The show must go on: La Jolla studio keeps kids dancing from a distance
As businesses considered nonessential during the coronavirus pandemic continue mandated closures, many are exhausting all means to keep providing their services to the community and stay open.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster ride,” said Susie Grafte, owner of Ooh La La Dance Academy at 7467 Cuvier St. in La Jolla. “I wake up in the middle of the night. I’m having anxiety all day.”
Ooh La La has been in business for 12 years, with Grafte opening a second location two years ago at 1562 Garnet Ave. in Pacific Beach.
After coronavirus-related closures went into effect March 17, Grafte originally tried pre-recorded classes via a private YouTube link.
“I was trying to have all 14 of my teachers still be employed. They’re like my family; they’re everything to me,” she said.
As stay-at-home orders and mandatory closures stretched into April, Grafte began to seek other ways of reaching students, realizing the closure would be more long term.
“[We] began teaching classes on Zoom to have that interaction with the kids,” she said. The classes “operate the exact same way, but from the comfort of their own home as they shelter in place.”
“Every Zoom class is recorded and then uploaded to the YouTube channel,” which now has a collection of more than 200 videos, Grafte said. Some students opt to pay a lower rate for a subscription to the private link of recorded videos.
Even with the modified classes, Grafte said she has “unfortunately suffered the loss of over 80 of our students” for financial reasons.
“Fifty of them have put their accounts on hold due to parents losing their jobs during lockdown measures,” Grafte said.
Ooh La La normally operates with about 225 students between its two locations, plus drop-in students. With the drop-off, she’s had to furlough half of her 14-teacher staff.
“It touches my heart so much,” she said.
“Bills are still coming,” she said. “My landlords are very nice and offered a small discount, but it’s not much” against the rent she hasn’t been able to pay since March.
Grafte said she was “one of the first” to apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan offered in March by the federal government for small-business relief during mandated closures. But because of a system crash and notification mix-up, she had to reapply a few days later, which placed her further down the list.
“I still haven’t heard anything,” she said. “No loan, no SBA [Small Business Administration] approval.”
Grafte said she has exhausted other avenues of support and isn’t getting paid.
“It’s really tough,” she said.
Grafte hopes the Zoom classes will help retain students and get her through the closure. Though it’s “difficult for preschool kids to be on Zoom,” which contributed to the dwindling student numbers, older students and their families have offered a positive response, she said.
“Parents are so appreciative. It’s been their ray of sunshine,” Grafte said. “I’m so grateful we can offer that. It’s very fulfilling.”
Julie Ryan, a La Jolla resident whose 14-year-old daughter Adelaide attends Ooh La La, said the studio “is an absolute staple in our community. The amount of love and talent she has offered our local kids is mind-blowing.”
Ryan, whose older children also attended the academy, said Adelaide appreciates not only the Zoom classes but the weekly check-in with her competition dance team coaches.
“They’re laying eyes on the children, listening to them,” Ryan said. “There’s fantastic dance instruction, but having someone check in on the kids’ mental places is … a level of support my other kids aren’t getting during this time.”
Tina Michelson shared similar thoughts. “This studio has been so important to her,” Michelson said of her eighth-grade daughter, Rebecca, who has been a student of Ooh La La for three years. “This is the place where she feels most comfortable, where arts, athleticism and health come together.”
Although the Zoom classes aren’t ideal, Michelson said the studio has “done an amazing job and far exceeded my expectations in making this an ongoing presence for a kid who really wants and needs it.”
This is the first foray into online classes for the studio, Grafte said, but she’ll continue to offer them even after the studio is back open. In the meantime, she’s grateful for the technology. “We would be completely shut down without it.”
When in-person classes are able to resume, there will be changes, Grafte said. She plans for sessions to be “five to seven minutes shorter so we can clean and sanitize the studio in between and to make sure that parents and us feel comfortable, that we’re providing a safe, clean environment.”
“What’s most important to me,” she added, “is that the kids continue to dance. For them, it’s important to hear music, have camaraderie with their dance family and just be able to smile.”
“It’s very important to me that we stay afloat,” Grafte said. “I’m not going to let my ship sink.”
— For information about Ooh La La Dance Academy, visit ollda.com. ◆
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