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How My Dance Teachers Helped Me Survive the Worst of the Pandemic

Finis Jhung teaching a virtual class. Photo courtesy Ruden

Looking back, it's hard to describe how terrifying the early days of the pandemic were in New York City. The sudden shutdown of our daily lives; the scarcity of toilet paper and reports of food shortages; the empty stillness of the streets of Manhattan and the sight of the USNS Comfort hospital ship from my bedroom window; the conflicting information on how to stay safe; and the daily press conferences with Governor Cuomo recounting intubations and the daily death toll.

I watched the hospital employees walking to Mount Sinai Hospital next door and marked the passing of time by the daily seven o'clock tribute to essential workers that broke the eerie silences.

Across my industry (travel), the furloughs, layoffs and salary cuts took hold. Thousands of careers cut short; lives in suspended animation. My anxiety level was heightened by the fact that my husband, who is in his 70s, has health complications. For nearly three months, we holed up in our apartment on the 50th floor, only going down to the lobby once a week to collect food deliveries and packages. I insisted my husband stay in the apartment and relentlessly cleaned the surfaces, packages and groceries.

Amid the unyielding bleakness of my days were two bright spots: My dance teachers, both seniors themselves. By profession, I'm a communications and public relations executive, but my first love is dance: ballet, tap, jazz and, in particular, hula, because I lived in Hawaii during my 20s. Prior to the shutdown, I was taking occasional ballet classes at the Ailey Extension from renowned ballet master Finis Jhung, and "...and, at Open Jar Studios, twice-weekly hula classes with Luana Haraguchi. Haraguchi is a kumu hula (master teacher) at New York's oldest hula school, Hālau Hula O Na Mele 'Aina O Hawai'i."

Ruden, wearing a bright red floral top and a green skirt, dances faces her computer which sits atop a stool

The author in virtual hula class. Photo courtesy Ruden

Jhung, who is 83 years old, and Haraguchi, who has been teaching hula for over 50 years, were undaunted by the lockdown. They both turned to Zoom (Jhung with the help of his son and Haraguchi with the help of her assistant) and started offering classes online as early as March.

It's no small coincidence that both Jhung and Haraguchi grew up in Hawaii. Hawaiian culture is anchored in the concept of "living aloha." Living aloha is better described in deed than in word, but the words that come to mind are "sharing," "kindness," "respect" and "togetherness."

In Hawaiian terms, Jhung and Haraguchi are considered kupuna, loosely translated as "elders." But. more specifically, kupuna are living treasures. They are the sources of knowledge that keep traditions alive through their teachings.

My weekly classes with Jhung and Haraguchi have anchored me throughout the pandemic.

Jhung stands in fifth position on his marley mat at home, arms out to the sides, speaking to the large TV screen with Zoom students on it

Finis Jhung teaching a virtual class. Photo courtesy Ruden

The discipline and concentration required in Jhung's classes helped me forget the turmoil of the outside world for 90 minutes every week, and the exhilaration I felt when I mastered his pirouette combination gave me a needed lift in spirits. Switching to gallery view on Zoom to see more than 60 adult students from around the world sharing a love of dance was heartening. At the end of each class, Jhung gives us advice about surviving during the pandemic, encouraging us to take care of ourselves, turn off the TV and read books and only listen to Dr. Fauci and medical experts.

Hula is about caring and community as much as it is about dance. Being able to see the smiling faces of my hula "sisters" and hear their pandemic stories and struggles makes me feel less isolated. Haraguchi checks on each of us, asking how we are holding up, encouraging us to look for the positives among our challenges. A few days over the summer we even donned our masks and danced socially distant hula in Central Park to the delight of park visitors.

When I became seriously ill with COVID-19, I calmed my panicked breathing by practicing my hula steps in my head to distract myself. As I began to recover, I gauged my progress by my stamina during my hula and ballet classes with the steady and encouraging presence of my two teachers.

Two women in green skirts, masks, and shirts that say "hula is life," stand in a grassy area in the park

The author and a fellow student in Central Park. Photo courtesy Ruden

I learned from these two artists that the beauty of dance—and of any art—is not in the performance or finished piece, but in the passion, the discipline and the power of sharing your knowledge and inspiring others.

If the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that there is great beauty in aging when we are receptive to the wisdom our elders have to offer. I will be forever grateful for their example.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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