HELP SAVE THE FUTURE OF DANCING IN NEW YORK CITY

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HELP SAVE THE FUTURE OF DANCING IN NEW YORK CITY

by Pavan Thimmaiah/Katerina Lu

This petition is supported by Ballroom Hub, PMT House of Dance, and Peridance Center dance studios in NYC

Dance is facing an existential crisis. The pandemic, and the response to the pandemic, has left our arts community facing unprecedented hardship and an uncertain future. We were among the first to be asked to sacrifice for the public good. Now, nearly six months later, we are being forced to live our lives with our hands out, hoping that our neighbors, family, and friends can fill them with the assistance our own elected officials have been unable to provide.

 

That is not to say our dance community is not strong or resilient. After all, creativity, innovation, hard work, perseverance through pain – these are bedrocks of any dancer. We are simply being denied an equal chance to revive our critically ill community. This is despite having the legal right to do so as provided under the Fine Arts Provision in Phase 4 of the NY Forward Plan. Our innate talents and tools, which could make us an asset in this struggle, have been taken from us with no justification. We are watching our own community endure a slow and painful demise, needlessly. Our faith is shaken. Hope is the only commodity we have left. It is this hope that unites us in the pursuit of equality and fair treatment.

 

The heart and soul of our dance community – the part of the economy that affects millions of New Yorkers – is our dance studios. This is where all cross-sections of life can come together to explore, create, and enjoy activities that bring balance while improving mental and physical health. This is also where our culture is born and molded. If you do not believe it, go to a music venue, a club, the theater, a wedding, watch TV or join Tik Tok. Dance is pervasive. That did not happen by coincidence. Whether you are talking about the theater district in Manhattan, the immigrant communities which gave way to the explosion of ballroom dance on our most popular TV shows, or the Bronx where Hip Hop was born, it started within our own communities right here in NYC. The draw to that culture, those communities, is why the idea of visiting this city is a life's aspiration for millions worldwide. Dance studios are central to this.

 

Despite this, we are asked to contribute to the well-being of our society yet remain silent when it comes to our own well-being. We are asked to work altruistically while our right to earn a living is taken away. As society begins to rebuild, we watch the hypocrisy of massage parlors, salons, public pools, indoor media productions, tattoo parlors, and much more all re-open. At the same time, dance studios must endure the false label that we are incapable of creating a safe space for our own community – a right we are equally entitled to under the current regulations.

 

This is evidenced by jarring actions taken against reputable dance studios since we began to open under the available guidelines. Backed by unvetted and unsubstantiated complaints, studios are being shut down almost unilaterally across the city. In all cases, only one reason was provided - we DANCE. Not because people were not wearing masks. Not because we were not keeping our distance. Not because the business was non-compliant. Not because anything was unsafe. Because we DANCE.

One example is the story of Ballroom Hub. This midtown Manhattan ballroom dance studio opened the first day of phase 4 NYS re-opening. The owners of Ballroom Hub called the NYC 311 ahead of the opening to ensure their studio can open. They were assured that they do, indeed, comply with the re-opening guidelines. The studio implemented strict safety and cleaning measures. Appointments and health questionnaire to access the space, temperature check upon entering, plexiglass barriers between the clients and the studio stuff, face mask required, limited capacity, and safe social distancing observed, rigorous cleaning performed frequently.

A mere week later, NYC Sheriff Department officers came, following a complaint against the studio. They ordered the studio to shut down. They could not issue a fine, because all protocols were followed according to the NYS guidelines. They made an arbitrary decision stating that this small boutique ballroom dance studio is a gym. The officers stayed in the studio, supervising the evacuation, and closing of the space. They were acting as if the studio was a criminal activity.

This studio since removed their floors and gave up their lease. This small business lost tens of thousands of dollars and is now sadly closed down...

Another example can be found with PMT House of Dance - a small business that has enjoyed good standing in the community for over 19 years. PMT offers a variety of dance styles and services to the arts community. In less than three weeks' time, they were target twice with inspections. In both inspections, they were never cited for any violation. Despite having the proper affirmation, certification, and print out of the governing regulation, they were told to shut down despite there being only two persons present on both visits. Reasons varied, and when one reason was proven incorrect, inspectors would simply search for another. For example, inspectors in the first visit, the owner's wife and a colleague were training via Zoom. They stated that if they were teaching the Zoom class, that would be OK, but since they are taking it, it is not. COVID-19 does not know the difference. In the second visit, they proceeded to ask for proof of ownership from the owner – only after 10 minutes of inquiries and the inability to find a violation. After each visit, they left with the threat of shutting down, or PMT would be given a violation or a summons. The only reason provided was they DANCE. The second of these visits was caught on video. In the video, inspectors clearly do not have a reason to close to space down and confirm they were going around targeting dance studios to shut down. Asking for your papers, having to prove your wife is your wife, and making threats all while disregarding the actual regulations you are supposed to enforce on multiple occasions feels more like harassment than an inspection.

