A Tale of Two Studios

Amid the uncertainty of doing business during the COVID-19 pandemic, two popular community dance hubs with very different trajectories—L.A.’s EDGE Performing Arts Center and Chicago’s Visceral Dance Center—share their plans for the future.

Dancers do floorwork in a large, bright studio with glass walls. People sit at chairs in the hallway outside the studio
EDGE’s studios, which they recently had to vacate. Photo courtesy EDGE

To say that 2020 has proved an exercise in resilience for dance-studio owners everywhere might be the understatement of the year. Because of COVID-19, passionate and intrepid dance educators and business people have been forced to adapt and innovate as never before, amid an ever-changing landscape of safety protocols and restrictions.

For some, the pandemic has opened new opportunities and avenues. Though a number of studio launches planned for 2020 were sidelined or postponed by the shelter-in-place orders of last spring, many owners optimistically continued pursuing their projects (Marlana Doyle’s Institute of Contemporary Dance in Houston; Kim Black’s Miss Kim’s Children’s Dance and Arts in Burlington, North Carolina).  Others have found ways to continue their programming without a physical space (Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in San Francisco; Ryan Heffington’s Sweat Spot in L.A.). And many more are adapting their cleaning protocols, staffing and more for a limited return of students to physical classes.

While circumstances and outcomes vary widely, one common thread has emerged: the need to make key business decisions with relatively little idea what lies ahead.

Dance Business Weekly checked in with owners of two popular dance centers whose trajectories have been impacted in very different ways. Hollywood-based EDGE Performing Arts Center recently lost its long-term building lease, while Chicago-based Visceral Dance Center is moving forward with an ambitious expansion. Here’s how these entrepreneurs are forging a new outlook for long-term survival.

Living on the EDGE

When Hollywood-based EDGE Performing Arts Center announced in early August that it would be forced to vacate its location of 28 years, the announcement sent shockwaves through the dance community. After all, its faculty roster includes celebrity choreographers like Michael Rooney and Sheryl Murakami, and the thriving dance center serves 95,000 students annually with 125 weekly classes.

“We were in shock too—we’d only had a few days’ notice before we told the public,” says co-owner Bill Prudich. “It felt like a funeral.”

The announcement came after Prudich and co-owner Randall Allaire learned that the studio’s longtime home base, Television Center, had been sold after three years of negotiations, and that EDGE would not be part of future development (despite previous indications to the contrary, with the lease set to renew in 2024).

And while Prudich and Allaire are still busy trying to figure out the studio’s next steps, Prudich is adamant that any rumors of the studio’s death have been greatly exaggerated. “We have a lot of stuff to move and sort through,” says Prudich, “but the one thing that’s really important to understand is that our plan is to keep moving forward.”

In the wake of COVID-19, the studio had already spent much of 2020 in the process of recalibration. After the studio went dark in mid-March due to a statewide stay-at-home order, EDGE offered free and donation-based classes via Instagram for 11 weeks, after which the studio switched to fee-based Zoom classes. In June, EDGE began offering a full-time virtual-class schedule at the rate of $10 per class.

“Our faculty was incredibly generous with their time and energy, but teachers can’t teach for free forever,” says Prudich. “With zero income coming in and bills remaining due, we had to figure out a way to generate income to at least cover staffing.”

Income from virtual classes was enough to help offset expenses but not to completely sustain the studio. Prudich was encouraged when EDGE was able to open for virtual, hybrid and in-studio instruction in July, but a surge in statewide COVID-19 cases promptly necessitated a return to virtual-only. However, neither he nor Allaire could have predicted what came next—the news that their tenancy at Television Center was coming to an end.

“So much time had passed that we and the other tenants weren’t sure if the sale was going to go through or not,” says Prudich. “We were informed of their new intentions three days after the sale was announced in the Los Angeles Times.”

Prudich and Allaire took a few days to regroup, then shared the news with their community at large. Though it was difficult, Prudich was heartened by what came next. “Our community has shown up in a big way for us, and there’s been a tremendous outpouring of people asking how they can help,” says Prudich.

