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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: The Show Must Go On — In A Socially Distant Way

Fairy-Tailored Nutcracker_Shaina Wire_photo by Alan Huerta.png
Alan Huerta
Shaina Wire rehearses as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

An interview with a ballet dancer would typically take place in a green room or maybe backstage. But because this is 2020 and nothing is quite normal, this interview took place masked and outside — right by the Charlotte Ballet’s loading dock.

Which is where the dancers enter the facility these days.

"We come in this door every day and we have our temperature taken at the door," says 25-year-old Shaina Wire, a dancer with the Charlotte Ballet.

"We do get tested every week," she continued. "Novant comes and they test us every Tuesday. All the dancers, all the staff get tested weekly, which has been reassuring."

Wire is in two of the three casts performing a reimagined version of "The Nutcracker" this year — she’ll be performing the role of young Clara in one cast and the regal Sugar Plum Fairy in another.

"It’s been a lot fun to learn how to switch on and off and do those things kind of back-to-back," she said.

Because of the pandemic, "The Nutcracker" will look and feel differently this year. For starters, only 25 audience members are permitted per show. Instead of the two-hour performance with an intermission, each performance has been condensed to 40 minutes with no intermission.

Audience members are required to wear masks. And so are the dancers.

"I have been dancing with my mouth just completely open which is not what you want to do," Wire said. "But right now it’s the only way that we can get air in essentially."

She pauses and points to her eyebrows.

"It’s just all here," she said of her expressive brows. "So that’s been a challenge to find different ways to use expression than just your mouth. You can’t see half of your face so it’s a lot of, I've been saying, 'eyebrow acting.'"

Charlotte ballet nutcracker.JPG
Misha Eady-Harbold
Both dancers and audience members will be required to wear masks during this year's Nutcracker performances.

There’s also the challenge of learning how to interact with fellow dancers during rehearsal after about seven months apart.

"We were all trying to figure out how we do it and how to get back to human interaction," Wire said. "It was definitely weird coming back and being like, ‘Oh, somebody else is touching me right now, or holding hands with somebody when I’m not really supposed to.’ We have hand sanitizer inside, we have wipes. We are really good about the [cleaning] protocol."

But the Charlotte Ballet has overcome these challenges and pressed on with their reenvisioned, in-person Nutcracker while some companies have either canceled or gone virtual with performances. Wire says they want to bring some joy to in-person crowds in a safe, socially distant setting.

And the public clearly wants the same. Tickets to the 17 performances sold out in about two hours. The company announced this week access to a digital version is also an option, with a donation to the Charlotte Ballet.

"It’s a sense of some sort of ‘Oh, they do this every year and they are still doing it,’ and it might not be the same version we always do but it is like some sense of normalcy in this crazy, crazy time," Wire said.

And the dancers want that in-person interaction too. This summer without dance was a tough one, Wire said. After the ballet had to abruptly postpone its production of Sleeping Beauty back in March of this year (now postponed to March 2021), she wasn’t sure when the ballet would be reopening its doors.

"I can only do ballet on a countertop so often," she said. "It was challenging, for sure, to get used to not going in every day. Not feeling like I had a purpose is what really was challenging. I was like, 'Well I’m just watching Netflix all day,' like there is nothing really to do. So yeah, that was tough. I was a little lost there for a couple of months. But it feels just amazing to be back and performing."

Not only is dance Wire's personal form of self-expression, it’s also her livelihood. When the ballet shutdown, so did her income.

"Other people are very fortunate that they were able to continue to work and do what they do on a normal basis and still get paid and everything like that. We were living kind of off of unemployment for months," she said. "It was a very uncertain time. And it still is really uncertain. No one really knows what is going to happen."

And on top of the financial burden, Wire worried about her parents back in New Jersey. Her mother is a nurse who works with the elderly at a rehabilitation center. Many of her patients passed away from COVID-19.

"It was tough hearing and seeing that she was going through that," Wire said. "Obviously, I wanted to go see her, but I was like, 'I can't drive up there.'... I’m avoiding flying, so it’s just been tough not being able to be there and help out in any way that I can."

Wire's eyes light up when she talks about her parents. She started dancing at the age of 8 and credits them with making her stick with it.

"They really were the ones that kept me going and pushed me to stay in it and I’m obviously very grateful that they did because I wouldn’t be here if they hadn't," she said.

With all the stress of 2020 and all the uncertainty that has come along the way, Wire is at least able to return to her art form. She had to find creative ways to dance over the summer. Sometimes, that meant Zoom classes. Now, she has the stage back and a live — albeit smaller than she’s used to — audience.

But she’ll gladly take it. There’s a certain energy received — and in return, given — that only happens in the presence of a live audience.

She hopes to be able to bring creases to masked faces as they smile in their seats, hopefully letting them forget, if only for 40 minutes, their worries of 2020 — whatever they may be.

How has your life changed since the coronavirus outbreak? Are you interacting with people differently? Are you able to visit loved ones? Are you delaying major life events like a wedding? Share your stories by leaving us a voicemail at 704-916-9114.

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