By Kora Stoynova
This blog post was originally posted at www.skdancesport.com on March 15, 2020 immediately following the 2020 Amateur Nation Dancesport Championships.
This is the story of the 2020 Amateur National Dancesport Championships, held in Provo, UT, this year. Every year, dozens of couples from Aria Ballroom, representing almost every age group and ability level, head to Utah in order to compete. This year, Aria Ballroom couples headed there just like any other… except this year would not be like any other. This is the story of COVID-19 and how it affected the 2020 United States Amateur National Dancesport Championships, as told from the viewpoint of Aria Ballroom
owner and #teamaria coach, Kora Stoynova.
United States Amateur National Dancesport Championships
In America, National Championships are split into two distinct competitions. In March, amateur dancers of all ages descend on Provo, UT and effectively take over the Marriott Center at the BYU Campus. And in September, professional competitors and their pro-am partners brave the threat of hurricanes to coalesce in Orlando, FL at the Disney World Resort.
For our amateur students, who make up the bulk of our competitive students, the Amateur National Dancesport Championships represents the culmination of a year of training, practice, and hard work. When we say amateurs, we’re talking competitive amateurs of all ages. Our youngest competitive dancer is just 6 years old. Our oldest is 72. So we truly have the entire range.
Preparation for National Championships begins in October. We decide with each individual couple which events they will enter, and begin preparations. At this time, we take a long, hard look at each routine and make necessary changes. Choreography changes are done by the start of the new year, and the next two months are spent in refinement. Couples spend 5 months working exclusively on the dances they will use at National Championships. This, we truly feel, has much to do with our couples’ consistent success.
For this year, Aria Ballroom had 16 couples travelling to Provo. Our youngest couple was a Preteen couple who were both aged 9, and our oldest couple were adults in their twenties, competing in the Open Amateur Ballroom Championships. Normally Simeon and I bring this teacher, Atanas, with us to Provo, as he is deeply involved with our highly active and competitively successful Youth program at the studio. My parents also join us, as they have fond memories of competing at Provo during their competitive careers, when the Professional Standard National Championships were held there in conjunction with the Amateur National Championships. My mom’s coordination skills, in particular, are
invaluable when corralling more than a dozen couples and their families.
Still, the workload in supporting all of these couples, acting as a go-between from the couples to the competition, fixing problems, making sure the dancers are groomed properly, and being physically present when they dance, is considerable. For us, the coaches, National Championships represents four days of constant work, stress, problem-solving, and dedication to our couples on just a few hours of sleep.
Knowing this, and being that I am currently pregnant, we also recruited another staff member to join us in Provo, specifically to solve small problems that tend to pop up and to take pictures and videos of students.
The Stirrings of Trouble
For the past six weeks, the specter of COVID-19 has loomed large. Being that our studio is based in the Seattle area, it was already a shock to learn that the first COVID-19 patient was in Seattle. But then the virus hit a retirement center. As case after case rolled into the news and the numbers began to climb, Seattleites got scared. You could feel the fear in the air. Though for the most part students continued to come in for their lessons and classes, the fear was tangible.
It wasn’t until the week of the National Championships that the top blew off the metaphorical volcano. Four days before leaving for Provo, Simeon and I were in Las Vegas at another competition. The feeling at the competition was unsure. Some were taking it seriously, refusing to hug or kiss in greeting (which is normal for ballroom dancers) and implementing Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s elbow bump. And yet others didn’t even know the virus had landed on American soil.
But on the return trip to Seattle, we heard the fatal words regarding the state of the Washington: COMMUNITY SPREAD. SOCIAL DISTANCING. STATE OF EMERGENCY.
We immediately contacted our students to begin coordinating their responses for National
Championships. But the evidence was on our side. Young people are resilient. No one was displaying symptoms. We were travelling to Utah, where there was only one known case. Our two Preteen couples, whose families had older grandparents at home, cancelled their trip; everyone else was prepared and ready to go.
Arriving in Utah
Monday through Wednesday, we taught our normal schedules. For the three of us (Simeon, Atanas, and myself), our schedules had thus far suffered very little. But we could see trouble brewing in the studio. The classes were small, just a handful of students at most. Our social parties hardly crossed the 10-person threshold for social gatherings. And the other teachers in our studio were suffering. One teacher, in particular, experienced a 60% drop in private lessons.
So while we spent each lesson preparing our student for National Championships, every spare moment was used brainstorming ideas for our teachers, reading notices sent out by the Public Health Authorities for small businesses, and discussing what the next steps would be.
But it’s difficult to balance all three demands on our time. When things get stressful, we have a rule we follow: break your problems into pieces, sort by timeframe, then attack. And what was the most urgent problem facing us? National Championships. So we took a deep breath and said to ourselves, “Let’s get through National Championships, get home on Sunday, and reevaluate everything studio-related.”
From the moment we landed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night, we were hit with the realization that Fate would not allow us to tackle one problem at a time. One of our students’ mom decided upon landing in Salt Lake City that she was too frightened for her son to dance the competition. She informed her son’s partner that on no uncertain terms, they were turning around and going home.
