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Fredericksburg-area dance studios struggle during pandemic
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VIRUS PUTS STUDIOS ON PRECARIOUS FOOTING

Fredericksburg-area dance studios struggle during pandemic

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Khalia Harris said dance saved her life.

Growing up as a military child, she moved often and her father was frequently deployed. She struggled with sadness and a sense of not belonging anywhere—except for at the studio where she took dance lessons.

“Dance was really a healing thing for me, and it changed the trajectory of my life,” Harris said.

Her own experience with the therapeutic and community-building power of a local dance studio inspired Harris to open Umbiance Center for the Performing Arts in Stafford County five years ago.

“I wanted to bring that healing opportunity to other children, especially those who are at-risk, have special needs and that sort of thing,” Harris said.

Umbiance students have performed at many community events, such as the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration at James Monroe High School and the first-ever Black History Month celebration at Brock Road Elementary School last year.

In 2019, the studio received a Best of Fredericksburg award for best area dance school.

Harris also established a nonprofit—Leading Education Arts Program, or LEAP—which has provided scholarships to Umbiance for economically disadvantaged children.

But now, a message on the nonprofit’s homepage reads “LEAP is no longer able to accept scholarship applications for the 2020 year.” The scholarships were a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had about 12 scholarship students and they’re not able to come right now,” Harris said.

Umbiance has not been able to hold in-person classes since March. Like schools and all nonessential businesses, the studio had to close abruptly in mid-March and Harris said her landlord was not able to work with her to figure out a rental payment plan.

The studio had to move out of its space at the beginning of April. Harris said she has a new location, but it needs significant work, including HVAC and hot water.

Enrollment has dropped from about 100 students to about 70.

The studio is offering virtual classes, which were originally well-attended, but Harris said kids are growing tired of learning through a screen.

“They were fine coming virtually through August, but with kids now going to school virtually, it just is a lot for some of them,” Harris said. “And I don’t blame them. We went from warning kids about too much screen time and now screen time is all they get.”

Harris said she and her instructors are constantly brainstorming ways to keep their students engaged. They’ve invited students to Zoom into class from outdoors. They’ve delivered goodie bags filled with streamers, stickers and lollipops to the their littlest students. They’ve visited current and former students in person, from a distance.

Harris knows her students are feeling depressed and disconnected, and that it’s worse for those who were already at risk. She said some of her students have self-harming tendencies, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and by being cut off from dance as an outlet.

“I have kids who have been thrown out of their homes during this pandemic,” Harris said.

Umbiance is fundraising for the new location. Harris, who has no other job besides the studio, said she needs to raise $20,000 for build-out and rent.

Meanwhile, she has applied for at least six grants and is dipping into her own savings to be able to pay for her studio software, insurance and her administrative assistant and instructors’ salaries.

“This is it,” Harris said. “This is all I do.”

Local studios struggle

Small local dance studios across the country area among the businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Mandatory closures and restrictions on in-person class sizes have chipped away at income for dance studio owners, who have also had to cancel large performances and competition events, which were additional sources of revenue.

Enrollment is down because many students find virtual dance classes to be a poor substitute for in-person classes.

Small dance studios are more likely to be owned by women. According to Guidant Financial’s 2020 Women in Business Trends, health, beauty and fitness services is the second most popular industry for women-owned small businesses.

As female-owned studios struggle, they become part of the story of the pandemic’s affects on women’s work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women—and especially women of color—have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19-related job losses, with 60 percent of jobs lost early in the pandemic belonging to women.

Federal and state relief funds have been hard to access for very small businesses such as local dance studios.

The federal payroll protection program, or PPP, was a bank loan for small businesses to cover payroll expenses. However, the problem for many nonessential businesses that had to close in the spring was that they didn’t have enough staff to spend the money on and their reopening timeline was uncertain.

The PPP program later relaxed some of the rules governing how the loan could be spent, but the process of applying for the loan was complicated and approval was sometimes dependent on the relationship between businesses and banks. Minority business owners were less likely to apply for a loan and be approved for it, according to a Goldman Sachs study conducted in April.

‘We don’t make enough noise’

Karime Echevarria, who owns Virtuous Dance Center in Stafford and The Dance Box in King George, said she found that the dance school model didn’t fit in any of the categories for state relief grants.

The Rebuild Virginia small business grant is available to fitness and exercise facilities. The website states that this category includes “gymnasiums, recreation centers, swimming pools, indoor sports facilities and indoor exercise facilities.”

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“We don’t fit as a gym,” Echevarria said. “We’re not a gym, we’re a dance school. They just put us where they think we fit best without understanding our business.”

