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.

The Conversation
Dancer Health
"We think as dancers, 'Oh my gosh, if this thing isn't working hard enough, I have to work it harder.' In order for these muscles to work, they have to have a chance to relax, too." –Kathryn Maykish

As deeply familiar as dancers are with their bodies, there's one muscle group that can remain mysterious. You can't see it, and it can be tough to access, but the pelvic floor serves a major role in your posture and body function. Dancers and other athletes are more prone than the general population to dysfunction of the pelvic floor, and this can have major ramifications in dance and life.

Keep reading... Show less

Showstopper sees all types of different dancers from across the world at their dance competitions. Sometimes it can be hard to know how to stand out among the 100s of dancers that perform on their stages.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty

The holidays are here, and as everyone knows, the real best way to spread Christmas cheer is serving your community and helping those in need. Luckily for dance teachers, dance studios are the perfect backdrop for the start of some seriously awesome service projects. Your dancers will learn the value of helping others, and you will all feel warm and fuzzy inside!

Check out these three service-project ideas, and try implementing them at your studio this season. Let us know over on our Facebook page, or in the comments below, what other projects you do at your studio that make a difference in your community!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by TutuTix
Photo by Allef Vinicius via Unsplash

The holidays can make this time of year fly by. But successful studio directors know that December is not the time to rest on their laurels. Here are four projects to consider this month to give your business a year-end boost.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective

Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide, and there were an estimated 1.3 million suicide attempts. While it's a myth that suicide rates are higher in December than any other time of year, the holidays give us an opportunity to consider the health and happiness of those we love. As dance teachers, we spend more time with our students than even their parents do, which means we are in a particular position to notice the pain and distress they're experiencing.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What do you do with parents who constantly complain about where their daughter is placed in choreography?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Photos courtesy of Google

Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

It's a dance teacher's job to prepare students for professional careers. As everyone knows, this means more than just giving them precise technique and exceptional performance capabilities. Perhaps more than ever, it's important that teachers prepare their students to know how to make smart and safe decisions when entering the workplace. It's important that we give them the skills to say "no" when a project doesn't fit with their personal values, puts them in a dangerous or toxic work environment, or is discriminatory to their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Teachers need to help their students advocate for themselves in order to create a career they can be proud of.

Here are four tips for helping your dancers make safe and smart professional decisions when they leave the warmth of your caring and supportive studio.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I've noticed a clicking or popping sound coming from my right hip joint when I raise it to the side, and I tend to be far more flexible on my left leg. Are these two things connected? Should I be worried?

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

Q: I want to do a holiday performance and need some advice. How do you get parents on board? How do you keep it economical? What other money makers do you do at your holiday show other than ticket sales?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Genshaft in Ratmansky's From Foreign Lands. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

Dana Genshaft was a beloved dancer in the San Francisco Ballet for 15 years, rising to the rank of soloist. Some of her SFB career highlights include performing lead roles in Frederick Ashton's Monotones I and Wayne McGregor's Eden/Eden and originating roles in Val Caniparoli's Ibsen's House and Mark Morris' Joyride, as well as working with Christopher Wheeldon and William Forsythe.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored