- Courtney Jette
Empty Barres, Not On pointe
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
May, 2020 “It is terrifying. Seriously. We’ve not had this kind of concern about our business in almost 30 years…25 years, at least. Let’s hope, when the world comes back, tomorrow, we can still hold business.”
If you’ve ever been inside a dance school, studio, or class… then you know, typically, there is a sea of dancers at any given time, not just in the studios but stretching in the halls, waiting for their studio, watching friends in class. And then you add the parents, the siblings, and all the supporters who bring students to class, who watch their students excel, and progress, through the studio glass day in and day out. (Thanks, Mom.)
It’s not always just the dancer that wants it; they usually have a team to help reach their goals. And in the case of dancers who have the opportunity to attend the Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet, they also have the owners in their corner, as well.
Joel and Debra Rogo. Debra grew up in Australia. And danced ballet. Joel was a theater performer with a dance and singing background. They have owned and run the Academy for over 30 years. Originally moving to the Tri-Cities for the purchasing of the ballet school, and having the idea they would, most likely, only own for around 5 years and then move to other things…well, obviously, the universe had other plans, and the Tri-Cities can be glad that it did. After spending 15 years at their original location on Goethals, the school moved to their current location in the spring of 2002.
If you have ever tried to find a ballet class in town, you may have noticed that there is not a huge dance scene here, or schools for that matter.
I can remember when the Academy was at its older location, and as a small kiddo of about 4 or 5, I can remember when the new location was being built. I thought it was so unusual and crazy that a brand-new, giant space, was being built just for us!
When we were all moving there for our classes, it was a little scary because we were going from 1 or 2 (?) studios, in an old, tiny location (a 4 year old’s memory) to a brand-new, shiny, huge multi-studio building; high ceilings, light pouring everywhere, waiting areas, a store. It was daunting. But I remember seeing an older dancer walk past me in the hall as I left a class. She was in a full “ballerina” get-up, and headed into a solo rehearsal session. It was like a goddess just swooped past me in a tutu.
I had only, ever, seen dancers in full dress on a stage when I went to shows with my mom.
And that moment was the one where I forgot how scary it had all seemed; that was what could happen if you came to this new place.
You actually saw dancers of all ages now. Before, I only saw my classmates, instructor, and parents. But as I grew up, it was so exciting and so out of the normal to have such a top class, high-end, dance facility and outfitted school in the area. It got me thinking… if Debra and Joel hadn’t moved to town to buy the school, it would have probably stayed in that older location and not bloomed to help the Tri-City’s dance community as well as it has.
I wandered through their hollow dance academy with them and asked a few questions.
*Is this what you always thought you wanted to do?
She laughs, “No. We never thought we were going to (have a school). It’s kind of just happened.”
They heard about this school for sale and the Tri-Cities Academy owner, at the time, wanted to retire.
“We heard about the school; we were recommended and we thought we would give it a shot. We made a deal that we would move to the Tri-cities for five years and then sell and ‘get out.’ ”
“Every day you go to work, and you just do your job. Then you kind of turn around, and it’s been 30 years. You just become very comfortable in your business. It has grown well; you feel that you’ve done a good job. The community has been very kind to us. So, it just kind of evolved.”
*Do you guys have any future plans to open another academy anywhere else?
“Noooooo. We are very happy with this one.”
J: “At this point, we would just like to open this one, again.”
D: “That’s right, that’s what we would really like. Seriously. We worked so hard and stressed all the time. Some days, when there were no classes, we would go to the studio and we’d clean the facility, scrub toilets, and everything like that. Constantly be stressed that, what if we don’t have enough students, what if we can’t pay our bills, what if that, what if this. Of course, time goes, and we built a good business. We have not had those kinds of worries in so many years, and here we are at the time in our life when,” she pauses, “we are worried about the fall. We are worried about paying bills; we are worried about all of that. We haven’t had that worry in so long. We are like everybody; we didn’t know this was coming down the pipe. We thought we were in a comfortable situation and dammit, here we are. It is weird, it is very weird.”
* Do you feel, adaption wise, for when you are allowed to open back up, do you feel that is going to be a big stress, as well?
