From fires to break-ins, these studios’ horror stories are lessons in resilience and disaster preparedness.
Is it actually realistic to think we can expect the unexpected? That’s what dance studio owners everywhere are asking, now that COVID has upended many assumptions about disaster preparedness.
Let these four studios’ stories be an inspiration to safeguard your own dance community as much as you can from future catastrophes.
San Jose Dance Theatre in San Jose, CA
On January 7, San Jose Dance Theatre’s artistic director Linda Hurkmans got the call from a board member. “Someone had broken into a converted medical trailer next to the studios that was housing many of our costumes,” she says. While she was teaching a virtual class, a reporter contacted her; Hurkmans rushed to the scene where she gave an interview. “They took about 100 costumes, mostly platter tutus,” Hurkmans says. “Some were legacy costumes of great sentimental value, while others were brand-new and had never been performed in.” The stolen items represented some $25,000 in materials, as well as hundreds of sewing hours.
The California dance community rallied around SJDT, sharing the story far and wide in hopes that a tip would come in. Thanks to a post on the neighborhood-focused social network Nextdoor, 16 tutus (sans bodices) were indeed found inside a trash bag in a local park in late January. The crime remains unsolved, though Hurkmans has her theories. “Maybe with all the coverage, they thought ‘These are not going to be that easy to resell,’ and started panic-dumping,” she says. Hurkmans is no longer holding out hope that more missing pieces will be recovered—but between a successful GoFundMe campaign and the outpouring of support, she’s looking forward to replacing the costumes.
The Takeaway: Hurkmans says that in a year already so overfull of loss, at least half the battle lay in accepting that the costumes were really gone. “I kept doing media interviews for at least a month,” she says, “just trying to keep the story alive in case anybody saw anything.” But if the show were to go on, SJDT’s costume team would need to immediately set aside their disappointment and start sewing. As Hurkmans came to understand, “A big part of our bounce back was just to persevere” and pivot quickly to a costuming plan B (including increasing the security level of costume storage facilities and investing in insurance).
Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY
It’s a COVID cliché: The pandemic hasn’t created new problems so much as exposed and exacerbated existing ones. That rings true for Dwana A. Smallwood, founder and director of her eponymous dance studio in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Already tech-savvy and open-minded, Smallwood and team pivoted to virtual instruction with aplomb. But as two weeks of stay-at-home orders looked more like months, the school’s financial weak points gained a new sense of urgency. Things were dire enough that, Smallwood now says, she came extremely close to closing the studio “every other month in 2020.”
“Our enrollment numbers got worse than when we first opened,” Smallwood says. “I used to have 13 teachers and administrative staff. Now it’s two teachers and myself.” Between teaching more than ever and cutting overhead down to the bone, Smallwood applied frantically for grants and loans (enough were awarded to keep the DSPAC temporarily afloat). It’s been a long and slow recovery, but Smallwood says it’s a needed fresh start—both for the school’s financial wellness and for her own mental well-being as an entrepreneur.
The Takeaway: Going forward, Smallwood will continue to focus on the studio’s financials and fiscal health. “My model was always to give more scholarships—to serve, serve, serve until we were cutting corners and bleeding money,” Smallwood says. Now, the DSPAC is seeking corporate sponsorship to support those generous financial-aid offerings, and will no longer offer tuition payment plans (which had previously been a major source of unpaid bills).
The Cassandra School in Minneapolis, MN
Cassandra Shore’s school of Middle Eastern dance happens to be housed in a building right next door to Minneapolis’ 3rd Police Precinct, near where George Floyd was murdered last spring. The riots and protests that followed left The Cassandra School with water, smoke and fire damage, as well as evidence of a break-in. That extent of building damage (close to $750,000, Shore estimates) actually turned out to be a relief, Shore says: “We were on pins and needles, because we didn’t know for a day or so whether we even had a building left.”
After shutting down all virtual classes for a month to redo the floors and remove any mold risk, Shore was finally able to return to teaching virtual classes from the studio space. For the most part, insurance came to the studio’s rescue. Shore estimates that half of the flooring and smoke-damage repairs were covered by insurance, while the building owner’s insurance took care of two-thirds of repairs to the building at large. It’s a series of challenges that has made her especially grateful for the positive relationship The Cassandra School has with the building’s owner and co-occupants: “They’ve been great about accommodating us while trying to get their repairs done, down to getting work done during the day so the drilling and pounding doesn’t interfere with evening classes.”
The Takeaway: At the time of the building damages, Shore had three months’ rent set aside in case of emergency. “We weren’t at the skin of our teeth, but we still had to find a way to keep the revenue coming in,” she says. In the future, “because this all happened more or less overnight,” she might consider keeping even more money in reserve—and would recommend the same to fellow studio owners.
Jody Lynn’s School of Dance in Canastota, NY
Looking back, Brittany Bogardus-Feola suspects that the fire caused as much damage as it did precisely because of COVID. “Our classes had moved online, so no one was at the studio when fire broke out after a really bad storm in late July 2020,” says Bogardus-Feola, lead choreographer for the competition team at Jody Lynn’s School of Dance (as well as founder Jody Bogardus’ daughter). Luckily, employees at neighboring businesses noticed billowing smoke and called the fire department—but not before studio spaces and the trophy room suffered more than $10,000 of fire, water and smoke damage.
And it wasn’t just flooring and building fixtures that were ruined, Bogardus-Feola says: “Upwards of 100 costumes got destroyed, plus stretching tools and parachutes for the little kids and all kinds of other things that insurance doesn’t cover.” Bogardus and Bogardus-Feola were devastated, as was their entire studio family. But soon, help started pouring in from family and friends: From offering to wash the smoke smell out of garments to literally getting on hands and knees, restoring floors and electrical fixtures. Thanks to a GoFundMe set up by a former student, which raised $10,000, Jody Lynn’s School of Dance was able to replace all that was damaged and reopen stronger than ever.
The Takeaway: The idea of treating your studio community like family can be a well-worn trope, but Bogardus-Feola says that’s exactly what saved Jody Lynn’s School of Dance. “Jody’s been a staple of the community for 45 years,” Bogardus-Feola says. “People stepped up of their own accord, helping in any way they could think of—and it’s 100 percent due to the relationships my mom’s created with and in this community.” Insurance “did its job,” Bogardus-Feola says, but donations of money and time from the community were what actually put the studio in a position to bounce back from a better place than where they were before the fire.
Helen Hope teaches dance and has written for Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.