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.

Dance Teachers Trending
Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project

For Gianna Reisen, a classically trained ballet dancer who now performs with L.A. Dance Project, the process of finding music for her choreography is everything. "If I'm not 100 percent inspired by the music, the movement just doesn't come out," she says. Following this natural creative spirit, though, wasn't always the driving force behind her artistry.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alvin Ailey surrounded by the Company, 1978. Photography by Jack Mitchell, © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, all rights reserved

From 1961 to 1994, legendary photographer Jack Mitchell captured thousands of moments with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Now, this treasure trove of dance history is available to the public for viewing via the online archives of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The collection includes both color and black-and-white images of Ailey's repertoire, as well as private photo sessions with company members and Ailey himself. Altogether, the archive tracks the career development of many beloved Ailey dancers, including Masazumi Chaya, Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters, Donna Wood and Dudley Williams—and even a young Desmond Richardson. And there's no shortage of photos of iconic pieces like Blues Suite (Ailey's first piece of choreography), Cry and Revelations.

We couldn't resist sharing a few of our favorites below. Search the collection for more gems here.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by CJ Harris, courtesy of PHILADANCO

Each anniversary celebration of a dance company might also be considered a lesson in dance history and a study of endurance and perseverance. Thus the 50th anniversary of PHILADANCO is an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable legacy of founder and artistic director Joan Myers Brown as a source of inspiration for students, dancers and colleagues nationwide.

PHILADANCO is a resident company at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and kicked off its 50th season on October 5. Brown and the company will participate in the International Association of Blacks in Dance's 32nd annual conference, January 14–19, in Philadelphia. And you can catch the company throughout the U.S. in 2020, including February performances in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

Q: My 13-year-old daughter has always been flexible, but last year she suffered an acute injury to her hip flexor from an overstretch position. Since then I have told her not to participate in over-splits or other extreme positions. Is that the right thing to do?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

"No formal training. No dance studio. No mentor," says Erik Saradpon about his beginnings in hip hop.

"I think that's why I'm especially tough on these guys, because I don't take the relationship for granted," he says, referring to his students. "I'm like a dad to them. I had a shortage of role models in my life. I wanted that so badly. I project that onto my kids."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox