San Antonio Ballet School on North Side dances on through pandemic

Photo of Richard Webner

On a summer weekday afternoon, six girls are practicing pirouettes, sissonnes and grand jetes — twirls, jumps and leaps — in a classroom of the San Antonio Ballet School on the North Side.

As a pianist plays the music of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, the school’s director, Danielle Campbell Steans, walks between the dancers, all of whom are wearing masks. She straightens their backs, lifts their legs, shifts the position of their feet.

“I’m a very hands-on teacher,” she said. “They know it comes from a place of love.”

The dancers, age 12 to 16, are taking the school’s Summer Intensive dance workshop. Every weekday from July 5 through last Friday, they met from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. to take classes in ballet and other dance styles such as jazz, modern, flamenco and West African. In November, they will compete in the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition in Austin. In December, they will dance in the school’s performance of the Nutcracker.

Steans began studying ballet at age 4 and danced professionally in the Georgia Ballet, the Nashville Ballet and Ballet San Antonio before founding the school in 2016 in a one-room facility across the street from its current location at 2106 NW Military Highway. The school grew fast, expanding from three students to 60 in its first year. By early 2020, it had nearly 200 students.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to suspend in-person classes, and Steans saw enrollment decline to a low of 39. Yet she found ways to keep in touch with her students and their parents. In December, the school offered a drive-in performance of the Nutcracker on a specially-built wooden stage at Brooks, on the South Side.

Danielle Campbell Steans, who started the San Antonio Ballet School in Castle Hills instructs Keilah Owens on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Danielle Campbell Steans, who started the San Antonio Ballet School in Castle Hills instructs Keilah Owens on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Ronald Cortes/Contributor

Steans and her husband Drew, who handles much of the financial side of the business, now oversee a staff of eight instructors. She recently sat for an interview about San Antonio’s ballet scene, her experience keeping her business alive through the pandemic, and the importance of protecting her students’ mental health. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: After founding your business, how did you build your base of students so quickly?

A: I think a lot of it has to do with my training, the American Ballet Theatre curriculum that we use. This curriculum is just fabulous because not only does it teach you steps, it also teaches you to be mindful of the psychology behind training a child. Sometimes I think that can be lost, but it stays at the forefront of my mind when choreographing my combinations and preparing to teach them that these are children — where are they developmentally, and physically? — and then let’s start there. I think the parents appreciate that.

People may have this image of ballet teachers and dancers being untouchable, and I never wanted that. I wanted to make it more real, so that anybody could say, “I can do this.” Because that was how I was taught.

Q: Why is it good for children to study ballet?

A: There are so many great benefits. I think, as you saw at the end of class, even how to walk and hold yourself. We teach them that, which you think may be easy, but to some that could be one of the hardest lessons. At the end of class, how to curtsy, bow and how to receive applause.

You also learn time management. These particular students are here for a very long time, and not only are they good dancers, they’re good students academically. In order to do that, they know they have to manage their time so that they give their academics as much effort and consistency as they do their dance training. They learn time management, self confidence. They learn how to be organized and prepare for a big production.

Q: I noticed on your website that you teach lots of dancing styles. Has it been that way from the start, or have you branched out?

A: I was known for my work in ballet. That’s how I made my living. So, naturally, that’s how I started teaching ballet classes. I did train in other dance styles but my profession was ballet. So the first year when we opened, we offered ballet and contemporary dance. And then we were able to add on jazz and flamenco, West African, the other styles.

And I’m not finished yet — I say that there are no limits. I hope to offer them all, even the ones that haven’t been created yet. I’d love to do ballroom. Waltzes, foxtrot, tango, all of that. Because there are different ballets that require some of these movements. So, say in the ballet Carmen, it would be helpful for them to have some flamenco experience because they may dance with castanets, or they may move their hips in particular ways.

Q: Does San Antonio have a strong ballet scene?

A: I think it is up and coming. There are some very talented dancers we have had. Every year since we opened, we have had a dancer accepted to American Ballet Theatre center program in New York. I think that shows that they’re receiving the training here and being recognized on a national and international level.

