TORRINGTON — The Center for Dance Arts reopened in June to a pandemic world where the studio is faced with regulations based on health clubs and gyms, not dance schools. Owner Yvonne Donaghy, who has run the studio for 32 years, is teaching again, but those restrictions are making it tougher than ever, she said.
In spite of the struggles, she said, she is open and teaching her students.
Donaghy, a lifelong Torrington resident, provides dance classes for students ages 2 through adult. Students last year competed a number of times, bringing home trophies and plenty of pride. But 2020 has been a year of cancellations and disappointments for the center’s pupils, and nothing likely will change until 2021, Donaghy said.
“My kids this year had six months off from dancing, because of COVID-19,” she said. “Consistency is so important for dancers. It’s good for them, for so many reasons; physical activity, their friends are there, it’s a positive environment, and for a lot of the kids, the studio’s like a second home for them. It’s a safe haven for them.”
The center, along with myriad other “nonessential” business, closed March 13, and reopened June 20. “The issue we had was dance studios don’t have a specific category, so we were lumped in with gyms,” Donaghy said. “We don’t have all sorts of equipment like gyms do, so a lot of the rules didn’t apply to us at all.
“We put together a coalition of 75 dance studio owners in the state and presented a plan to the governor, asking for changes,” she said. “We didn’t get any response at all. So, we had to wait until he said it was OK for gyms to open, but a lot of the guidelines sent our way didn’t work. We had to take what we could, because the rules were less specific to us. We had to decipher what applied and what didn’t pertain to us at all. The thing is, each individual studio does things differently.”
After applying the guidelines to their individual studios, Donaghy said her coalition received a response from a state official. “He said, basically, ‘Use your best judgment, because the governor doesn’t know how studios are run,’” Donaghy said.
Donaghy purchased two air purifiers and an ionizer to keep the air inside the dance school as clean as possible. She overhauled her air conditioners and replaced filters. She bought gallons of hand sanitizer. She also purchased Never Germ, an adhesive strip that can be attached to door handles, doorknobs, counters and other common areas. “No matter who touches it, no germs can stick to the surface,” Donaghy said. “It made all our common surfaces germ-free.”
Her efforts were encouraging to parents, and many allowed their children to return. “The kids were so adapted, by then, to washing their hands and practicing social distancing, that they knew what to do already,” Donaghy said. “The kids wear masks when they come into the building and when they leave.
“Masks are still up in the air,” she said, referring to her ongoing classes. “One document from the state said the kids had to wear masks during physical activity, and then another one said they didn’t. I asked my own doctor if the kids should wear them during dance class, and she said absolutely not, that breathing heavily with a mask was not a good idea. So that’s what I told parents. I had a few who didn’t sent their kids back, but the majority of them were fine with that.”
Class sizes has been another challenge for the dance school. Donaghy was not allowed to have more than 10 children for each class; that number has eased a bit, and some classes have up to 14 students. But to have more classes with fewer students in each wasn’t economically feasible, she said, as she’d have to hire more teaches.
“We don’t start until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on Saturdays we have classes for three or four hours,” she said. “It came down to explaining to the parents that if I have to follow every guideline, I could not reopen. I can’t split classes and hire more staff. I’d have to close.”
So far, the modified class sizes, added equipment, mask rules and disinfecting seem to be working.
“Right now, things are good,” Donaghy said. “The truth of the matter is, the governor tied our hands with these restrictions. It was a struggle to get through the summer.”
She and other dance school owners are staying open for their students. “Dance studios don’t make a ton of money,” she said. “We do it because we love it, and we want to give kids a place to go where they can do what they love to do.
“When I opened my studio, my father gave me a loan. I was 20 years old, and I paid that loan off in a year-and-a-half,” Donaghy said. “When he lent me the money, my father made me promise that money would never be the driving force (for my studio). It’s been very, very hard ... but I still give free lessons, because of what my father made me promise when he gave me that loan. I’m not making any money but I can keep my studio open.”
Donaghy hoped to hold an outdoor recital at Coe Memorial Park this weekend, but it had to be canceled. “The kids were crying, they were so disappointed,” she said.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is Center for Dance Arts’ charity, and Donaghy holds an annual gala and fundraiser and donates all the proceeds to the hospital. “Last year we were able to donate $7,500 to St. Jude at the annual (Tim Driscoll St. Jude Telethon),” she said. “We have nothing in our St. Jude donation account this year.”
The studio is holding an online fundraiser, Purse Bingo, Sept. 26, where participants play bingo to win designer handbags. “That will all be done on Zoom,” Donaghy said. “We’re hoping to raise money for St. Jude there.”
To learn more about Purse Bingo and how to play, or about classes at Center for Dance Arts, on Wall Street, visit www.centerfordancearts.com or call 860-482-6099.