Island. By late summer of 2016, J-DAPA finally became a state recognized nonprofit organization.

We offer many different types of dance including lyrical, ballet, tap, hip – hop, jazz and acro, as well as acting classes and singing lessons. Our season typically consists of a fall musical, winter recital, spring musical and spring recital.