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How Panama City Beach Dance Studios Are Bouncing Back from Hurricane Michael

Studio by the Sea students at a local gym for their first class since the storm. Photo courtesy Wendy Lewis

Wendy Lewis, owner of Studio by the Sea in Panama City Beach, Florida, thought as most Floridians do before a hurricane. The morning of October 8, Lewis dropped off the Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker audition director at the airport. She joked that the director's departure was well-timed considering the storm swirling in the Gulf of Mexico. "I headed home thinking it was going to be a normal day," she says. As the storm's intensity strengthened, Lewis started to make the usual preparations. She pulled in chairs and plants from the patio of her studio and boarded up her home on the beach. But what started as an irksome Category 1 hurricane swelled into a life-threatening beast in less than two days.

Lewis opted to close the studio and evacuate to Georgia. She only packed enough clothes to last her a few days. By Thursday, she planned to be back at her studio teaching classes and running Nutcracker rehearsals. But Lewis didn't return until Saturday, October 13, and when she did, her studio was irreparable.


The Storm of the Century

Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle on Wednesday, October 10 as a catastrophic Category 4, leaving 45 dead in its wake—35 from Florida alone. What some thought would bring little more than heavy rain ended up obliterating businesses, homes and entire towns. Several dance studios, like Studio by the Sea, are among the carnage.

"The world for us has gotten turned over since then," Lewis says. Now, studios who have had a place in the community for years have to rebuild from the ground up. But the Panama City Beach community is still finding ways to dance in the midst of destruction.

A Labor of Love

Pieces of the Studio by the Sea roof lay scattered across the parking lot after Hurricane Michael. Photo courtesy Wendy Lewis

Lewis was hopeful when she first saw photos of her studio after the storm, but seeing it in person revealed a much worse reality. A portion of the roof had been ripped off and pools of water left the marley floors soggy. Nearly everything inside was moldy and waterlogged. The extensive water and roof damage rendered the space unsalvageable.

The widespread devastation has made finding a new space almost impossible, but Lewis has decided she doesn't need mirrors or marley floors to get people dancing again. Instead, she's seizing the opportunity to offer free dance classes in any space she can find. She's organizing ballet, hip-hop and b-boy classes in the lobby of an apartment complex and adult zumba and yoga classes on the beach. Earlier this week, her students had their first class since the storm in a local gym.

"I know dance might seem like a minimal thing in such a horrific situation, but the arts are an outlet and a cathartic system for us, so we need this," she says.

Bittersweet Reunions

The Julie's School of Dance competition team at their first rehearsal after Hurricane Michael. Photo by Mandalynn Soileau

Some dancers have had to say goodbye to both their studios and their friends. The competition team at Julie's School of Dance was heartbroken to learn that one of their members had to move to Biloxi, Mississippi after her home was lost in the hurricane.

"We were just grateful to be together," says Julie Krawczynski, owner of Julie's School of Dance. "I'm a firm believer that there's going to be a greener side to this, and we're just going to hold tight and see what happens."

Like Studio by the Sea, severe water damage and mold has made Krawczynski's studio uninhabitable. While she searches for a new space, a local gym has donated its yoga studio so they can practice for their competition later this month. Krawczynski says that about 20 studios from all over the country have flooded her with phone calls and messages since the storm hit, offering everything from costumes to manual labor. "It was really heartwarming to see how the dance community stepped up," she says.

A Legacy Lost

A demolition team works on the Stanford location of Tonie's Dance Workshop. Photo courtesy Tonie Bense

When Kirsten Sears heard about the damage to Tonie's Dance Workshop, she couldn't bring herself to tell her 13-year-old and 11-year-old daughters. The Sears family has been making memories at Tonie's Dance Workshop since 1983 when Kirsten Sears first started dancing there. She cherished that her daughters had the chance to grow up in the same studio she did. "The wall color, the border around the rooms, and the pictures on the wall had been the same since I had grown up dancing there, so to see all of that destroyed was really sad," she says.

Tonie Bense, the owner and director of Tonie's Dance Workshop, always tells her dancers to take it one step at a time, and now she's telling herself the same thing. While she hopes to resume some classes at her studio in Parker, Florida on November 5, her Stanford location will have to be almost entirely reconstructed. Despite having to move out of her own home and build a new studio, Bense didn't want financial constraints to keep kids from dancing, especially when they need it most. Once her studio is up and running again, she'll offer classes free of charge.

Come Back Stronger

The future of the Panama City Beach dance community is undeniably full of uncertainty. These studios will need support, patience and resilience as they start writing their next chapter. It's a good thing dancers are a force of nature.

If you'd like to support the Panama City Beach dance community, make a donation to Julie's School of Danceor Studio by the Sea on GoFundMe.

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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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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."

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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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