When Stress Hits: How Dance Business Owners Ride the Wave

Going from stressed to blessed is no easy task in the face of COVID—but these dance business owners are making strides one step at a time.

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Reentering your store after three months of pandemic-related closure would certainly be an emotional experience for anyone, but for Roshawn Buxton, what she found felt like insult upon injury. A row of moldy, moss green pointe shoes was her first indication that there had been an air-conditioner leak during the time away from her Atlanta-based retail store, Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet. “It was devastating to my heart to walk in and see that,” says Buxton, who has owned the store for nearly nine years. “This year has been a roller coaster of emotion, and that just crushed me.”

Portrait of Roshawn Buxton, owner of dance store, wearing glasses with hands clasped in front of her.
Roshawn Buxton, owner of Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet: “Finding an ally can help you get through.” Courtesy of Roshawn Buxton

No doubt the last year has been a roller coaster for all types of dance business owners—from studios to companies to dancewear stores. From navigating small-business loans to setting up health and safety protocols to dealing with an unpredictable economy, many dance entrepreneurs spent 2020 on adrenaline simply to make sure their businesses stayed alive.

But nearly a year since the pandemic first took hold, that burning fuel has made way for fatigue in the face of a still uncertain future. “We’re all so tired, but I’m not letting being tired get me down,” says Emily Mayerhoff, owner of College Station, TX, store Attitude Dance Boutique. “I’m ready for this ride to be over, but I know it’s not.”

Business strategist Erin Joy says that Mayerhoff and Buxton aren’t alone in feeling the long-term effects of COVID-induced stress. In her work as CEO of Black Dress Circle, a business mastermind for women, Joy says she has had “hundreds of hours” of conversations with clients who feel the same way. 

“Initially, when they were taking extraordinary actions [to sustain their businesses], they thought they would be short-lived,” says Joy. “Nearly a year later, they’re still short-staffed, working more hours, and dealing with employers and customers getting COVID and having to manage that within their facilities. That has led to fatigue, exhaustion and overwhelm.”

Woman in bright flowered dress behind counter at dance store.
Emily Mayerhoff, owner of Attitude Dance Boutique: “I remind myself that any challenges I’m having aren’t because I’ve done something wrong or I’m not a smart businesswoman.” Courtesy of Attitude Dance Boutique

It’s a real and pressing concern, with over a third of small business owners citing COVID-19 and its economic impact as the main business cause of mental health challenges. See what three entrepreneurs have to say about how they’re finding ways to deal.

Refilling the Proverbial Cup

Over the last year, Volume Dance owner Karsia Slaughter has hustled harder than ever—in fact, she says she “did more in 2020 than the entire decade before.” Case in point: Slaughter recorded 52 instructional videos for on-demand consumption when her Indianapolis-based studio went fully virtual, along with getting Zoom classes up and running. “I’m not very tech-savvy, so there was a big learning curve to navigate,” says Slaughter.

After reopening the studio, Slaughter had to recalibrate once again with a brand-new schedule and reduced class sizes of just six dancers for optimal COVID safety. This entailed hiring more staff to cover double the number of classes, which Slaughter found “financially stressful.” 

Woman at end of table holding up a picture book with an illustration of dancers at a barre. Young girls are listening to the story.
Karsia Slaughter, owner of Volume Dance, reading to young dancers at her studio—part of a pre-pandemic “Book Day” to encourage reading about dance. The book is The Amazingly Awesome Adventures of Dancing Dee, which Slaughter wrote herself. Courtesy Karsia Slaughter

Though Slaughter relished the opportunity for creative leadership, she also started to notice stress manifesting physically in her body—especially as many of the nearby businesses in her Northview Mall location began to close. “I was storing stress in my shoulder,” says Slaughter, who has owned Volume Dance for 13 years. “I was also just feeling drained for months at a time.”

Along with getting massages, Slaughter sought solace by taking a 20-minute solitude break at the end of each day. “I would take 20 minutes just to talk to God and have time alone,” says Slaughter. “Finding that peace can be hard, but for that 20 minutes, I wasn’t stuck in ‘What if?’ mode.”

