Are Dance Studios Opening Safely?

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

When can dance studios safely re-open in the greater Philadelphia area? When will the economy begin to recover? More importantly, when will we truly have the coronavirus under control? The unspoken truth, based on all reports, is not any time soon!

Despite this harsh reality, Philadelphia and most of the suburban counties are now entering the Green phase for reopening.  Restrictions with regards to capacity and practice of CDC guidelines remain in place.

Subsequently, dance studio after dance studio has begun to announce their re-opening. Studios owners are waiting to see if these re-openings will bring in enough income to save their businesses. Most studios operate on thin margins and with monthly rents due, and covid relief funds running out, they simply will not have the necessary cash on hand to meet their monthly obligations.

In addition, studio owners also lack the cash to pay back students for lost lessons, costumes, and competition fees they may have collected pre-pandemic. Many had bargained with parents and students offering credits towards future lessons. These parents and students have now become impatient or face their own financial burdens. The majority of studio owners we spoke with had converted to digital formats such as Zoom, YouTube, and Instagram for conducting classes, offering them for free or for nominal fees as a way to keep their students engaged.  Some have even held modified classes and recitals outdoors with worried onlooking parents. Still, all of these alternative teaching methods may simply not be enough. Almost all studio owners we spoke with reported some loss of students.

One studio owner, I spoke with by telephone, had paid out significant fees for her students to attend a major competition this past Spring. The competition’s organizers postponed, but did not cancel the competition and subsequently have not returned any portion of those fees, amounting to thousands of dollars in losses. Other dance studios reported similar issues, quickly citing additional thousands of dollars they had to layout for costumes that they may never recoup. Overall, owners report a loss of Spring recital fees which so many rely on for income.

The cost of studios reopening safely in the pandemic adds the extra burden of virus prevention expenses. These can be significant with cost estimates from four hundred to fifteen hundred dollars per day, depending on the square footage. To truly sanitize the studio between classes takes considerable work from cleaning floors to mirrors and barres as well as bathrooms and changing areas. Proper chemicals must be used to ensure that any trace of the covid virus is removed, while still being safe around children. It’s summertime and many studios have air conditioning running. This also requires the installation and changing of special HEPA filters to remove any potential virus particles from being spread throughout the air systems.

Studio owners have had to add new rules for operation, limiting the number of students at any given time being in the studio and changing areas, enforcing social distancing, encouraging the use of hand sanitizer or hand washing, and utilizing masks. In addition, they are faced with the same political challenges over mask-wearing that the rest of the nation has been faced with. Philadelphia has legally mandated the use of masks for all businesses, and for the most part, studios appear to have complied. However, in several cases, owners seem to have left the decision about mask-wearing up to individual parents. One owner reported that none of her students currently wear masks but do socially distance.

Studio owners while dealing with their own anxiety over their business have also had to counsel both students and parents. Dance studios for many have become a “second family” with intense loyalty to the owners and instructors. Students and their parents have found themselves torn between their own personal safety and their love and support of their studio. Reports of covid disproportionately affecting youth have confounded the issue,  with parents evaluating the risk of returning to the studio as being lower. However, according to CDC, WHO, and AMA reports, this may not actually be the case.  Just as with the debate over opening the schools in the Fall, parents are now faced with the decision of whether attending dance may put their child in harm’s way. Some parents reported that they were also concerned about the mental health of their children if they did not return to the studio and their tight-knit circle of friends. The bottom line is that even with proper precautions, some dancers and parents may not feel ready to return. And they shouldn’t have to!

Parents and dance students really need to take a hard look at the overall situation and safety protocols and ask themselves under what conditions they would be comfortable returning to the studio.  Difficult conversations need to be had with both studio owners and instructors in order to evaluate any safety concerns. In the end, dancers need to protect themselves. While we would all like to return to “normal”, no human life is replaceable.

As Joan Myers Brown, Founder and Executive Director of Philadanco so aptly put in a post on FaceBook, “I keep telling you guys don’t just open your studio and bring folks, students in for classes as usual. Prepare!!!! Do the right thing. Invest in your student’s lives.”

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