D: “Yes, oh yeah. OOOOHHH yeah. I am concerned about that. Financially, certainly. It is going to be a hit that is…beyond compare.”
She talks about a third or quarter of students being in a class, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the massive cut this is going to cause.
“It is terrifying. Seriously. We’ve not had this kind of concern about our business in almost 30 years…25 years, at least. Let’s hope, when the world comes back, tomorrow, we can still hold business. Which is why we are doing Zoom classes like crazy, trying to cultivate kids’ interest; because you know we can do whatever we want, and open our doors, but if people don’t come back. And we have to make this place safe enough so people feel it is safe enough to send their children here. Small class sizes; you know we have all those plans.”
They show me a room that was a homework room for the kids, and the snack room. That will not be there. That will be all closed-up.
J: “That won’t be a thing; that will be an exit, actually. What we are going to do, is the front doors will be enter and enter only, and then they will exit here or another exit. That is one of our plans. It will all be a one-way flow.”
D: “Obviously all the chairs will go away.” She points to a waiting area where parents can watch dancers. “There won’t be people in the hallways like there were.”
Now, since the Rogos, and this dance pillar of the Tri-Cities, have been solidifying the Academy through the last two decades and on, they have made a few additions to what they bring to the community’s reach.
When I say “school”, I don’t just mean a dance studio for dance classes.
In the Academy’s case, they have a full season, preforming arts preschool that, when not shut down, is an incorporation of dance, movement and learning all in one class.
And don’t let the shutdown make you think for a second that you can’t look into enrolling your little one in the school. Their classes are typically full. But, even with the unknowns of what is to come for the fall season, they are still moving forward with plans to have school, unless that is changed. So, contact them to look at enrolling in preschool, or, in the meantime, set your dancer up with a Zoom dance class!
They currently have around 60 Zoom dance classes every week. And, sometimes, guest teachers from around the country tuning in to teach the occasional virtual class!
Typically, when they are not forced to stay closed, they have over 100 dance classes a week, not including the performing arts preschool, or guitar, piano and voice lessons. Or, their adult dance classes; typical age for dancers is 3-18, but they do have a few adult dance classes.
“Parents are very grateful (for the Zoom classes) because it is giving the kids a sense of normalcy when they see their friends on Zoom, and they get to visit with each other at the end of class. We visit with the kids, and ask them what challenges they have coming up this week. Just kind of help connect them as they are stuck in their houses.”
And while everyone’s dancing in virtual classes, and practicing where they can, is your dancer going through gear faster than normal while quarantine is forcing them to dance on non-typical dance surfaces? Well...
The Academy’s store is open for pickups. So, if you thought “to go orders” were just for food, no way. You can now get your leotards, tights, and slippers straight at the door, by appointment.
What concerns you the most regarding your business during the shutdown?
D: “It’s rough,” she pauses. “The 60 classes a week on Zoom is huge. It’s a lot. I feel like I’m working harder now than ever. Organizing, planning, stressing, figuring what the next step is. The next step, and the next. Just managing Zoom; skills I don’t have.”
The adaption that people have had to go through is crazy.
“Ridiculous. We didn’t even know what Zoom was before all this started.”
J : “Everybody knows now.”
D : “The first thing we did, was pay for our instructors’ Zoom accounts and upgrade them to a professional account so they could teach classes. We worked out a schedule, and that is what is currently happening.”
"No surprise, how our upper level students, as we move through our system from three-year-olds to 18-year-olds, become more invested in the product. The older kids are working on Zoom; 3-year-olds 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds, very few."
I totally understand. We laugh and chuckle about trying to teach a child of that age anything remotely.
“Yeah, it’s hard. It’s very hard. They are not interested in paying attention to a screen. I get that.”
Other than business, what concerns you the most about the community during covid 19?
“I want people to stay inside and wear masks so we can get back to normal. Follow the rules. That is the big one for this community. Follow the rules. I know it’s hard, but let’s…”
The quicker we get it done, the quicker we can get back to doing things.
“Exactly. Long-term goals, not short-term goals.”
