An unlikely alliance involving 4 competing studios is helping them stay the course through COVID-19 and beyond.
Despite the fact that their four studios are located within a half-mile of each other in their town of Chula Vista, California, Neisha Hernandez, Kaylee Kiff, Franchesca Gonzalez Otañez and Melissa Treziok hadn’t had much contact—that is, until COVID-19 came along.
“Before the pandemic, we all pretty much stayed in our own lane, doing our own thing without much interaction,” says Neisha Hernandez, owner of Neisha’s Dance & Music Academy. “But early on during COVID-19, we decided that it might be a good idea to join together in an alliance and try to move together through the pandemic.”
Enter the Eastlake Dance Alliance, which started as a survival pact of sorts and is now morphing into a longer-term relationship between the owners of Neisha’s Dance & Music Academy (Hernandez), The Dance Spot Eastlake (Kiff), San Diego Dance Academy (Otañez) and Dance Society (Treziok).
After seeing the other studio owners at chamber of commerce meetings held to discuss COVID-19, Hernandez was the first to suggest joining forces in May 2020, starting with a monthly Zoom call and continuing through various forms of ongoing communication. All four owners agreed that having an informal arrangement would be advantageous, especially with things constantly in flux.
The goal? To navigate the rapidly changing safety protocols in tandem, and form a united front to minimize studio-hopping and give parents a sense of normalcy.
“We knew that together we were stronger and could create industry norms within our small city,” explains Hernandez. “The alliance helped create stability and continuity—keeping the parents all on the same page rather than playing us against each other.”
For instance, as all four studios prepared to reopen their doors on June 15, many parents were divided on the issue of wearing masks, so the four owners decided they would all require dancers to wear masks and agree to mandatory temperature checks. The members of the alliance also synchronized their sanitization procedures so that all four studios were fully on the same page when it came to COVID-19 safety.
“Anytime San Diego County moved to a new tier, we would communicate with each other,” says Treziok, who opened Dance Society in 1999. “Within an hour of any announcement, we would all be sharing information and making decisions.”
Navigating the New Normal
As California became a COVID hotspot and one of the country’s hardest-hit states, the studios’ ability to stay open continued to change shape, and in July 2020, all four studios began to offer outdoor classes per government restrictions. None of the studios had previously offered outdoor instruction, so the alliance members were able to help each other with implementation; Kiff even lent Treziok her outdoor dance floor to use for a performance.
“Putting business aside, it’s been so nice to have three people in the same exact situation and stress level as myself,” says Kiff, who purchased the studio from its original owner in 2016. “My friends are confused about why I’m crying when there is rain in the forecast, but these ladies know exactly what I am going through.”
To that end, the four typically text each other when the weather forecast includes wind warnings or rain to make decisions about whether to offer Zoom classes and/or indoor instruction—all in keeping with their aim of staying in sync around best COVID-19 practices.
Additionally, the group secured a meeting with Gary Johnston, Chief Resilience Officer for San Diego County, who gave the alliance some fresh ideas for doing business both indoors and outdoors. All of the group members also kept their ears to the ground about various grants, with all of the members ultimately receiving grants from San Diego County and/or the city of Chula Vista. “We weren’t just working for ourselves, but for the group as a whole,” says Hernandez.
Mobilizing for the Future
A year into COVID-19, the Eastlake Dance Alliance members don’t see their group disbanding anytime soon—in fact, they’re just getting started. Recently, the foursome met at Treziok’s house for backyard cocktails, and they’re planning more in-person gatherings to come for bonding and brainstorming.
Though the four are technically competitors, each maintains her own distinct niche. For instance, Treziok’s studio, Dance Society, is more focused on noncompetitive dance, whereas Kiff’s studio, The Dance Spot, attracts dancers who want to travel and compete. Otañez says her studio is “somewhere in between” with two annual recitals and the majority of her students competing; Hernandez’s studio, Neisha’s Dance & Music Academy, is highly focused on ballet training.
“There are enough dancers to go around,” says Kiff. “Plus, if I’m going to lose a client, I want it to be because of dancing, not because I require a mask and other studios don’t. By keeping all of our protocols the same, it brings us back to pre-COVID, with an even playing field where we all offer different things dance-wise.”
Treziok agrees, adding that the newly formed alliance has made her more aware of what the other studios have to offer. “Now if someone came to me and my studio wasn’t a good fit, I would be happy to refer to any of these three studios,” she says. “I feel very confident that these studios are run by capable individuals making smart choices.”
In recent months, the alliance has shifted from monthly Zoom meetings to an ongoing group text thread. Their conversation topics have expanded, as well, covering pricing, hiring practices, vaccine eligibility, and other forms of business and emotional support.
“We found that being on a group thread was easier because we could text at any time,” says Hernandez. “We have less structure, but at least once a week, we’re having in-depth conversations and quick short communication in between.”
As Otañez sees it, what started as a shared survival tactic has evolved into a lasting bond, and she’s looking forward to seeing what happens next as the alliance continues to navigate the changing landscape as a unit.
“Our coming together shows how much we love dance, because we were able to put everything aside and work together so that kids and families could have that outlet,” says Otañez. “This has turned into a forever friendship.”
Jen Jones Donatelli is a Cleveland-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher and Dance Retailer News, and she is the former managing editor of CheerProfessional magazine.