The financial disruption fueled by the pandemic burdened businesses across many industries, particularly in the arts and culture sector. That’s something Anayo Michel, owner of Layla’s Dance & Drum, knows all too well.
Michel said the past three years have been “a frightening time” for her dance studio in Valley Stream.
A veteran dance instructor specializing in African, Latin and Caribbean dance, Michel says the pandemic’s financial toll on her fellow artists, performers and instructors has been staggering.
Between 2019 and 2020, the arts economy shrank at nearly double the rate of the overall economy, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
At the peak of the pandemic, as the financial fortunes of Michel’s business colleagues and arts friends began to crumble, resulting in joblessness and depression, she never lost hope.
“I’ve had a tough life. I’ve lost my mother and father at a young age,” Michel said. “So, when you deal with stuff like that, everything else pales in comparison.”
As the pandemic stretched for months, Michel got to work enlisting her network of dance studio owners, receiving a “master class” on how to apply for the federal government’s small business loans program, known as the Paycheck Protection Program.
But she soon learned the eligibility requirements during the initial round of the program did not cover her business because most of her dancing teachers are independent contractors.
“Many dance studios like mine decided to throw in the towel after that,” she said.
That was out of the question for Michel. With or without a financial safety cushion, she expected to fight back.
“Businesses like mine had to completely reinvent and re-imagine themselves to survive, and that’s what I did,” she said.
Stripped of the ability to hold in-person classes, she quickly pivoted to streaming her dance studio lessons over Zoom. When she couldn’t hold recitals at theaters on account of them being shut down, she had her students, mostly children and teens, do video shoots.
Things slowly began to look up. Restrictions softened to allow for limited open-air gatherings, so she held outdoor, socially distanced dance classes at Arthur J. Hendrickson Park. When Covid safety guidelines waned again to allow her to move things indoors, she pulled out all the stops to ease parents’ worry of the virus.
“Everyone was okay with wearing masks, and I think wearing the masks helps to reduce the anxiety,” she said.
This past year, she temporarily relocated her school to the Valley Stream Presbyterian Church to cut back on overhead costs. But now, the students have returned to the studio. And things, finally, “are starting to return back to normal.”
Michel said diligence and quick-thinking allowed her to walk away from the pandemic with her business intact. But the toll of absorbing the financial blows of the past three years is painfully obvious. For one thing, her classes have dwindled down considerably from pre-Covid times.
“In March of 2020, we had over 100 students. Now, we are about a third of that,” she said. “And a lot of kids, unfortunately, just stopped dancing.”
Michel, who has long prided herself on setting a tall bar of excellence at her studio, says the smaller classes are a blessing in disguise.
“We can give students more individualized attention and go deeper into professional dancing techniques,” she said.
Part of her branding and appeal is her often demanding expectations placed on her students. Because of it, her studio has become something of a magnet for talented child dancers. Under her tutelage, several of them have been propelled into prominent roles in acting and music.
“Over the years, I’ve noticed a lot of dance schools focus on recitals and just putting pretty dresses on kids,” Michel said. “I make sure our students learn in the ways of true professional dancers. I don’t want to say I’m a dancing snob, though I probably am.”
Parents seem to agree with her methods, purposely seeking out her mentorship, alongside her rotating menu of high-caliber, high-profile dancing instructors.
Since the pandemic, a younger, newer crop of parents have come in and are far less taken with strict training regimens and what Michel describes as an “old school” level of seriousness to dance.
“To get better at dance, you have to be committed, devote many hours, and be present,” she said. But nowadays, parents, perhaps worn out from the pandemic, are leaning less toward making great performers out of their kids and more pulled toward using dance class as a casual, pressure-free way to just get their kid out of the house and socializing again.
In response, Michel had to dial back on the discipline.
“Before the pandemic, you couldn’t miss more than three classes a semester. But since the pandemic, we’ve eliminated our attendance requirements entirely,” she said. “I wouldn’t have a business if I wasn’t more lenient with a lot of our rules to ensure people are accommodated.”
Despite the transformations she’s made to her studio, one point, universally shared among creative types like her, hasn’t changed: being underpaid for her studio’s performances.
Receiving lowball offers on gigs is a fact of life for artists, even for well-sought professionals, noted Michel.
“People take artists for granted,” she said, losing track of the inquiries she gets from businesses and organizations asking if her top dancers would do a free performance at this or that event.
“Everyone everywhere expects the dancers to perform for free not understanding that we are a business” she said. “I opened a studio for the joy of dancing, but we have bills to pay like everyone else.”
Michel “tries to find joy in everything,” but she says if the pandemic has taught her anything, it’s that the joy of the arts doesn’t come cheap. “Everything is expensive and artists need to look out for themselves because who else will?”
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