In the midst of the most serious lockdown measures we’ve seen in Australia so far, Victorian dance studios are being hit particularly hard. As far back as March, studio owners were forced to close their doors in line with government guidelines. At the end of Term 2, many were overjoyed at the news they could reopen again. Some, with just a week or two to go before school holidays, made the decision to remain online, and planned to open for the start of Term 3. But that day never came. A further lockdown imposed across Victoria meant reopening has been put on hold indefinitely, even while community sports have been given a date to resume.
Those that had reopened enjoyed perhaps a week of normality before classes were shut down. Students, fatigued by months of online classes and many of whom come from families struggling financially from the pandemic, are walking away. And, with these drastic COVID-19 measures being lifted in slow stages, fitness and dance businesses are likely to be last in line to get back to normal.
Dance Informa spoke to several Victorian studio owners, along with former principal dancer with The Australian Ballet Madeleine Eastoe – now a teacher at The Melbourne School – about their experiences throughout the lockdown, how they are staying positive, and their advice for other business owners and dance professionals affected.
Jess Solomon of Backstage Dance Academy (BDA) recalls the moment she found out lockdown was being reinstated. “I was pretty deflated,” she admits. “I noticed a change in my energy straight away, and that lasted a good week. In discussion with other studio owners, we said that it felt like grieving. The rug had been pulled from underneath our feet. It was such hard work and a high level of stress preparing to come back, because we were opening the studio in a way that we have never done before. There was so much pressure to make sure that we did not allow a global pandemic virus to filter through the school and into the community. And then to go, ‘Oh, actually no, you won’t be opening after all,’ it just messes with your head.”
The sheer volume of work Victorian studio owners put in to prepare for reopening, essentially went to waste. Andrew Dowton of The Dance Company (TDC) says, “It was a bit of a feeling of despair, because financially, this is our livelihood. It has been a matter of weeks and months without income again, or whatever small portion of income we were striking together. I think it creates all sorts of impacts. Of course, we are not the only industry being impacted, and I really empathise with a lot of other business owners because we are all in the same boat.”
Despite the challenges, Dowton and wife Lisa have been determined to stay positive. “Lisa and I are very simple-minded in the sense that as soon as we hear some bad news, we think, ‘Okay, what is the solution?’ We went into problem-solving mode when the first round of restrictions came up. We simply had to flip back into that mode when they announced the second round.”
He recommends focusing on student morale. “It is a matter of how to keep people motivated,” he suggests. “How do we keep our structure conducive to that? With our kids, there are plenty who are self-motivated, which is great because it makes our job easier. But there are a number who are on the fence and may need a little bit of push from us as leaders and as adults who run the facility. How do we position this to them and say, ‘Guys, you are better off sticking to your training and keeping the discipline in place’? And it’s not only convincing the students but also some of their parents as well.”
It’s unsurprising that many students have not wanted or been able to continue to train online. The reality for Kristen Morton of Kreationz Cheer and Dance is the loss of hundreds of regular students. “We would normally have around about 380 students about this time of year,” she explains. “We are currently sitting on 89. Of course, a lot of those students are still with us in spirit; they are just not participating in anything. They may not have not left, but they are on hold for various reasons, financial or even their attention span for Zoom.”
Despite the financial and emotional impact this is having, Morton, too, is determined not to let it get her down. “Yes, it is hard, but I have got two kids, and I know I have got to get out of bed for them. I also feel that I have a responsibility for all my students – the ones who are still coming to dance, and even the ones who are not coming to dance – just to keep engaging with them. Sometimes it is about putting on a bit of a happy face. We are allowed out of our house for an hour a day, so I get out for some fresh air, and I have started participating in some of my own Zoom classes after the kids have gone to bed just to do something for myself. I believe you do need something for yourself, or you’ll go a bit crazy.”
Melanie Gard of Peninsula School of Dance is using the time for professional development, although she admits it has been mentally tough. “Everyone is talking about this ‘Corona-Coaster’,” she says. “That up and down where one minute everything is getting better and then boom, we crash. It is hard to feel hopeful, but I think that is what is really important at the moment is for people to find those little pockets of hope where you can. I am holding on to things like a little text message from a parent saying, ‘Just letting you know that dance class is the only time I see her smile.’ I use these things to keep my motivation levels up. I’ve been learning about how to take care of my business online, which I think we have all acknowledged is not ideal. But what it has also shown us is that there is a new way forward when we do return to the studio. This actually really does improve our accessibility for students who are unwell or go on holidays and would ordinarily miss out on choreography.”