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Oct. 28 that he is directing an additional $30 million to support the expansion of the Rebuild Virginia program. Businesses with less than $10 million in gross revenue or fewer than 250 employees will now be eligible under the new criteria, and the maximum grant award will increase from $10,000 to $100,000.

Businesses that already received the grant will receive another award correlated to the updated guidelines

Echevarria opened Virtuous Dance five years ago and acquired The Dance Box this spring, when the pandemic forced the original owner out of business. She said enrollment across both locations has dropped 50 percent.

“We have tried to do virtual, but it’s not the same experience,” she said. “The first month was OK, but after that everything went downhill.”

Both locations hold in-person classes, but Echevarria said it is more financially viable for her to hold virtual classes until class size restrictions can be lifted. As it is, she has to pay an instructor to teach two sections of a class when before, all students would fit in one class.

But students aren’t enrolling in virtual classes, and others are leery of in-person classes.

Owning a dance studio was a business that fit into the Echevarria family’s lifestyle. Her daughters danced, so she could be with them after school and in the evenings.

“I know where my kids are and I know who their friends are,” she said. “I never miss time with them.”

Now, she is dipping into her family’s savings to keep the studios going. Rent between the two buildings is about $6,500 monthly. She isn’t making that amount in tuition, and her husband has had to withdraw twice from his government thrift savings program to support the business.

Echevarria said she noticed strong community support for local restaurants and wished there was the same level of support for the services her dance studio provides.

“Parents would pull their kids from the studio and then go support local restaurants,” she said. “That hurt, in a sense.

“The recreational services, we do so much for the kids,” she continued. “Like day cares, we play a role in your family’s lifestyle. We are part of your family. I have some kids, I’m with them 10 hours a week.”

“But these businesses, we are not taken seriously. We don’t make enough noise.”

Harris said she thinks dance studios are being overlooked both because they are often female-owned and because they are part of the arts industry.

“In a male-dominated world, male-owned businesses look out for one another,” she said. “That’s just what it is. I also think that as a society, we take for granted the role that the arts play.”

Arts organizations nationwide have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Most are losing revenue and some have folded. In August, the Brookings Institution estimated that the fine and performing arts industries have lost $42.5 billion in sales and 1.4 million jobs—representing half of all jobs in those industries.

The Brookings report also notes the potential damage of those losses to regional economies.

“Arts, culture, and creativity are one of three key sectors [along with science and technology as well as business and management] that drive regional economies. Any lasting damage to the creative sector will drastically undercut our culture, well-being and quality of life,” the report states.

“Think about all the things [dancers, actors and performers] do that provide us with relief from everyday life,” Harris said. “We need to fight for this.”

‘Do I survive another year?’

The Academy of Ballet in downtown Fredericksburg has been teaching classical ballet to kids ages 5 to 18 for 35 years.

Every year, the studio puts on a full-length production of “The Nutcracker” in December and presents another full-length ballet in the spring.

Owner Eveline Erard said students are rehearsing “The Nutcracker,” but it’s not clear if they will be able to perform it anywhere.

“The children, they want to rehearse,” she said. “That’s what they take pride in and live for. But we don’t know if anything will materialize.”

In March, the Academy of Ballet was preparing for a performance of “Sleeping Beauty.” Erard had ordered costumes, but she had not collected fees from parents by the time she had to cancel the performance.

The company took the costumes back, except for those that were on sale, but only issued credit, not a refund. Erard said she is out several thousands of dollars.

“That’s a lot for a small business,” she said. “I have no chance to recoup that amount. And do I even survive another year to use the credit?”

Graduating seniors who did not get to dance in their final spring performance were “devastated,” Erard said. “Some of them have been 15 years with us and they didn’t get their final bow.

“It has been really, really tragic. I love my girls here, they’re like family to me. If they’re hurting, I’m hurting.”

Erard said her main goal has been to continue paying the salary of her full-time employee.

“She is a young, self-supporting lady,” Erard said. “My heart was going out to her. She has been with me for many years, and losing her—it would be hard to make a comeback.”

The studio reopened for in-person classes in August, but enrollment is down from about 120 to “about 70 or less,” Erard said.

“Nobody really wants to commit to anything long-term because we don’t know what tomorrow brings,” she said. “And who knows what this winter brings? That’s another thing. Is it going to be worse? Are we going to have to close again?

“You just want to sit in the corner and cry about it,” she added. “I hope I’m not one of the statistics—but a lot of people don’t survive.”

Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele

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