How Panama City Beach Dance Studios Are Bouncing Back from Hurricane Michael
Wendy Lewis, owner of Studio by the Sea in Panama City Beach, Florida, thought as most Floridians do before a hurricane. The morning of October 8, Lewis dropped off the Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker audition director at the airport. She joked that the director's departure was well-timed considering the storm swirling in the Gulf of Mexico. "I headed home thinking it was going to be a normal day," she says. As the storm's intensity strengthened, Lewis started to make the usual preparations. She pulled in chairs and plants from the patio of her studio and boarded up her home on the beach. But what started as an irksome Category 1 hurricane swelled into a life-threatening beast in less than two days.
Lewis opted to close the studio and evacuate to Georgia. She only packed enough clothes to last her a few days. By Thursday, she planned to be back at her studio teaching classes and running Nutcracker rehearsals. But Lewis didn't return until Saturday, October 13, and when she did, her studio was irreparable.
The Storm of the Century
Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle on Wednesday, October 10 as a catastrophic Category 4, leaving 45 dead in its wake—35 from Florida alone. What some thought would bring little more than heavy rain ended up obliterating businesses, homes and entire towns. Several dance studios, like Studio by the Sea, are among the carnage.
"The world for us has gotten turned over since then," Lewis says. Now, studios who have had a place in the community for years have to rebuild from the ground up. But the Panama City Beach community is still finding ways to dance in the midst of destruction.
A Labor of Love
Pieces of the Studio by the Sea roof lay scattered across the parking lot after Hurricane Michael. Photo courtesy Wendy Lewis
Lewis was hopeful when she first saw photos of her studio after the storm, but seeing it in person revealed a much worse reality. A portion of the roof had been ripped off and pools of water left the marley floors soggy. Nearly everything inside was moldy and waterlogged. The extensive water and roof damage rendered the space unsalvageable.
The widespread devastation has made finding a new space almost impossible, but Lewis has decided she doesn't need mirrors or marley floors to get people dancing again. Instead, she's seizing the opportunity to offer free dance classes in any space she can find. She's organizing ballet, hip-hop and b-boy classes in the lobby of an apartment complex and adult zumba and yoga classes on the beach. Earlier this week, her students had their first class since the storm in a local gym.
"I know dance might seem like a minimal thing in such a horrific situation, but the arts are an outlet and a cathartic system for us, so we need this," she says.
The Julie's School of Dance competition team at their first rehearsal after Hurricane Michael. Photo by Mandalynn Soileau
Some dancers have had to say goodbye to both their studios and their friends. The competition team at Julie's School of Dance was heartbroken to learn that one of their members had to move to Biloxi, Mississippi after her home was lost in the hurricane.
"We were just grateful to be together," says Julie Krawczynski, owner of Julie's School of Dance. "I'm a firm believer that there's going to be a greener side to this, and we're just going to hold tight and see what happens."
Like Studio by the Sea, severe water damage and mold has made Krawczynski's studio uninhabitable. While she searches for a new space, a local gym has donated its yoga studio so they can practice for their competition later this month. Krawczynski says that about 20 studios from all over the country have flooded her with phone calls and messages since the storm hit, offering everything from costumes to manual labor. "It was really heartwarming to see how the dance community stepped up," she says.
A Legacy Lost
A demolition team works on the Stanford location of Tonie's Dance Workshop. Photo courtesy Tonie Bense
When Kirsten Sears heard about the damage to Tonie's Dance Workshop, she couldn't bring herself to tell her 13-year-old and 11-year-old daughters. The Sears family has been making memories at Tonie's Dance Workshop since 1983 when Kirsten Sears first started dancing there. She cherished that her daughters had the chance to grow up in the same studio she did. "The wall color, the border around the rooms, and the pictures on the wall had been the same since I had grown up dancing there, so to see all of that destroyed was really sad," she says.
Tonie Bense, the owner and director of Tonie's Dance Workshop, always tells her dancers to take it one step at a time, and now she's telling herself the same thing. While she hopes to resume some classes at her studio in Parker, Florida on November 5, her Stanford location will have to be almost entirely reconstructed. Despite having to move out of her own home and build a new studio, Bense didn't want financial constraints to keep kids from dancing, especially when they need it most. Once her studio is up and running again, she'll offer classes free of charge.
Come Back Stronger
The future of the Panama City Beach dance community is undeniably full of uncertainty. These studios will need support, patience and resilience as they start writing their next chapter. It's a good thing dancers are a force of nature.
It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.
Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.
It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.