Seeing the silver lining in such a dark time is important. Solomon (of BDA) feels empowered by the new skills she has honed during lockdown. “I started to pursue other interests that I had, and it has sparked a passion within me that has been able to go into the business. It was not intentional, but I just started doing a lot of graphic design and learning things online, and now I feel like I am just a bit more of an inspired person. I am getting more work done and being a better leader.”
Dowton has also spent time developing TDC wherever he can. “I think at a time like this when everyone is so isolated and restricted, you just need something to keep you occupied and productive. If we are busy and keeping everyone else engaged, that then creates more activity. In a way, we feel just as busy as we do in normal times. Let us utilise this period for the benefit of everyone, so that we will come out better rather than going backward.”
His silver lining is his new four-month-old son. “He has been a real blessing,” Dowton shares. “In a strange way, these restrictions have made it possible for me to work from home in a full-time job. Both Lisa and I have been able to spend more time with him, which is wonderful. We consider ourselves really lucky.”
Of course, even with a positive mindset, the impact of this pandemic cannot be denied. Morton is convinced it will take a lot of time to build Kreationz Cheer and Dance back up. “I think that it is probably going to take us a good two years or so to come back to where we were before,” she says. “This time next year, I really hope that we have at least 90 percent of our student base back and that I will be doing the job that I love to hate of concert costume selections, because we are not having a concert this year.”
As someone who has dedicated so much of her life to professional dance in Australia, Madeleine Eastoe is sure that the industry will prevail in the end. “Obviously, there is going to be a gradual reintroduction back to what we know, and I am sure there are things that will not return in the same way,” she says, “but ultimately the art form is such a passion for so many people – whether they dance or they watch it or contribute to it – and you cannot kill that off. I think it is surprising how much people have realised they need dance in their life. I think it will find a rebirth, and we just have to be ready for those adjustments. It is vital that it has continued support, especially in rebuilding.”
Many questions have been raised about the government’s attitude toward the arts in the wake of COVID-19. In response, the Victorian – and Australian – dance community is arguably more unified than ever. Solomon describes, “I think that a lot of people have made connections with other studio owners whom they have not met before, and this has brought lots of different people together. People on Facebook will say, ‘Is anyone else experiencing something like this?’, and everyone seems to want to work together because we all want the same outcome. We just want our studios open. And we know that we can achieve it as a whole rather than independently.”
Gard agrees. “Some of the best teachers and mentors in my life have been dance teachers. People in the dance industry understand that, but we have got a lot of work to do together to raise our status and profile. We should be seen by the government as an important part of the mental health, well-being and physical activity rights of children. It is crazy that we are not part of that conversation. There are countries where the arts and dance are revered as high-level pursuits that are valued and nurtured, and the way they treat their artists is so different to here. We need to address the hard issues of standards for teachers, qualifications and pay rates and everything we have been dancing around for years. So, in a way, this situation has been good in that it has shown people that we actually do need [regulation and representation].”
The general advice among studio owners on making it through this tough time seems to be to tap into this supportive atmosphere. “Make sure you lean on your support networks,” suggests Morton. “I know that seems really difficult to do because we cannot actually see anybody at the moment, but we have great Facebook groups. Find your support network because they are the ones that are going to be there for you till the end.”
For Eastoe, it’s all about maintaining a healthy mindset through routine. “I am always of the philosophy that you go to bed, you wake up, and it is a brand new day. You can reset the clock. It is very important to have downtime and alone time when you are not sort of needing to be speaking or be participating. And whenever that sun is shining, get out in it. I have been doing different kinds of exercise that support ballet practice, such as online yoga, skipping rope and bike riding, which has been a real saving grace. If you are allowed to go anywhere, even if it’s just the supermarket, make it a form of exercise and turn little things into bigger opportunities. Even though we all have a lot of time stuck in one place, you can still stretch it, and that is where routine really helps. Anyone with school kids will know you have got to give them that structure that they would usually be having. It is incredible how people just adapt. If you want it enough, you will find a way.”
Has your studio been heavily affected by Coronavirus restrictions? Let us know how you’re coping in the comments below, and make sure you sign the new petition to help Victorian dance studios open here.
By Emily Newton-Smith and Deborah Searle of Dance Informa.