Dancing Through A Pandemic
11 months…11 months have passed since we closed our doors to the general public. 11 months since the County Health Department required all non-essential businesses to close. At the time, we had no idea who are County Health Official was. We would be getting to know them much better in the following weeks and months.
Every small business owner knows that it takes hard work and dedication to keep your business running in the best of times. The best managed small businesses are prepared for rainy days. No small business is prepared for a hurricane that lasts a year.
We survived 2020, and how we hope to emerge stronger in 2021. Nothing is guaranteed moving forward, but we think we have made it through the worst part of the pandemic and we see a light at the end of the tunnel. This is the story of the past year from the perspective of a small business. The difficult decisions, moves, and sacrifices that needed to be made to stay open. There were many points along the way where we could have just called it quits. We could have said it was too difficult, and we could have moved on.
Through it all we leaned on our staff, our dance families, and each other as we are a married couple running a business together. We bet on ourselves, like we have so many other times in the past. We bet if we could just figure out a way to stay afloat, we could grow more after this pandemic ends. It’s still to early to know if our bet has paid off, and we do not know what the future holds. We are optimistic we made the right choice.
A slow-moving tidal wave was heading our way, but we did not know it yet. The news had been consumed with COVID-19 related stories and we started to see cases pop up closer and closer to San Mateo. On March 13, 2020 – the decision from the county came down, and we had to close our doors to the public. At the time, the consensus was if we all stayed home for two weeks, we could end this pandemic before it started. While we had our worries, we felt we would be okay.
We initially made a couple of moves that we thought would be temporary. Teachers recorded themselves teaching movement, and we uploaded the videos for our students to practice at home for the next two weeks. We figured we would be back in the classroom shortly.
About 1 week into the closure however, we realized that this was heading towards a long term shut down.
Questions immediatley started to fill our heads. How would we hold classes? How would we pay teachers? Pay rent? What about our June recital? Costumes had been ordered, venues had been booked, thousands of dollars had already been spent. Not to mention our performance teams were scheduled for competitions that would never happen.
April came with the realization that we would not be opening any time soon. We had two options. The first option meant shutting everything down, furloughing all our staff, and not offering any online classes. This option would mean we were betting the pandemic would only last a month or two, and we would live off savings to see us through to the other side. As bad as it sounded at the time, in retrospect this was the optimistic choice.
The second option was to make the tough decision to move our entire class schedule (100+ classes at the time) to an online format. We had three goals. One, keep the kids engaged and dancing. Two, keep our staff employed and paid. Three, pay the bills.
After a short amount of deliberating, we opted to make the move to Zoom. I remember saying “Adapt or die.” at the end of that meeting. At the end of March, we made the announcement to our families that all classes would move to Zoom. At the time almost nobody outside of the corporate world knew what Zoom was, or how to use it.
This is where we leaned on our staff to make one of the biggest adjustments they will ever have to make in their teaching careers. How do you move hundreds of classes online and continue to provide a quality dance class? Our staff were amazing! Not only did they have to learn how to use a new program, but they also embraced the change and got creative with their teaching methods. That was just the start of the challenges for our staff.
Living situations, space, internet connections, and other factors outside of their control would start to come into play. Some lived alone, but some had roommates, and only access to their bedrooms. Some had to use their backyards. Others are parents with kids of their own at home. While still others had to deal with slow internet connections or issues with laptops or tablets. Streaming from home was not easy for everyone, but we made it work.
Another amazing group of people during this time have been our loyal dance families. Many of our families have stuck it out with us this year and we will be eternally grateful. All of the dancers that have been able to continue have adjusted all year long. They have learned how to use Zoom, sometimes better than our staff, and they have been positive throughout the year.
Starting in April, many of our families even continued paying tuition even though they were not able to use our online classes. For some families, however, zoom classes were not an option for a variety of reasons both practical, and financial. Job loss, hours on screens, age, and other factors beyond our control meant we would start to see a steady decline in enrollment through the summer months. Anxiety would start to grow.
May 1st came with a nice boost to our morale as we received both a PPP loan and two smaller grants. There was also optimism going into the summer months that the pandemic would slow to the point where we could return to in-person learning. Hope that would fade soon after.
We were 1 month away from our recital and we had lost both our venues as large crowds were not allowed anywhere. Group classes were still not allowed to meet in person, but we were able to get soloists in the door for private lessons. At the time, we felt that the PPP loan would get us to July, and that hopefully the worst be over by then.
In the meantime, the amount of work and organization it took to transfer our recitals to a completely online format was significant. Between both programs we would typically have upwards of 500 dancers taking the stage at various times in June. We had to hand deliver most of these costumes to families’ homes. We had to plan out what a Zoom recital would look like. After all, there was not template for this anywhere.
Hours were spent on reorganizing ourselves to create remote recitals for our dancers. Teachers also got creative with their use of Zoom for choreography. We made it work! Our Zoom recitals were a success. The dacners and teachers did a fabulous job on their big day.
Typically July for dance studio means, a little down time. At least from the normal routine of the fall/spring seasons. We have a few days off for 4th of July, and we get into our summer camps. It’s also a time where we start to plan ahead for the following season. This July would be different, just like everything else in 2020. We had to cancel our summer camps. We couldn’t plan ahead, as we didn’t know what to plan for.
