Poise Under Pressure: Studio Owners Work Hard To Keep Students Dancing in the Age of Social Distancing
When she opened Stepping Stone Dance Studio in Bristol, PA, 10 years ago, Dana Stone didn’t care about winning any competitions. She just wanted to give young dancers a positive outlet for their energy, an escape from the pressures of the outside world, and an inclusive community where they didn’t have to fake it to fit in.
“We are that place where they can be who they really are and just dance,” Dana says. “And that’s a gift I can give them that not everybody can give a kid: the chance to be themselves and express themselves.”
COVID-19 nearly stole that gift from Dana and her students.
Like dance educators everywhere, Dana has spent the past seven months struggling to navigate the unfamiliar dynamics of social distancing and stay open for business amid economic and social turmoil. On top of that, Dana and her colleagues were tasked with keeping the love of dance alive in their students’ heavy hearts and distracted minds.At Costume Gallery, a leading provider of dance recital costumes to studios across the globe, we salute everyone who has worked hard to serve their dance community during the COVID-19 pandemic. For this post, we caught up with two studio owners on opposite coasts of the US to explore how they overcame personal and professional obstacles to keep their students moving, learning and growing under difficult circumstances.
Julie Kay Stallcup owned Revolution Dance Center in Montrose, CA, for 15 years. In a given season, she and her staff taught 1,200 students between the ages of 2 and 18.
Hers was a huge, thriving operation that required the use of two studio buildings.
Then came March 2020.
Julie closed Revolution to comply with her state’s COVID guidelines. As she poured her energy into developing a comprehensive virtual curriculum - even making detailed flash cards so her dancers could learn their steps - she watched the studio’s rent bills mount and felt her stress levels climb.
“My energy dropped, and it was hard to keep them engaged, but I did my very best,” she says. “We worked so hard to complete our season in June with a 10-day virtual recital, and
parents were overjoyed that we worked so hard and pushed through.”
It took months of working around the clock to prepare her dancers to perform, without the luxury of in-person instruction. It also took all the motivational skills Julie could muster. She wasn’t just worried about the health of her business; she was worried about the health of her students.
Between being isolated at home without their friends and going to school and dance class on Zoom, she could tell that the kids needed extra support and a big boost of positivity.
“I would tell them funny stories about me as a dancer,” she says. “We started journaling how we felt and worked through the emotions together through choreography. I had them create vision boards to see where their minds were.”
Julie’s tireless dedication and upbeat attitude helped keep her dancers on track - and Revolution Dance Center afloat - but it came at a cost. While her financial worries were somewhat alleviated when Revolution decided to close one of its buildings in late July, Julie found herself running on empty as the summer drew to a close.
“I went above and beyond,” she says. “We need to simplify everything. I also think we should praise ourselves more. I realized I worked 24 hours and that my attitude when i got home was not 100% for my family. I need more self-care time.”
Hard lessons learned, Julie has started to prioritize her own health during these stressful times. Although she and her family have decided to leave California and move to Little Rock, AR, to start fresh, her poise under the pressures of the pandemic has set Revolution up for a bright future.
“I created the entire next year's timeline and curriculum, and I sold my studio to two people who I love and adore,” Julie says. “I know their journey will be a success.” 😊
She only took two weeks “off” from running her studio at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March. She quickly reinvented the way she and her staff taught dance so she could remain viable in a changing marketplace. Still, Dana Stone found herself having a long, hard discussion with her husband about the business part of the business.
Within just a few weeks, Dana lost almost half her enrollment, going from around 450 students to 250 in the transition from in-person to virtual classes. Stepping Stone Dance Studio would eventually ease back into in-person classes - at 50% capacity and with mandatory masks or face shields - but not all the lost students returned.
Meanwhile, with smaller class sizes and heightened hygiene protocols, expenses at the studio kept rising.
Crunching the numbers made Dana sick to her stomach. It was, she says, the hardest thing she’s had to go through in her decade as a business owner.
“I decided I had to pull from my 401k to keep me going,” says Dana, a mother of two boys who works as an operations manager at a plastics company during the day. “I was fortunate enough that I had that. Not everyone has that. But I just decided I was not going to lose the studio because of this, and I was going to fight for it.”
Why make that sacrifice?
“Just pure love,” Dana says.
Dana built Stepping Stone around the love of dance, eschewing the intensity and pressure of competitions in favor of a close-knit community where dancers could just enjoy performing.
Still, as the pandemic stretched on and she worked hard to keep dancers engaged within the limitations of virtual learning, Dana could tell that some of her students had lost the spring in their step.
“It was awful,” she says. “We still have kids today who are literally suffering from what they have been going through, with having to do everything from home. I can see it in their dancing. Where some kids were extroverted and outgoing, they’re pulling back and they’re staying inside and they’re not expressing themselves the way they used to. Parents are telling me about it and asking me, ‘Can you talk to her and see if you can get something else out of her?’ It’s a whole new world we live in, and nobody has ever been exposed to this. And it’s overwhelming for kids because they need the social aspect, they need to be in front of people, they need to have those friendships with other kids, and everything was taken away from them, just like that.”
She knew she couldn’t make everything feel normal for her remaining students, but Dana tried to make Zoom classes fun with “dance bingo” games, scavenger hunts and acrobatic challenges involving the dancers and their parents. She maintained a robust class schedule, including morning stretch classes “just to keep kids moving - and make sure they didn’t forget about us.”
When COVID restrictions relaxed during the summertime, volunteers helped Dana wire Stepping Stone for audio and video so staff could run simultaneous in-person and Zoom classes. The same technology helped them pull off a six-day recital for a total of 175 dancers - with just three weeks of preparation.
During the performance, parents were either able to watch from home on an electronic device, or out in the studio parking lot on a big projection screen.
“I had so many parents volunteering and wanting to help us, and it definitely brought our community together,” Dana says. “Everyone just did what they needed to do to make it happen, and that was so nice to see.”
After the final performance was over and all the dancers and parents had gone home, Dana says she and her staff just sat down on the floor of the studio to reflect on all they’d gone through together.
“We were like, ‘Wow! We did it!’” she recalls. “We were not going to let this terrible COVID-19 rip this away from us. We were still able to do something, and we didn’t give up. I felt like we were stronger because we did all stick together.”
Thinking back on everything that has happened so far in 2020, Dana says she feels grateful and fortunate. She does not regret the personal sacrifices she made to keep Stepping Stone alive and well.
“It was definitely worth it,” she says. “Just to see the kids’ responses, like, ‘Oh, Miss Dana, I missed the studio so much, and I’m so glad we’re here!’ And I knew the parents wanted the kids there to dance and kind of put the world aside and everything that was going on.
“It was just great to see the smiles, and to see how hard they worked those three weeks to get ready for their performance.”
We would like to thank Julie Kay Stallcup and Dana Stone for taking the time to speak to us about their pandemic experiences. Please stay tuned to our blog for more inspiring stories from the world of dance, and remember to check out our Season 21 digital catalog, filled with an array of beautiful and budget-friendly dance costumes from our brilliant team of designers.
* Photos courtesy of Julie Kay Stallcup and Dana Stone.