Creating a ‘virtual dance world’ during a crisis
When classes and programs were halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy pivoted and is now virtually influencing people from around the world, thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program loan from Wells Fargo.
Growing up in the South in the 1960s, Debbie Allen’s opportunities were limited. Fortunately, a grant allowed her to be the first Black student at the Houston Ballet Foundation, leading to a successful career as a producer, director, choreographer, author, dancer, and actor. Wanting to give that same opportunity to young people, Allen established the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, a nonprofit organization offering comprehensive dance curriculum to students ages 4 and up.
The organization provides training in the areas of ballet, tap, hip-hop, and acting, among others, with scholarships for at least 70% of its students. The nonprofit also offers free community service demonstrations and programs for older adults, cancer patients and survivors, victims of domestic violence, and others around the world. But it relies on donations, Allen said.
“My mission is to raise money to subsidize the training for young people who would normally not be able to afford the quality of what we do … I did this not to make money, but to make a difference,” Allen said.
“My mission is to raise money to subsidize the training for young people who would normally not be able to afford the quality of what we do … I did this not to make money, but to make a difference." — Debbie Allen
‘The bottom fell out of everything’
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Allen said, “The bottom fell out of everything. All of a sudden, everything shut down. We were not able to do our programming. We were not able to do our concerts. We couldn’t do anything … what happens to the faculty? They’re all dancers who often don’t have insurance. What money did we have to pay these bills because we’re a nonprofit?”
Staff from the dance academy applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan through Wells Fargo, where the nonprofit has banked for more than a decade. The $172,500 loan was approved, helping the organization cover payroll and salaries and to host a Virtual Summer Intensive, allowing students from around the world to attend dance programs and train from their homes.
“The thing I loved is, coming out of the gates, we focused on supporting small businesses and nonprofits like the Debbie Allen Dance Academy with our PPP loans,” said Gigi Dixon, Government Relations and Public Policy senior consultant for Wells Fargo. “I am very proud we were able to inject capital into an arts organization that is meaningful to so many people.”
Ava Bokelberg, a student at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy who also attended the Virtual Summer Intensive, said the virtual classes helped her technique and kept her occupied during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m able to do what I love,” Bokelberg said. “Everybody can take dance classes, and I think it’s really amazing that we’re able to do that during this pandemic.”
Allen said applying for the PPP loan was smart for the nonprofit. “It was so worth every moment it took to be approved and to get such a loan at a time of crisis,” she said. “Had we not had it, I don’t think we would’ve been able to be successful this summer, so it was a blessing. I thank Wells Fargo beyond measure for the support and help.”
‘Those of us who are visionaries and think outside of the box will still be standing’
When the dance academy closed for in-person training because of the pandemic, it became a “virtual dance world,” Allen said. The first class on Instagram had 35,000 people watching, reaching exponentially more than the typical in-person classes.
“This is like a forced migration or evolution,” Allen said. “Those of us who are visionaries and think outside of the box will still be standing because COVID doesn’t seem like it’s going away any time soon. We have got to find a way to coexist, so how do we engage students? COVID distanced us physically, but it connected us virtually.”
The virtual classes and programs have helped dancers like Megan Prout, a recent alumna and scholarship recipient of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Prout was supposed to attend the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in person, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s attending virtually and training with the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
“I can still continue my love for dance, and even though we’re dancing on Zoom, I’m still working very hard like I would in person,” Prout said. “They have so many classes online. Everyone around the world can continue their love for dance, and they can all train with our amazing teachers.”
At a difficult time like during a pandemic, the arts are especially important to people, Allen added. “What is it that keeps you motivated to know that there is light at the end of this tunnel? It’s the arts,” she said. “It’s what we do. People need to be engaged. What I do, what we do here at DADA, and what other people do in the dance world, in the arts, has proved to be vital to our world community, and we know we are essential.”
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