With restrictions still in place, PPP loan running out, and no end in sight, it was time to look for ways to cut costs. Payroll and rent being the largest bills for most businesses, we had to start there. We still had not let go of any teachers, but we had reached a point where temporary pay cuts were necessary.
We also reached out to our landlord and see if we could negotiate our lease so we could afford to remain open. Luckily, our landlord was agreeable and was able to help. We settled on a partial deferral of rent to be paid back at a later date. We know a lot of other business owners whose landlords were not willing or able to accommodate tenants during this past year, so we are counting our lucky stars that our landlord was willing to work with us. This agreement would help us continue on, although we continue accruing a large bill to this day.
With the finances set we refocused on what we could. The summer months rolled on, our staff had gotten into a groove with their classes. Everyone was a Zoom expert, and the older kids in the PCPA program had adjusted nicely to learning online. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Small Fry. Our Small Fry program has taken the largest hit in enrollment.
It started right in mid-March when we were not allowed to send teachers to our preschool locations. As the months dragged on, the majority of the Small Fry’s would unenroll. Not suprisingly. Zoom classes for a toddler are not easy. When we entered the shutdown, Small Fry had 500+ preschool dancers enrolled. Today we are well below 100 dancers. And while PCPA has held on much better, it is also down a significant percentage.
The Small Fry schedule would continue to get cut all summer and into the fall months. The program that feeds into our PCPA classes was decimated. We had a small respite at the end of summer when small cohorts of in-person lessons were allowed again. That was short lived.
With back to school season starting, and the county allowing cohorts, we looked at offering our space as a place where kids could do their distance learning . It was a potential source of income when we really needed it. We decided to start a stable learning cohort for 8-10 kids. We converted our smallest studio in a quiet learning area. Each kid, including both of our sons, had their own desk, book shelves, supplies, and access to the internet. They would also be able to use the rest of our space for recess and other activities. Again, I remember thinking, ”Adapt or die.”
This plan worked well through the fall, but for various personal and scheduling reasons, this setup was not sustainable with the limited staffing we had in place. It did help us make up some revenue through November, which was crucial. Unfortunately, we had to cut the cohort when we hit the Thanksgiving break.
December 2020 to Present
A long, dark, winter. That was the mantra coming from experts regarding the pandemic. We had gone back to sheltering in place. Most days felt like Groundhog Day and have ever since. We have two kids of our own doing distance learning at home. We do not go out much these days, like most people. It is a strange feeling to be both stressed about work and feeling like you need to act, while simultaneously being bored and stuck with nothing to do. I am sure a lot of us are in the same boat.
Since the start of December all we could do was sit and wait. Continue teaching online, and keep the program chugging along. We started to plan for our June recital with the hopes we would be able to pull some sort of modified in-person, outdoor, performance. We have started to order costumes, and teachers are well into their choreography.
The teachers, students, and families continue to be rock solid. We appreciate everything they have done this past year.
While there has been a lot of doom and gloom, there is also a lot we can both hang our hat on from this past year, and lots of positives to look forward to. We can say that we have successfully navigated our small business through almost a year of closures. A near impossibility for a lot of small businesses. We have kept our teachers employed. We have kept the kids dancing. We have kept paying (mostly) the bills.
My wife, Jana, and I have had many long conversations, late nights, stressful days, and tearful moments over the past 11 months. Despite all that we have persevered. We want to be here for peninsula families when this is over and we hope you will be there for us as well.
We are aware that San Mateo has lost two dance schools in recent months, including one that has been a member of the community since the 1950’s. Despite being competitors, we do not cheer their closures at all. The dance community is small, and any institution that is promoting the art of dance is valuable. Seeing those studios close was demoralizing for us as fellow business owners, and a huge loss to the dancers that grew up learning from their staff. We would like to let all those families know that we plan to be here, and if you need a new home for your dancer, you are welcome in our doors (or our zoom classes) anytime.
This month we are looking at another round of PPP loans and have applied for another grant. With vaccines now being distributed, cases dropping, and hospitalizations seemingly peaking, we hope that now, finally, the worst has indeed passed.
We will continue to follow county guidelines and bring back classes slowly as it is allowed. We hope that families that were forced to take a break from dance come back to us quickly, and that we see the community rally around business like ours to make sure we can get back to “normal”.
2021 will likely be a transitional year. We will be back, but not at full capacity. We won’t have recital in a 1000 seat theatre like we usually do. We may not all be back in person at the same time. We believe that by fall of 2021, we will start to feel like we are truly back. The 2021-2022 season will feel like the ones in the past.
While restaurants have gotten a lot of the press, I thought it was important for people to remember that there are a lot of businesses like ours that service families and kids and are valuable to the community. Gymnastics, karate, dance, music, jiu-jitsu, and other indoor kids’ activities need your help and your patronage to survive. I also happen to coach little league, and those outdoor sports will also need families to return as soon as it is allowed, and you feel ready. If we do not support these types of businesses, our kids will miss out on culture, arts, physical activities, working in teams, setting, and achieving goals, and learning to socialize with kids outside their immediate classrooms.
We are crossing our fingers that this downtrend in cases, coupled with the arrival of vaccines is truly the end stages of this pandemic. We are still here, 11 months later, ready to serve our community.
Stay safe out there. We hope to see you all again soon!