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Ballet class, with masks. COURTESY DANCEWORKS STUDIOS

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

Three feet of standing water in a 10,000-square-foot space.

That is what Sharron Miller saw when she visited the basement of her studios for Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts (SMAPA), on 14 South Park St., in May.

The water shorted out the elevator that served the studios; Miller was suddenly looking at an $80,000 repair. The water had been standing for months; the entire building had been closed.

DanceWorks Studios, primarily a dance school for children, had 250 students when it closed its doors on March 13. Seven months later, the school has 100 fewer, says owner and Artistic Director Kathy Costa McKeown. 

Erin Carlisle Norton, artistic director of The Moving Architects, has been holding her community outreach classes outside under COVID: So far it’s going well, but since the Central Presbyterian Church, where she normally would hold classes, is closed, she is unclear what the future will bring. 

Carlisle Norton is also the executive director of Dance New Jersey, a member-based service

ERIN CARLISLE NORTON

organization for dance education in the state, and knows firsthand that studios and companies are struggling. “Some will not open up again,” she said.

Dance is about moving in space: By definition, a person cannot dance sitting still.

In some ways, however, things seem to be looking up for dance companies now: SMAPA will hold its first in-person class on Oct. 12. DanceWorks began in-person classes on Sept. 14. The Moving Architects, more of a company than it is a school, will have an in-person performance at Van Vleck House & Gardens on Saturday, Oct. 24.

But the companies wonder how they will make their rent, with only 25 percent of students maximum able to enroll. Miller, Costa McKeown and Carlisle Norton have all been in Montclair, in their spaces, more than 20 years. They do not want to leave, but may have to.

They wonder what dance will look like in the future, as they invent new ways to teach and perform.

But nobody is throwing in the (dance) towel. Not just yet.

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A Hip Hop class in the street, from Sharron MIllers Academy for the Performing Arts. COURTESY SMAPA

‘I WAS READY TO GIVE UP’

Miller thought, when she closed her school, that she would have to wait the shutdown out for two weeks.

She is about to celebrate her 25th anniversary in Montclair with SMAPA. A fixture in the

SHARRON MILLER

towship, the school normally has about 800 to 1,000 students.  

Since she did not think the shutdown would be long, she resisted virtual options. But she then had to record classes for the students who had prepaid for the semester. Normally, her summer camp programs have about 125 to 150 students. This year, she had 12.  

And then there was the flood. Miller said a drainage pipe that went from the roof to the basement that was supposed to drain out to the street was clogged: “Water was pouring into the basement, but nobody knew it, because nobody was there.” The elevator that makes her school ADA-compliant was killed, and the cost of replacing it was estimated at $80,000. 

Fortunately people helped her with attorneys, and the issue was resolved so that the landlord’s insurance is now paying for the elevator.

The flood and the bill were so terrifying, she said. “I guess I was ready to give up. But

KATHY COSTA MCKEOWN

people around me have never let me give up, because they’ve constantly reaffirmed the work and the value of it for the people that participate in what we do.” 

On the other hand, DanceWorks Studios embraced virtual classes right away, on March 16. In June, they presented a video-recorded show of dancers that took 106 hours of editing. They put on three concerts.

Costa McKeown could see where the audience was, through analytics.

For the one at 11 a.m., which was primarily 3- and 4-year-olds, “Florida lit up like a Christmas tree, because of all the grandmas and grandpas,” she said with a laugh.

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READ: FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS: DANCER, TEACHER SHARRON MILLER

READ: ARTS INSTRUCTION, SAFELY, DURING COVID-19

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HELP FROM THE GOVERNMENT

Miller got federal help. “Thank God for PPP, the Small Business Administration gave the Payroll Protection Plan. That got us through July,” she said.

But the PPP program was no help to DanceWorks Studios or to The Moving Architect; neither company received a grant.

“I applied twice and got nothing at all, zero help from our government,” Costa McKeown said.

Carlisle Norton’s company also did not receive one, though she did get a grant from the Northern New Jersey Community Foundation COVID-19 Rapid Response grant program.

Carlisle Norton knows firsthand through Dance New Jersey that many dance studio owners may not reopen with limited capacity. 

“Nonprofit organizations are worried about funding,” she said. “A lot of their income is gone because performances have been canceled. In K-12 schools, teachers have something new thrown at them every day. Some people went virtual two days before they started school.” 

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A scene from “Jubilee & Knell,” which The Moving Architects will perform at Van Vleck House & Gardens. COURTESY GWEN CHARLES

MOVING FORWARD AND OUTWARD

DanceWorks Studios, The Moving Architect and SMAPA are all trying out every modality of dance performance and instruction: virtual, prerecorded, live. With The Moving Architects, Carlisle Norton is going to try livestreaming some film projects, where the dancers are live but the audience is not. 

She and her company will perform at Van Vleck House & Gardens on Oct. 24, in person. Dancers will work inside of inflatable bubbles, to represent the isolation of the pandemic. All the dancers will wear masks, inside and outside of the bubble.

“It feels pretty real, like what we’ve all been going through,” she said.  

After a two-week summer camp, Costa McKeown shut her building down, to sanitize it: She had blue light air purifiers put in. 

Marks on the board tell children where to stand 6 feet apart, “vertically, horizontally and diagonally.”

She has installed a 50-inch screen with a mixing board and microphone to make the virtual experience for kids at home more satisfying.

Like Costa McKeown, Miller is offering classes in every format.

She did have to disband her senior program, of which the oldest dancer is 98, temporarily: The seniors cannot make the 27 stairs that lead up to the studio. 

 “We have social distancing for every studio. And we’ve kept it to 25-percent capacity. And we’ll pray,” Miller said.

But she does worry about her $14,000-a-month rent. “You can’t possibly make that at 25 percent of capacity,” she said. “Why don’t you just put cement blocks on my legs and feet and arms, throw me in the river, you know? So we might have to move out of Montclair.”

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An outdoor preschool class, in a pod, at SMAPA. COURTESY SMAPA

REDUCING ANXIETY, AN ‘INCREDIBLE OUTLET’

With all the challenges, Costa McKeown will continue holding dance classes. “It’s an incredible outlet for children. It helps reduce anxiety and stress, brings clarity, coordination and rhythm, boosts their immune system.”

Miller said that when you have a passion that feeds your soul, you want to share that with people. “I believe it’s our responsibility to our children. And if they don’t know of something called dance or theater or art or music, how are they going to know whether they are good at it?” 

Dance, she said, is what keeps her alive. It is healthy for children, it is good for their heart rate.

“But it’s so much more than that,” Miller said. “It’s self-expression. It forces you to live in the moment. And this moment is something that particularly now we have to cherish because we don’t really know what other moments are going to be.”

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Dance, in this article:

Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts
14 South Park St.
Smapa.org, 973-655-9819
Oct. 29, virtual 25th-anniversary gala fundraiser (link TBA)

The Moving Architects
Themovingarchitects.org,
312-343-2840
“An Afternoon With the Moving Architects,” Saturday, Oct. 24, 2 p.m
Van Vleck House & Gardens
21 Van Vleck St.

DanceWorks Studios
127 Grove St.
Danceworksstudios.com,
973-655-9588

Dance New Jersey, dancenj.org