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How These Former PNB Stars Opened a Studio During the Pandemic

Left: Cruz and Dec in rehearsal at PNB, photo courtesy PNB. Right: Cruz teaching at the couple's new studio. Photo courtesy DeCruz Ballet

Despite everything 2020 has brought, former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz still managed to experience three milestones this year.

In February, the couple welcomed their second child, Kailer. In July, Dec retired from PNB, deciding to move on to the next chapter of her life rather than wait out the pandemic. And in September, they opened their first ballet studio, DeCruz Ballet, in San Antonio, Texas.

Dec and Cruz—who fell in love with teaching during season layoffs from PNB and through organizing their own summer and winter workshops in Seattle—had long dreamed of one day opening their own ballet school. Opening in the middle of a pandemic, however, wasn't in the plans.

After several years of looking at studio spaces in the Seattle area, the couple had recently shifted their focus to Texas, where Dec has family. While visiting San Antonio in July, they found out that a studio where they'd guest-taught was available to lease. "It was ready to go with marley floors, mirrors, barres, furniture," says Dec. "We were very lucky and felt that we should take the opportunity."

At the time, the family had been residing in Oklahoma, where Cruz was teaching at the University of Oklahoma and Dec was on maternity leave from PNB, with plans to return to performing for the 2020 season.

Once Dec and Cruz decided to take advantage of the studio space in San Antonio, they packed up and moved their family from Oklahoma to Texas in three weeks to open the studio on September 8.

"It was really hard to pack the whole house with the baby and the 4-year-old and not only move, but start classes right away. I can't think of any challenge bigger than that," says Cruz.

Dec leans back into Cruz's arms extending her leg straight up in the air. She wears a short black dress and point shoes; he is shirtless and wears black pants.

Cruz and Dec in Crystal Pite's Emergence at PNB. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

A Pre-Professional Focus

With over 40 years of combined teaching experience between them—from countless guest-teaching slots and Cruz's training at La Escuela Nacional de Ballet en Havana, where he earned the title of bailarin profesor (dance teacher)—Dec and Cruz knew exactly what they were looking for in a studio of their own.

"We really want to help students prepare for auditions, reaching teens who are figuring out whether they want to dance professionally or not," says Cruz. This entails helping pre-professional students understand the many avenues a dance career can take and exposing students to the benefits of college dance programs through one-on-one sessions and guest speakers.

They also want to instill confidence amongst teens. "We really want to focus on ages 12 and up, since that is a really crucial time for these kids to feel high self-esteem," says Dec. "We noticed that when we were teaching that age group, they don't have a lot of confidence because of all the social media out there."

Pandemic Silver Linings

Though COVID-19 restrictions have limited in-person class sizes in DeCruz Ballet's first months, the couple's experience teaching virtually at the beginning of the pandemic gave them a student following for the studio's virtual program.

"We offered some free classes when we first opened and people were joining from Brazil and Canada," says Dec. "We did a virtual master class for students in Mexico this past summer and now some of them have been joining our current Zoom classes."

Zoom master classes have also helped them diversify their offerings. "Pre-COVID, you just hired whoever was in the city," says Dec. "Now you can have other people teach and offer students exposure to wonderful artists." So far, they've employed virtual master teachers for styles such as contemporary, hip hop and Pilates mat, with goals to hire for ballroom, character, flamenco and other guest ballet teachers.

"It has been a wonderful way to connect with dancers from all over the world, and we will continue online classes after the pandemic," says Dec. "All of us coming together, whether in person or online, sharing this beautiful art form, has been a blessing."

Growing DeCruz Ballet

DeCruz Ballet's in-person classes are on track too, at least partially thanks to Dec and Cruz's star power. Two out-of-state students have even moved to San Antonio recently to join the pre-professional program, says Dec, which currently has five students due to COVID-19 restrictions, and others asking to reserve spots for next year. Even in normal times, the program will be capped at 12 students to ensure one-on-one attention. (The pre-professional program is also offered virtually.)

Pre-professional students dance for around four hours a day in classes such as ballet technique, contemporary, Pilates, cross-training, variations, pointe and men's class. Most in-person classes are taught by Dec and Cruz, and the couple plans to hire more teachers as the school grows.

In addition to the pre-professional program, DeCruz Ballet offers creative movement classes, intermediate and adult classes, and private lessons both in-person and virtually.

The couple's goal for the coming month is to continue to generate visibility (most of the marketing has been done through Instagram and word of mouth). They are also looking for a more permanent studio space, as their current lease expires at the end of June 2021. Dec and Cruz will continue working on their dancewear line, Solu, and are preparing for the launch of their new styles.

They look forward to growing the school's enrollment, but for now, the smaller class sizes have not only helped with maintaining safety during the pandemic, but also afforded students more attention to fine-tune their technique.

While San Antonio does have a professional company, Ballet San Antonio, which also has an affiliated school, Dec says they have never envisioned DeCruz Ballet focusing only on local students. "We positioned it as a studio where kids could join us from around the nation," says Dec. "We wanted to be that smaller school with really intense training."

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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