Like Slaughter, Mayerhoff, of Attitude Dance Boutique, has also called on her faith during difficult times. While Slaughter winds down at night, Mayerhoff carves out a chunk during her morning routine to refresh and recharge. “I reserve time for me every day,” says Mayerhoff. “I use that time to focus and make lists of what I want to accomplish, do a daily Bible study, and maybe reach out to a friend over the phone.”

Forging Stronger Bonds

For many dance business owners, the ability to persevere stems from three simple words: “You’re not alone.” Mayerhoff says that her tight-knit friendships with other dance retailers have been immeasurable in terms of offering advice, support and commiseration. “If I didn’t have that group of ladies, I probably wouldn’t be standing right now,” says Mayerhoff, who talks to Micki Samson, owner of The Dance Shop in Altoona, PA (top left, below) at least once a week and regularly connects with a larger group over text threads and Facebook.

A collage of women each holding one word on a sign. Together, it reads "Stay home, be kind, community over COVID, support your dance retailers."
Like many dance business owners, Emily Mayerhoff, lower right, relies on fellow entrepreneurs to get through challenges. Courtesy of Emily Mayerhoff.

Buxton, of Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet, says that attending Só Dança’s monthly retailer meetings helped her plug into a much-needed support system and see that many of the challenges she has faced are universal. “A lot of us were facing identical issues and were able to talk about how we’re coming through this,” says Buxton. “Finding an ally can help you get through.” 

Buxton also found solace and support through fellow Black business owners in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and widespread calls for social justice—which happened around the time she reopened her store in June. One significant relationship she formed was with a local photographer, who offered to help kickstart her store’s Instagram, conduct a monthly photo shoot and launch an ambassador program that is now thriving. “We saw a huge surge of Black businesses coming together more than ever before,” says Buxton. “Our community was really there for each other.”

Unprecedented stressors and challenges have also opened the doors for dance entrepreneurs to lead from a more authentic place—creating more transparency and empathy between owners and employees. 

“It’s important to be relationally transparent and allow your team members to see you [as you are],” says Joy, who is currently a doctoral candidate in the areas of business and psychology. “There’s a time and place to put on your game face, but also a time and place to be human and acknowledge humanity in your team members.”

Finding Perspective

For Buxton, one of the most stressful aspects of the pandemic has been the uncertainty. When the store reopened last June, Buxton had to deal not only with the fallout from the air-conditioner leak, but also a lack of foot traffic and demand. Sales were also volatile—for instance, September 2019 brought in $7,000 while September 2020 netted just $500.

A pile of pointe shoes with mold damage
An air-conditioner leak during the store closure damaged inventory at Ms. Ro’s Dance Closet. Courtesy of Roshawn Buxton

“Never before in my eight years of business had I had a day with zero customers,” says Buxton. “It really tears down your mindset to have several days in a row with no customers walking in.”

To get in a better headspace, Buxton has turned to daily affirmations and uplifting podcasts, such as Affirmation Nation/Millionaire Minded. “Every morning at 7:30 am, I do affirmations such as ‘I deserve to be rich,’ and ‘I am enough,’” says Buxton. “I get text affirmations on my phone and it really helps.”

Mayerhoff has also plugged into positivity by surrendering to the circumstances—and acknowledging that she has very little control over them. “I remind myself that any challenges I’m having aren’t because I’ve done something wrong or because I’m not a smart businesswoman,” says Mayerhoff. “This is a pandemic, and no one could have foreseen what we would be going through.”

On that note, Joy, of Black Dress Circle, suggests dance entrepreneurs take inventory of past challenges to recognize one’s own resilience—and start to see the way forward. 

“By looking back on the history of your business, you start to realize things have always worked out,” says Joy. “Know and trust that you’ve had the skills to get through hard times before. So many of us will come out of this experience with wisdom that will benefit us for decades, and better fortified for future economic cycles.”

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.