Q: What were the difficulties in starting your business?

A: We have my husband here, who’s a financial analyst by day. So he’s numbers, data, numbers, data. The most challenging thing for me would be, “I’m registering kids in my notebook with my pencil.” And he’s like, “No, we need an online automated system.” So that was a challenge.

Q: What are your plans for the future of your business?

A: Community outreach is so important to me. As soon as we get the go-ahead I’d love to start implementing programs where we can go into school and teach to children from Title One and underserved communities. My dream is to be able to get the funding to bring those children to school so those who want that serious training at a high level can have their transportation, their training, their uniform all taken care of.

And really having a performing arts complex here in San Antonio. Training students to have a role or a play a part in the arts. Whether it’s teaching, maybe it’s playing the piano, because we offer piano lessons here. Maybe it’s being a stage manager, production manager, being able to teach them these things. That’s the ultimate goal.

Q: Why is community outreach important to you?

A: I come from a big family. We all danced, we all played an instrument, and it was just part of how I was brought up. We went to church and it was instilled in me that you should share your gifts with other people. So I tried to do that. I think that when you give, you receive. That is how the world works. In my world, anyway.

Q: You offer adult classes. Are those people who previously trained in ballet, or do you have adults who decide they want to start taking ballet?

A: We have some who have never taken any type of dance class in their life. I have some parents of students who, maybe they wanted to dance, but they say, “Well, my parents couldn’t afford it. And now I want to take ballet class.” And then I have some of my friends who are retired professional dancers who will come and take class because it feels good to move.

Q: What was your experience going through the pandemic?

A: We were hit hard.

I immediately went to my husband, of course, to learn how to operate Zoom and other online platforms so I could continue teaching. I’ve taught in our bedroom, at the foot of my bed. I tried to stay as connected as I could to the students. I would do ballet story-times — Angelina Ballerina. I do scavenger hunts around the house with them through Zoom, just anything to stay connected with them and their parents.

Eventually, we were able to come back into the studio, and it was different. We had never danced in masks before. And I actually don’t know how the students do it, because I obviously spent my whole career unmasked. But I thought, it’s my job to be creative. So I tried to come up with ways that were safe, that they could still be active. Instead of doing the Nutcracker in a traditional theater last year, we did it outdoors. We knew that masks were important, and we wanted them to be safe, so we used clear masks so that we could still show expression.

Although we still have not fully recovered, things are starting to pick back up. I am thankful for that. I don’t think it will ever be the same as it was before, but things are getting better.

Q: Now that the delta variant is spreading and the CDC has again guided people to wear masks indoors, how are you navigating the changes?

A: We actually never changed our mask policy. All students, regardless of age, and all individuals who come into the building wear masks. When I am teaching certain classes — the upper level, because those children are vaccinated — with the consent of their parents I am able to teach, unmasked, expression and different things that you can’t see through through the mask. But otherwise, every teacher, every student wears a mask.

By now it’s routine because we’ve been doing it for over a year. We continue also to do polls within the school. Every few weeks, we’ll send it out: How are you feeling? Does this make you comfortable? Do you want your teacher to wear a mask? Do you want your students to wear a mask? Just to keep in touch with them and make sure they have a voice and are a part of the decisions.

Q: I’m curious what your feelings are toward Simone Biles withdrawing yesterday from Olympic events to protect her mental health.

A: We have brought in dance therapists and psychologists to talk to our dancers, even before yesterday. That is also a part of our Summer Intensive program. It’s also a part of the American Ballet Theatre curriculum. I think it’s important to recognize burnout.

This is very intense. We are looking at ourselves in a mirror for multiple hours of the day and we’re perfecting everything from the hair on our head to our shoes, our tights, and that’s not something to take lightly. So we here at the school try to plan activities for the kids to do. They’ve had lock-ins here. So on a Saturday, we’ll get a movie, they’ll get some glow sticks. Sometimes I’m invited, sometimes I’m not — and that’s okay too! Whatever is going to make them feel good.