By midnight that night, another couple cancelled. The competition started at 8:00am the next morning. There was nothing more to do. We set our alarms, turned off our phones, and went to sleep.
A Deluge of Bad News
We awoke early the next morning to a flood of notifications. From emails to text messages to phone calls, it was clear people were not going to give us the space to make a calm and thought-out decision. Half the people contacting us were accusing us of endangering others’ lives by not yet publicly cancelling group classes that were already a mere handful of students. The other half were accusing us of making “rash decisions” for even considering giving into media-driven panic and endangering the teachers’ livelihoods by taking away their source of income.
So we did the only thing we could. We shut off our phones, ignored the emails, and consulted the recommendations for small businesses as set forth by Jay Inslee’s website, the Washington State Public Health Authority, and the City of Redmond Public Health Authority. Atanas and our other staff member were already at the competition, supporting our early morning competitors. Simeon picked up breakfast for all of us, and armed with the information from officials that we needed, we headed to the competition to watch our students and let the information settle in our heads.
We had a break in the afternoon. By that time, Simeon and I had made up our minds. We headed back to our house and sat down at our computers in order to write the fatal email. Group classes and social parties would be cancelled indefinitely. Private lessons would need to be spread out across the day. Simeon and I would need to come up with a plan to be able to help our teachers keep some sort of an income trickling in. We made a list of announcements and their locations that needed to be made, and got to work.
When it was time to go back to the competition, we made a new plan. Simeon would stay behind at the house and continue to contact students and send out emails, while I would return to the competition to support our evening couples with Atanas, who was already there.
Simeon dropped me off at the competition. Just as I was getting on the elevator, I saw a lady holding a sign in her hand. It read: “All Dancesport events are cancelled for Friday and Saturday.” Immediately upon exiting the elevator, I was on the phone with Simeon.
“The competition is cancelled,” I told him. “You need to get on the phone with Alaska Airlines and rebook our flights.”
Then I made my way to the competition organizers. “I want to verify that this true before I start contacting students,” I told them. “Is it true? Is the competition really cancelled?”
“Yes,” one of the organizers told me. “It’s from the Governor of Utah. I’m so sorry, there is just nothing we can do. We are totally in uncharted waters here.”
“It’s ok,” I told him. “We’re all in the same boat. We’re all just doing our best.”
From Bad to Crazy
I was about to call Simeon again when I got another pulled aside by a fellow Washingtonian.
“The Seattle Times just reported that Trump is considering quarantining the entire State of Washington. He wants to institute a travel ban in and out. We need to get home.”
Then I went into high gear. Things were happening fast. I called Atanas and our other staff member over to a quieter corner told them the news. “The competition is cancelled from tomorrow. Basically, once tonight ends, it’s over. Also, and I can’t substantiate this, I just heard that there may be a travel ban surrounding Washington State. Given how quickly the situation is changing, and the fact that the competition is virtually over for all of us, we need to start contacting students and figuring out ways to get people home.”
Atanas and the other staff member were on board. They made a list of people to contact, some of whom were on the plane, and divided to conquer. I got on the phone with Simeon to discuss options and called my parents, who were also in Utah. We had planned a massive studio dinner with all students and their families for that night. The dinner was off. My mom had the task of cancelling the dinner.
By the time I got off the phone with Simeon, a new development had taken place. Some events that were originally scheduled for Friday and Saturday had so many couples already there in Provo that they decided to run those events. No schedule was made yet, but all couples needed to be ready to dance by 9:30pm. It was, at that point, 5:00pm.
This announcement effected on of our Junior couples in particular. Atanas had just spoken to the boy’s mom an hour earlier to inform her about the event cancellation. The mom had rebooked the flight, returned through security, and was at the gate. Atanas called her back. I called the girl’s mom. Then I called Simeon. Simeon called both moms. Logistics were figured out. It was time to fly.
Meanwhile, we had four adult couples currently competing throughout all of this. We had to balance these phone calls with coaching them simultaneously.
Simeon picked me up at the competition and took me back to the house, then left immediately for Salt Lake City Airport, about an hour drive north. His job was to pick up the boy and his mom at the airport and deliver him to the competition venue with enough time for Atanas to prepare him to compete. The girl’s family had just picked up their rental car and was driving south to Provo in order to meet me so I could get her ready.
While I waited, I ordered food from UberEats and tried to use the 35 minutes of quiet time to destress. Atanas was now focused on coaching. Simeon was driving to Salt Lake City while simultaneously working to rebook flights with Alaska Airlines. My mom decided to hold the dinner for anyone who wanted to join. Our other staff member was continuing to act as the go-to person for smaller problems that needed to be solved (like numbers that got ripped off, or costumes that needed to be pinned, or problems with couple registrations).
When the girl arrived, I once again shifted into high gear. I had about an hour to do her hair, makeup, and tanning. In all honesty, I have never worked so fast. About an hour later, we were back in the girl’s family’s car and heading to the competition. I put her earrings and lipstick on in the car while simultaneously navigating for the girl’s dad.