 

In actuality, dance studios in NYC are eligible to open under phase 4, according to NAICS Code 611610 (Fine Arts), which includes:

Dance instruction

Dance studios

Performing arts schools

 

Under the guidelines for phase 4 NYS re-opening, businesses under this code are permitted to operate with restrictions. Regulations that are applicable to this industry are stated as follows:

"(...)dance studios and dance instruction may also operate subject to the Sports and Recreation Guidance."

 

Despite this, the studios are continually mischaracterized as gyms. This mischaracterization is due, at least in part, to a similar Sport and Recreation Guidance on gyms. While this section on gyms does NOT mention or explicitly state dance schools or studios, the activity of dance is mentioned in this guidance as a higher risk activity – described as "competitive cheer and group dance."

 

There are other such examples in the regulations. The confusion this can cause is obvious. Conflating dance with competitive cheer is a complete mischaracterization.

 

We believe that dance studios should have their own set of regulations, much like ice skating and other indoor, low-risk physical activities do.

 

A dance studio is not a gym. Dancers do not come to the studio with the singular goal to sweat and burn calories. That aside, our spaces are built out differently. Our liabilities are different. Our ventilation requirements are different. We often require large, open spaces with space to move, windows, and natural light. We do not need or share equipment and thus do not have the same concerns of disease transmission. We can easily control the flow of people in and out. The list goes on.

 

The characterization of dance in these regulations has had the unintended effect of stigmatizing dance as a potentially harmful activity. Dance studios, small businesses, families, and young people who still have the courage to dream are told they must shut it down. This is wrong.  

 

The good thing is that it is not too late. Many small businesses can rebuild or be reborn – but we need your help. Join us in demanding change. We demand the equal right to earn, to exist. To those goals, we ask the following:

 

The Fine Arts provision in the NY Forward plan, allowing 'dance studios and dance instruction' needs to be clarified, expanded on, and properly enforced. The contradictory language in other parts of the NY Forward regulations should be eliminated.
We demand that Dance Studios, their owners, and proven professionals in the industry be consulted when clarifying and updating these regulations. We are not a monolith. We know our industry best. The decisions for our industry should not be made by those in other industries or random state officials. We know the challenges, and we can help find solutions that can both re-open our dying economy while keeping our community safe.
Inspections should not be purely punitive. Inspectors should actually perform a real inspection and provide guidance on how to operate safely (if a business is not doing so). A reasonable timeline should be provided to meet compliance, and an effort to encourage compliance should be made, rather than an effort to punish. Businesses are doing their best to survive. They are not opening with the sole purpose of violating the law. For a small business owner, this is their life.
 

We do not want special treatment. We want rules to be uniformly applied to allow for better compliance. You want us to believe that you are working for our safety then make the rules the same for everyone. If you do not, people will continue to break them.

As it stands right now, the risks for a dance studio or arts facility to open far outweigh the rewards. To operate, we must re-imagine our business, invest even more money into it, and hope that despite all our months of planning that we will not be shut down by some random complaint backed by regulations that have loopholes within loopholes. These regulations have caused some in the industry to rename themselves only to operate in secret. We are DANCERS, and we should not have to hide it like we are doing something wrong. Dance is a very safe and healthy activity.

The truly sad part in all of this is that dance can be a tremendous asset in our struggle to fight COVID-19. Historically, dance has always been a steadying force in difficult situations. Look at our own city – Hip Hop was born here from the struggles of our black and brown communities. Now Hip Hop is all over social media, keeping us active and bringing joy into our lives.

Perhaps more importantly, dance can help create a culture of safety. As is being done at PMT and Ballroom Hub, if people see others dancing with masks, embracing this culture of safety, others will follow this example and realize that life does not have to stop with COVID-19. This was actually happening through a number of real-life examples – like a non-masker now wearing masks and those unable to work finding balance and stress relief through dance. 

Safety and dance are not mutually exclusive. Neither is living life and being safe.

 

HELP SAVE THE FUTURE OF DANCING IN NEW YORK CITY

Thank you for your time and consideration. If you have any questions or would like to meet with us, please feel free to contact:

Pavan Thimmaiah at pmthouseofdance@gmail.com

Katerina Lu at katerinalu@hotmail.com

Renata Shvarts at ballroomhub@gmail.com