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Central Florida Dance School Expands Amidst Pandemic

Upon reopening, ME Performing Arts instituted guidelines in accordance with the CDC to maintain a safe environment for patrons.

Central Florida Dance School Expands Amidst Pandemic

In a state just shy of 2 million total Covid-19 cases, a premier dance school has successfully operated and expanded, held performances, and provided student and professional dancers with a safe space to train and grow.

In 2011, accredited dancer Marshall Ellis founded ME Dance, Inc., a charity to support dance events and artists within Orlando, Florida. Three years later, he expanded, introducing the Marshall Ellis Dance School and the ME Theatre, now known as ME Performing Arts Center, to provide dancers with a professional training environment and performance space. Inspired by a passion to educate others on why dance is important, Ellis has continued to develop the reach of his programs, even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Almost a year ago, the Marshall Ellis Performing Arts Center and its encompassing programs (ME Performing Arts) joined millions of other businesses in shutting their doors in response to the influx of Covid-19 cases throughout the United States, specifically Florida. The sudden and rapid growth of the virus made it unclear when in-person activities and gatherings could resume, and Ellis, with the health and safety of others in mind, did not hesitate to follow CDC guidelines.

"Closing was the right decision," Ellis said. "With very little information about the virus we had to choose the safest option and to follow local guidance."

ME Performing Arts is also home to the Dance Theatre of Orlando-a company of a selected few elite dancers whose goal is to expand the professional dance community of Central Florida while spreading the power of dance. Due to the temporary closure of ME Performing Arts Center, and in order to slow the spread of the virus, the Dance Theatre of Orlando opted to cancel their March 2020 show, one week prior to opening night.

Orlando normally operates as an entertainment hub. Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld, and the multitude of performing arts companies and schools have long offered performers opportunities to thrive. Unwilling to let artists go without training and a space to perform, Ellis adapted.

Practically overnight, ME Performing Arts transitioned to offering group classes, rehearsals, private lessons, auditions, and presenting pre-recorded performances, all virtually. Continuing to offer accessible, high-level training in the performing arts was of utmost importance to Ellis and his team. Virtual programs continued until the end of May when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis launched a three-step reopening plan, which began with retail offerings and restaurants operating at a limited capacity and continued with fitness centers and gyms opening their doors.

Upon reopening, ME Performing Arts instituted guidelines in accordance with the CDC to maintain a safe environment for patrons: class sizes were limited to 10 students with pre-registration required, masks and social distancing were also required, hand washing and sanitizing stations were made available, enhanced cleaning protocols were enforced, and mandatory temperature checks were performed. As of February 2021, all of these practices are still conducted at ME Performing Arts, proving success, as there have been no cases of Covid-19 traced back to the school.

"Since our students and faculty have followed the policies we put in place, we've been able to continue offering student and professional-level classes, our homeschool Elite Ballet Training Program, the Marshall Ellis Dance School Studio Company, and the theatre program and Dance Theatre of Orlando have both been preparing for upcoming in-person performances at the ME Theatre," Ellis said. "Our competition team, TeamME, was even able to attend a few competitions and conventions. Making sure we're all able to stay safe while dancing is a group effort and our ability to remain open over the past months could not have been done without the combined efforts of everyone involved."

Successfully operating a business during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is no small feat, and Ellis was able to maintain all offerings that were established prior to the start of Covid-19. With his passion for dance growing even stronger over the past year, Ellis opened the Marshall Ellis Dance School of Dr. Phillips this past January. The new location specifically tailors to ages 3 to 18 and brings the advanced-training curriculum of ME Performing Arts to a new area of Central Florida.

"I understand this is not the most ideal time to open a new location," Ellis said. "But I know what the arts can do for people, and we need that right now more than ever."

There is no minimizing or denying the personal loss that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to families, individuals, communities, and businesses. The arts have taken a massive hit over the last year; the closure of Broadway and the cancellation of touring productions, the halting of cruise line shows, and cuts to entertainment departments across global companies have resulted in performers losing jobs that reflected years of training, auditioning, and passion. The successful and safe operation of ME Performing Arts gives hope that the arts will continue to thrive even during trying-times, especially in Central Florida.

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The Marshall Ellis Dance School will be presenting The ME Concert at 7 p.m. on March 5 and 6.

The Marshall Ellis Performing Arts Center Theatre Program will be presenting "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown," at 7 p.m. on March 12 and 13.

The Dance Theatre of Orlando will be presenting their latest work, "Illusion," at 7 p.m. on March 26, 27, and 28.

All performances will be held at the ME Theatre, which is the only full-service performance venue in Central Florida to work in tandem with a studio. Tickets can be purchased in advance here.


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