Group staff photo in masks from 2020

“Recital Reimagined” in 2020, with my rockstar staff.

Back in 2009, there was an H1N1 flu pandemic, otherwise known as the swine flu pandemic. My dance studio was only a few years old then. It was important news, but perhaps not “big” news—to me, the bigger news was when a local school closed because of a norovirus outbreak (not to sound dramatic, but that seemed a far worse fate as far as I could tell). During H1N1, one nearby school district closed for a week of cleaning and disinfecting; others considered closing but didn’t follow suit. I made a mental note of these things, ramped up our own cleaning efforts within the studio, and left it at that. I asked one of my former students what she remembers about that time and she said, “I think I just remember it smelling really clean?” So there you go.

Five years later, in early 2014, the Dallas area had quite a scare with Ebola. Although the studio was in a suburb some 30 miles away, it turned out that someone in contact with Patient Zero lived in our area and, upon experiencing alarming symptoms, walked in to an urgent care center just a few miles from the studio. The news spread lightning-fast, and that afternoon before classes began, the phone rang. I watched as my office manager answered it. Her eyes widened while she nodded at the phone, murmured a few “uh-huhs,” then asked if she could place the caller on hold. She turned to me after pressing mute and with a completely straight face said, “That was Madison’s mom. She wants to know: what is our Ebola policy?”

My brain seemed to fumble then. Time slowed and the room folded and bent as if I were in a psychedelic movie. I stood there, trying to ground myself, blinking away my trippy vision, a laugh hiccupping out of me without warning. I wasn’t sure what to say. And I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something to the general effect of, please tell her we do not have an Ebola policy, but we are committed to stepping up our cleaning measures while we see how the local situation plays out. My mind was racing after that. This was absurd. I couldn’t contain my nervous laughter and yet I was also terrified. What if we needed an Ebola policy!? I might just have to close my doors forever. There’s no way there could be an Ebola outbreak and it would be safe to hold dance classes.

Fortunately, the situation for us never grew past that moment. Madison didn’t come to class that day, the man who went to urgent care tested negative, the hubbub quieted, and our little bubble remained safe. I didn’t think seriously again about any kind of virus or pandemic affecting the business until well, you know.

Spring break for the studio began on March 9th of 2020, and it so happened that was when Kayla (my then-director, now owner of the studio) and I were taking a small group of dancers to New York City for a jam-packed week of classes, culminating with tickets to a Broadway show. Prior to the trip we had held a few meetings with the students and their parents, and during the last meeting and its follow-up emails, I acknowledged that we were hearing reports about this new coronavirus. Together, the parents and I agreed that the trip would go on and we would stay alert about good hand hygiene and any new news reports.

The day before we left for the trip, there were something like 17 reported cases of infection in all of Manhattan. We packed hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes, but they were in short supply so we used them strategically, saving the wipes for the airplane and hotel, and making sure to buy bottles of hand soap at Duane Reade.

The week started out well enough; Broadway Dance Center smelled like a natatorium, bless them. As a group of seven teens and two adults, we still dined out at least twice a day, visited Times Square, and even made it into the legendary Ellen’s Stardust Diner on March 11, Kayla’s birthday. At Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, I went to shake hands with the instructor who abruptly yet kindly stopped me with an elbow bump. It wasn’t until Thursday that week that things really went sideways. The girls began to get messages from their parents that school was closing for an additional week. I received a call from the group organizer who sold our Broadway tickets saying they were going dark and would offer a refund. The dancers were disappointed of course, and Kayla and I talked with them about making hard decisions and how much it sucks for the people in charge to make the call for things like that, because it affects more than the patrons and performers; there are the producers, costumers, stagehands, sound and lighting engineers, ushers, and many many more livelihoods at stake. Little did I know what lay in store for me when it came to making hard decisions.

As we waited at LaGuardia on Friday for our flight home, the girls huddled around their phones and airport curly fries and I checked my voicemail. There was a message from the event manager of our recital venue. Our April shows had officially been canceled, he was sorry to say, and he didn’t have much news yet other than that. There were no plans to reschedule because everything was on pause. I felt my heart sink, my face drain. Schools canceled. Recital canceled. Life … canceled? Just exactly how dangerous was this mystery virus? My brain buzzed with the seriousness of what was descending upon us. It was a bumpy flight home while I worked on version after version of emails to staff and clients: what if we closed for one more week; what if it was a longer closure; what if it was indefinite; what if recital couldn’t be rescheduled; what if clients withdrew; what if they asked for refunds; what if what if what if.

Like nearly all small business owners—like nearly all people on the planet—I quickly felt myself tip into crisis mode. My version was tightly rolled up into fear, namely that my business would completely fall apart and fail. There were these constant feelings of doubt and disbelief, not unlike when I first opened the studio and grappled with the learning curve of becoming an entrepreneur. Maybe I should just go ahead and close up forever because wouldn’t that be simpler than trying to find my way out of this maze, a maze that no one even understood? What in the world am I doing?

