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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