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Dance instructor, 89, still teaching during pandemic: ‘You have to get creative’

As a new normal begins to settle across the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, many in-person activities are converting to online spaces. For some, this can be challenging. But the difficulties of using technology are not stopping Anna Marie Leo from teaching her dance classes via Zoom.

Born in 1930, Leo began dancing at the age of four after she tagged along to her sister’s classes in Wilmington, Delaware. Her sister ended up giving up dance, but Leo discovered her lifelong passion in those classes.

When she was 21, Leo teamed up with her husband to open a dance studio in Wilmington: Anna Marie Dance Studio.

“I got that year maybe 75 students where lessons were a dollar and a half a week,” Leo told TODAY. “Think about that! A dance lesson for $1.50. My rent for that building was maybe $600 a month. Boy, would I like to be paying that now!”

From there it escalated, and over the past 69 years her studio has inhabited six different locations. Despite selling the business to her great-niece a few years ago, she still teaches three days a week.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the small business to shut its doors but Leo is not letting the pandemic stopping her from teaching.

The 89-year-old has overcome the loss of her husband and a daughter, and even a fire that burned down her studio in 1982, so resilience is no stranger to her.

“I go online and I can see the children dancing and they can see and hear me,” she explained, adding that her grandson, who she lives with, is helping her with the technical side of broadcasting dance classes via video conferencing.

“But it’s working. I hope it continues to work. Sometimes you have to get creative, but for me and my students this gives us something to look forward to. So of course I hope we don’t have to do this too much longer, but if we do, we keep doing this.”

One of the students who looks forward to her classes is 11-year-old Annie Rosenthal, who has been dancing at Anna Marie Dance Studio for six years.

“She’s always been a really good teacher,” Rosenthal said of Leo. “She’s loving. She’s really caring and she really cares that we get the steps right.”

Rosenthal explained that even though dancing in her bedroom is different than dancing in a studio, she’s made some changes, like adding cardboard on top of her carpet, to make it work.

“I love that it’s added some normalcy to my kids’ lives,” Rosenthal’s mom, Meredith, said. “They are able to partake in things that they like. It also keeps them on a schedule, which is really important for them. It helps them be able to “see” other people and interact with them. It enables them to have exercise. So it’s been extremely valuable.”

“I also love that a small business like Anna Marie’s can still give us value. We paid for these classes and I love that they can still do this and stay in business. We’re very satisfied with what our kids are getting out of using technology.”

Leo — who has diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and is on oxygen — checks many of the boxes that make her vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Yes, I’m a little bit scared,” she shared. “I haven’t been out of the house for probably three weeks. But I am not giving up. I’m optimistic. I’m definitely one of the half-full glass people. Always has been, always will be. I guess maybe that’s how I got to 90, so hopefully I’ll get to many more of those years.”

Leo says she hopes her story can inspire others and her message to others is to “never give up.”

“There’s always a solution,” she adds. “When you think, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to make this happen?’ Look for a solution. You can find it. There’s always a way. If it doesn’t work with plan A, go to plan B. Stay positive and know that we are all going to get through this together. And what I’d like to see when we all get over it, is that the camaraderie stays.”

“Don’t go back to your ‘I’ or ‘me’ self, but stay with your neighbors, your coworkers and everybody. I think that’s going to be very important when this all ends … that we keep that connection and camaraderie that we are forming out of this.”