There was so much to be thankful for in the midst of such a trying time, but the mind is a tricky thing—fickle, playing off anxieties and tensions. No matter my efforts to the contrary, the emotions pent up; no matter how much I told myself to inhale the good and exhale the bad, frustration would creep back in. My default position in times of stress is to turn inward, and during this time it was amplified. I had to keep up my positive performance on the outside. There was no question about that; no one wants to follow a leader who is unsure and emotional, constantly wringing her hands and coming up with no satisfying answers. But this meant bottling up my fears, which quickly bled into a private rage. Not at one person or thing, but at the situation itself.

If you’re reading this, I’m sure you remember how in those early days, nobody knew anything about anything. For me, making decisions about how my business could (or more realistically, couldn’t) operate was taxing in a way that is hard to describe. I knew soul-deep that I had to keep the business going and be as clear-headed as possible. Seeking counsel from my business mentor and my peers through More Than Just Great Dancing, the affiliate group my studio belonged to, was the only way I was able to be thoughtful at all. The dance industry has no regulation, which is great but also not great: if we were going to do business, we had to look to each other, and to schools, daycares, and other youth activities in order to cobble together some sense of organization and self-regulation. We were, as they say, in this together. That gave me hope.

Stubbornness took over once I decided not to quit. There would be nothing but resolve ahead even if I damaged myself in the process. The martyrdom syndrome that plagued me during the early years of studio ownership reared its head again, and it was not pretty. Sleep was hard to come by; that bottled-up frustration and anger curtailed my ability to find any true sense of calm. By June, we had wrapped up our dance season with a virtual recital and clung to dear life with 30 percent of the clientele we had pre-pandemic. By all business standards that’s not surviving; it’s dying. But that 30 percent had 100 percent of my gratitude. They made it possible for the business to go forward at all—in addition to my rockstar staff who stepped up in all the ways, despite their own life disruptions.

No one asked for this challenge, I reminded myself. Even though I was having a Groundhog Day of FML moments where I wanted to hide in my pantry of last-grasp supplies and bawl my eyes out, of course I had to keep the business afloat; other people depended on me. Even if I went down with what was left of the ship, if I ended up with no practical choice but to permanently close, I would refuse to sink without building lifeboats, without treading water, without gasping for air. I say this more as a point of my blind frustration and determinedness, not to my wisdom. I did not want to be Jack in Titanic.

So, I threw myself into staying alive, literally and figuratively. We had to open our doors again smartly, cautiously. We received PPP funds to float partial rent payments and payroll, invested grant money in tech upgrades for the classrooms, installed new air purifiers and HEPA filters, ordered gallons of disinfectant and hand sanitizer, set up a new viewing-window-camera system, and taped off socially distant spaces everywhere. The first time I entered the classroom to measure individual six-feet-by-six-feet squares, I sat with the tape measure and cried my eyes out. How did this become a thing? What am I doing? Who’s going to come to dance like this?

I remember driving to the studio one of those days, with the new signs we had printed, directing people to wear masks and wash their hands and stay six feet apart and enter here and exit there. I was crying (what else was new?) and at the stoplight before I turned into our shopping center, I just sobbed. I wasn’t sad, exactly. I wasn’t upset at any one person. But this was how the days went now. I was uncertain and drained. Emotionally dysregulated. I blew my nose at the red light, and when the light turned green, I took shaky breaths and kept driving.

As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a handful of people in camp chairs in front of our doors—I remember thinking, Oh no. What is going on? Did something happen? Are people literally banging on the door to get their money back? But no, it was a small group of our teenage dancers and their moms. They were meeting there, surreptitiously, to collect thank you cards for our teachers. It was as if the heavens opened up and put them there so that I could check myself.

Like the Grinch, I felt my heart grow three sizes as I parked and pulled myself together, patting some extra makeup around my eyes before I got out of the car. I’ll be forever grateful for that moment, as if those families knew I needed to see them and feel their care and compassion—even from six feet apart—to remind myself that yes, I can keep doing this. I can get it together. I have to. No, I want to. For them, for my staff, for our little community. For myself. Remember this, I thought later as I taped up the posters. Remember this feeling.

Now, nearly four years later, that feeling registers as if it just happened yesterday. Many more positive moments followed, and collectively they sustained me through the next several months of rebuilding the business to a healthy state. That’s a story for another post, but certainly I look back now with even more appreciation for those who reminded me to get out of my head and my ego, to focus on the desired outcomes for all—to remember that a dance studio is not just a place where people gather to learn new skills; it’s where they can feel supported, cared for, led, and loved. It’s where a common passion brings us together, then allows us to shape different pathways in life. It’s where, quite simply, we learn to thrive. Even—or especially—during a pandemic.