Thanks to a GoFundMe campaign mounted by studio manager Jasmine Vinuya, friends and fans of the studio now have a chance to do just that. According to Prudich, the funds will go toward reopening in a new studio space, as well as supplementing the cost of virtual and video-on-demand classes. However, the campaign—which has a goal of $125,000 and has currently raised just over $16,000—represents “just a fraction—perhaps less than 20 percent” of the overall funds needed, he says.

Still, Prudich has a rough idea of what needs to happen to keep EDGE in motion, with hopes of reopening in early 2021. He estimates that they’ll venture into North Hollywood and are currently reevaluating how much space is needed. “We had quite a chunk of change in terms of square footage, with 12,000 square feet and five studios,” says Prudich. “We’ve already looked at a few locations.”

And whatever comes next, Prudich won’t stop fighting the good fight. “The one thing I know about dancers is that we make it work: They give you that impossible step, they need you to cross the floor in one count—we find a way,” he says. “I’m a big believer in rebirth and reset, and I see this as an opportunity to innovate.”

Taking the Leap

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away in Chicago, Visceral Dance Center is moving forward with plans for expansion—which will see the studio triple its footprint and move into a new facility not far from its current location in Avondale. It’s a bold move, especially after COVID-19 initially threatened the project’s $1 million construction loan, but founder Nick Pupillo is fully confident that it’s the right time for growth.

Pupillo, a white man in a black jacket and jeans, stands in an industrial space, soon to become the new Visceral studios
Nick Pupillo in Visceral’s new space. Photo by KT Miller Photography, courtesy Pulpillo

“This is part of what I teach in my choreography—the ability to take a risk and take control of that risk,” says Pupillo. “When we do get out of this pandemic, the space needs to be there for everyone; I truly believe the need for this type of community and these classes isn’t going to go away.”

Pupillo has a history of not shying away from a challenge. When he founded Visceral Dance Center in October 2007, he did so with relatively little capital—calling on $25,000 in savings; a $40,000 loan; and $100,000 in credit card debt (all of which he proudly paid off within two years).

“When I first took over this building, my mom didn’t talk to me for a month,” says Pupillo with a laugh, referring to the current 9,000-square-foot space. “She felt that I should have started smaller, but I’ve always known there was a need for this type of community.”

Thirteen years later, Visceral Dance Center has evolved into the community Pupillo envisioned. Currently, the studio holds over 100 classes weekly, taught by 35 instructors. It’s home to 300 youth-program students, a professional company and an open-enrollment adult drop-in program that has attracted over 25,000 dancers since it opened. What he didn’t expect is the high demand for rehearsal rental space. “As soon as I announced I would be renting space, my phone rang off the hook,” he says.

Over the years, he has hosted touring Broadway productions, such as Dirty Dancing, and auditions for MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew,” which he says “really helped put Visceral on the map.”

“We’ve created our own ecosystem for the dance community here,” says Pupillo, adding that the studio has a current operating budget of $1 million annually.

Pupillo decided several years ago that it was time to expand the studio’s physical footprint. In May 2019, he found the studio’s future home: a 27,000-square-foot former furniture showroom located on the Chicago River. Just three blocks away from the current location, the new space will have six studios and a mixed-use area. “All the feelings I had 13 years ago came back with this space,” he says.

After securing financing in January, Pupillo started construction in early March, but on March 16, the bank asked him to pause the project. “I made a whole PowerPoint presentation about all the reasons this space needs to be here,” says Pupillo, who eventually convinced the bank to reconsider after two months of back-and-forth.

With plans to move in 2021, Pupillo is busy finding underwriters and individual donors to help offset construction expenses. He plans to host small hard-hat tours of the new space, as well as virtual tours, to generate interest and excitement. In the meantime, Visceral Dance Center has been safely up and running with both in-person and virtual classes since July 13.

“Classes are full and the energy has been amazing,” says Pupillo. “It sounds corny, but I can see people smiling through their masks.”

Jen Jones Donatelli is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, Dance Retailer News and she is the former managing editor of CheerProfessional magazine