J : “A lot of people in this community, I can‘t say majority because I don’t know the numbers; certainly, a lot of people in this community are not (following the rules), as far as they are concerned it is just a hoax, it isn’t real, and they are just going about their business. All that does is slow it down for everyone else who is trying to play by some sort of rules, so we can open again. Too many people seem to be far more concerned about being defiant.”
We talk about Spokane and how, when I visited, it was like a ghost town and my car was the only one in the lot and I didn’t pass anyone on the street. But when I returned to the TriCities, I instantly got stuck in a traffic jam.
D: “And that is why they are in phase 2 and we are not. That’s good for them. You can get back to normal, sooner.”
The sense of dragging feet can be heard through the vacant studio, something it’s never heard before now, ha-ha.
I bring up new businesses that were unable to become grounded and get their feet under them before the shutdown.
“I can’t imagine.”
It is kind of nice to see a business that has been around so long.
J: “Well, so far.”
D: “It is terrifying. Seriously. We’ve not had this kind of concern about our business in almost 30 years…25 years, at least. Let’s hope, when the world comes back, tomorrow, we can still hold business. Which is why we are doing Zoom classes like crazy, trying to cultivate kids’ interest; because you know we can do whatever we want, and open our doors, but if people don’t come back.” “Everyone’s so impacted. You know, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself until you realize everyone’s in the same boat. And that’s helpful actually, it’s very helpful to keep you…”
We keep touring the dim, echoing facility as we discuss other things, like the dance community and her network of other schools.
“Oh yeah. All of us are just…, she laughs.
Figuring it out?
“Yes. Yes, it is very weird. I think there is a lot of connection and if someone has figured something out, they are happy to share that information. The other interesting thing that has happened is, since we are teaching on Zoom, you can teach from anywhere. So, I taught a class of kids in Santa Cruz, the other day. A friend of mine in Utah taught my kids, and another teacher from San Francisco taught our kids, yesterday. So, we are all kind of trading off to give the kids and us some variety. And we couldn’t do that before because you would have had to fly them in for a week. But this is just a couple of hours; just an afternoon. That is kind of a payoff. It took a bit to figure out, but then all of the sudden there was just a boom in our industry.”
That is a pretty neat outcome from the situation though it isn’t as great as being in the studio.
“Of course, it isn’t. But we will take whatever we can get.”
As we are wrapping up our visit, I pass the photographs, lining the walls, of ballet dancers through the years of this academy. Photographs of performances I can remember attending with my mom, and I have one last question.
*How many events, or recitals, have you had to cancel so far?
“What we have canceled since this craziness happened is the festival in Long Beach, California that we were to perform in.
Then our spring performance of Madelaine. The major fundraiser was cancelled.
Of course, all of our performances that we do for the elderly; all of those. And the ballet from the 40’s was cancelled. Of course, we do Peter and the Wolf for the elementary school kids. We go to the schools in the spring. Those were all cancelled. Again, our end of school recital in June, that was cancelled. So… a lot of performances.”
*How many performances do you typically have in a year?
The number, as you can imagine, is “A lot.” Most of their performances are in the spring. Then they don’t have much until the preparation for the Nutcracker.
I didn’t even ask her thoughts on the situation regarding things this fall or winter. I didn’t want to hear someone assume the Nutcracker may not be a thing this year. I just let that question remain in my mind and decided our visit was fine the way it was. But, will the school be?
Dust settles on the studio floors, and it’s been a long time since I’ve walked out of a dark dance studio. But this time it’s not because the last class has ended and it’s closing up. It’s because no one has stepped foot in here in two months.
Leaving through the dance store, I pass racks of dance wear and gear, all covered to protect it from months of dust. And I leave feeling weirder than the last day I danced. I know the school will survive because there are dancers in this town. And that doesn’t just stop because the doors of the studio are closed, that is perpetually turning inside you. And your dancers may be tuning in virtually for now, Debra and Joel, but I know they will be back and more on fire to get spinning soon. That’s not something you just turn off. And when you are forced to do so, it comes back even stronger. Dance is not just an outlet and an artform you offer your students… it’s a life. And I can’t wait to be in and try my old slippers at an adult class this fall. Your community and your dancers are behind you.
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