Stitched Into Neighborhoods, Dance Studios Battle to Stay Open

Small schools like Dwana Smallwood’s in Bedford-Stuyvesant often give children a way into dance. Now they are struggling to pay rent.


By Siobhan Burke

“Good morning, dancers! Let’s get creative today,” Dwana Smallwood, with a bright and reassuring smile, told her students in a video posted to Instagram on March 20. Her dance studio, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, had just closed for what she thought might be a few weeks. While her students were stuck at home, she was helping them stay active, inviting them to make their own 30-second dances with everyday objects like pillows and chairs.

“Make sure you get up and use your bodies,” she said in the video. “Use the skills you have. Remember what I say: If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Eight months later, Ms. Smallwood, a former star of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, still has not returned to teaching in person. After planning an online fall semester, she canceled it when only 20 students, less than a quarter of her usual enrollment, signed up. Her income has plummeted, but rent is still due: about $8,000 a month for the space she founded in the neighborhood where she grew up, which she calls “still one of the most underserved communities in Brooklyn.” In September, she announced on Instagram that her school, whose students are mostly Black girls and young women, was on the brink of closing for good.

Across the city, dance studio owners face similar situations, struggling to keep their businesses afloat as the coronavirus pandemic stretches on. While Ms. Smallwood’s operation is relatively small, even owners of larger, more established studios have found themselves in precarious positions, frustrated by a lack of clear reopening guidance from the city and state. It’s an uphill battle, but Ms. Smallwood and others are pressing forward: raising money, joining forces to strategize and, in some cases, forging ahead with reopening as safely as they can.

Dance studios are integral to the city’s performing arts ecosystem; their survival has implications beyond the walls of any one business. Small schools like Ms. Smallwood’s, for instance, often give children an entry point into dance training, in environments where they might not otherwise encounter it.

“We are the people who plant the seeds into these huge organizations and teach and mentor our kids to aspire to American Ballet Theater, to New York City Ballet, to Ailey,” Ms. Smallwood said in a phone interview. “We are the ones on the ground, finding and cultivating those children, providing them with confidence and brain stimulation and letting them know there is something to aspire to besides the four corners of your block.”

As businesses like restaurants and gyms have been allowed to reopen with restrictions, dance studio owners say they have been overlooked. Pavan Thimmaiah, the director of PMT House of Dance in Manhattan, reopened his studio with precautions in place — like limited class sizes, a mask requirement and high-quality air filters — as soon as the city’s Phase 4 of reopening began in late July. He says that under the state’s New York Forward plan, his business falls under “fine arts schools,” which are listed as “permitted to operate with restrictions.”

From there, however, the plan can be interpreted in multiple ways. Mr. Thimmaiah’s studio, located on West 25th Street — where the rent could afford him “a very nice car every month,” he said in an email — has weathered three inspections, and he has become a vocal advocate for more specific reopening guidelines that take dancers’ needs into account.

Over the past few months, he has led the formation of the Dance Studio Alliance, a network of 16 studios ranging from high-profile hubs like Broadway Dance Center in Midtown to smaller spaces like Sweet Water Dance & Yoga in the South Bronx. On a recent Zoom call, members of the alliance expressed frustration with the vagueness of existing guidelines, in particular the conflation of dance studios with gyms, which currently cannot hold indoor classes. (In a separate category, dance classes are permitted at colleges and conservatories, like the Juilliard School.) One studio owner received clearance to reopen; another called the department of health and was told she couldn’t; another reopened and was shut down by the city sheriff’s office.

The dance advocacy organization Dance/NYC has been working with several partners, including Gibney in Lower Manhattan, to draft their own comprehensive reopening guidelines for dance studios. They plan to propose these to city officials, though perhaps at a time when the city is not bracing for another potential shutdown.

“We’ve come to a point where if we don’t do it for ourselves, no one will do it for us,” said Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, Dance/NYC’s executive director, noting that the city’s arts advisory council for reopening included no dance representatives.

Lucy Sexton, the executive director of New Yorkers for Culture & Arts, pointed out that in recent months, the dance field has been having “wonderful conversations about antiracism and racial equity.” But to have any real impact, these must translate into action, even — especially — at the level of small businesses.

“The people who are starting to close are the smaller organizations that are run by and for people of color,” she said. “Are we going to allow that to happen? Are we going to come out at the end of this with a whiter and more centralized ecosystem than we had going into it? I think we need to be very conscious and act accordingly.”

In the meantime, studio owners are doing what they can to get by without shuttering entirely. The Dwana Smallwood Performing Arts Center has received some grant and loan money, but not enough to cover all its expenses, Ms. Smallwood said. She has started a fund-raising campaign with the goal of reopening in January, and so far has raised over $100,000.

Ms. Smallwood founded her school in 2013, having returned to her hometown after several years in South Africa, where she developed a dance program at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. (A gift of $1 million from Ms. Winfrey allowed her to open the school.) She deliberately sought out a space in a part of Bedford-Stuyvesant that she describes as “a cultural desert,” with few other arts offerings.

“It’s a hidden gem,” said Judith Best, a longtime neighborhood resident whose daughter attended the school. “It needs to remain where it is.”

Ms. Smallwood said her landlord has offered to let her break her lease with no penalty, but she doesn’t want to abandon what she has built, especially in a community hit hard by Covid-19. (A survey she sent to her staff and students found that 70 percent had lost someone they knew to the virus.) Dance, she said, can “revitalize people’s level of hope and healing and balance and sense of self, in a system that feels hopeless.” She sees it as a form of sustenance, a necessity.

Like Ms. Smallwood, Karisma Jay, the founder of AbunDance Academy of the Arts in Flatbush, Brooklyn, serves a predominantly Black community that has suffered disproportionately from the coronavirus. After holding virtual classes through the spring and taking a summer hiatus, she started offering a combination of online and in-person instruction, investing in safety measures for her studio like air filtration and frequent cleaning.

Students alternate between virtual and live classes, coming into the studio every other Saturday. They dance at least six feet apart, with masks. Those who don’t feel comfortable attending can follow along from home on Zoom.

Ms. Jay, who grew up in Brooklyn and toured as a performer with “STOMP,” has also opened up her space for rentals, another source of income. “I could not stay unopened for another six months,” she said. “I was watching the news, and there was this pizzeria owner, and the reporter was asking, ‘You reopened — how do you feel about that?’ And he’s like, ‘I feel like I have to pay my rent.’ Period.” (She pays about $10,000 a month in rent and utilities.)

But her decision to cautiously and partially reopen was not just financial. “For what we’re going through mentally, emotionally, physically, we need an outlet,” she said. “We need someplace where we can feel a sense of connectivity.”

Even when teaching online, which she does alone in the studio, Ms. Jay strives to make her students feel present in the space. And she doesn’t sacrifice discipline, giving detailed, one-on-one feedback. (For young dancers, her academy is a steppingstone to larger performing arts institutions like LaGuardia High School and Dance Theater of Harlem School.)

On a recent Saturday night, she held onto a barre and watched her iPad closely as students, in their living rooms and bedrooms, practiced a phrase that would be their homework for the week. “Tendu, plié, piqué — right!” she exclaimed. “That’s it! That’s fabulous.”

While her doors are open for now, Ms. Jay said she is living “in the unknown,” unsure what the next day will bring for her business.

“What do I know?” she said. “I know we had classes today and they go until 9 p.m. I know what our Zoom password is to log in. I know that our children and our community and our city need the arts.”

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