By the time we got to the competition and put her in her costume, the boy was dressed and ready to go. They had about 20 minutes to warm up before they were called out to compete.
A Long Day Becomes Longer
The organizers of the competition were amazing. They were faced with impossible decisions and the realization that, much like the deluge of negativity Simeon and I received in the morning regarding the studio, no matter what they decided to do, people would react angrily and unfairly. And yet, they remained focused on the dancers. The inclusion of nine more events all starting after 9:30pm meant that it would be late night for the organizers, the dancers, and the judges. But it also meant giving those dancers who wanted to dance an opportunity to do what they loved most – dancing.
And everyone was on board. The parents were ecstatic. The kids were relieved beyond belief to dance. The judges, who were now asked to stay until however late they were needed and work overtime, all threw their shoulders back and got to work. The organizers and competition staff stayed calm, cool, and professional beneath what must have been a waterfall of complaints, accusations, and negativity.
The events were not considered “National Title” events, but the kids could compete. That’s what it came down to for all of us.
Our Junior couple finished their dancing at 1:30am. As they were our last couple, and rest was my number one priority for me due to my pregnancy, we decided not to stay until the end of the competition. We left and ordered a feast from a 24hr Mexican restaurant, since I was the only one of the four of us (Simeon, myself, Atanas, and the other staff member) who had actually wolfed down a salad in the early evening. At 3:00am, we literally collapsed into bed.
How We Got Home
Getting home was an issue for us. Being that we all had private lessons who were cancelling, and that we had officially cancelled group classes and social dances earlier that day, we realized as we ate our late night Mexican feast that we immediately needed to shift into austerity measures. Alaska Airlines waived all cancellation and change fees, but we still needed to pay the difference in fares. This meant over $800 in difference in fare if we considered all four of us. Meanwhile, keeping our rental car and driving home to Seattle would only cost us $67 and 14 hours of our time.
A discussion ensued. At first we thought we would wake up early the next morning and get an early start on the road to drive home. We all underestimated how exhausted the stresses of Thursday had left us. The four of us were up by ten the next morning, later than we wanted, and none of us felt prepared to hit the road for 14 hours – at least half of which would be driven in the dark.
Our first idea was to rest on Friday, go to bed early on Friday night, and start our long drive back at 4am on Saturday morning. The other staff member with us made the decision to fly home that afternoon, agreeing to foot the difference in fare herself. We hopped in the car to drive her to the Salt Lake City airport. Simeon dropped me off at the Outlet Mall so I could finally buy some maternity clothes, which I had been putting off for a number of weeks.
By the time Simeon picked me up at the Outlet Mall on his way back from Salt Lake City, he and Atanas had come up with another plan. The drive from Provo to Las Vegas is only six hours. My parents own a house there. A quick search of Alaska Airlines flights revealed very cheap flights from Las Vegas to Seattle on Saturday, which meant that driving down to Las Vegas, getting good sleep over night, eating a proper dinner and breakfast, and getting on the plane would put us back in Seattle in faster time than hitting the road on Saturday morning.
We would have the added benefit of spending less time sitting and therefore keep our activity levels a bit higher, as well as actually eating proper meals. Simeon was most concerned about me spending so many hours sitting stationary in the car and not being able to really sleep properly during that time.
So, that’s how we found ourselves on the six-hour trek south to Las Vegas in order to get home to Seattle faster.
The Silver Lining
This was not how we expected this year’s National Championships to ensue. But things happen that you often cannot control and sometimes you have to go with the flow. There was, however, a silver lining. National Championships was rescheduled for November! It means couples were given a 6-month extension on their Nationals training, with the hope of coming back better and stronger in the fall!
Of course, with this virus stalking us, there is no telling what will actually happen in the fall. We couldn’t predict the 3-month quarantine that was to come, effectively shutting down our studio and making it next to impossible for students to practice. And yet, despite the difficulties facing them, many students returned to the studio improved, in better shape, and having spent their time off well!
The truth of it is, sudden and unexplained situations like this really expose the best and worst in us. Some of our students made such good use of their time in quarantine, and those are the students who will come back to compete in the fall And really, that is the best approach! When are you offered a three month respite from mad stresses of day-to-day rushing around to be able to focus your attentions on things you really love? When are you given a 6-month extension on your Nationals training? This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand on your abilities and come back bigger, better, stronger!
What We Learned From This Experience
As seasoned travelers – indeed, crazy travelers – we are no strangers to long trips, insane situations, and Plan Bs, Plan Cs, Plan Ds, and so forth. Although I think, given the logistics of managing so many individual people and separate travel plans, this trip was by far the most complicated. We had dozens of different scenarios mapped out, all with their pros and cons, which changed almost on an hourly basis. And this included both the situation at the studio, as well as the situation in Utah.
When it came to managing the potential cancellation of group classes and social dances at our studio, we received so much negative criticism from “concerned individuals” contradicting each other as to what they thought was the best decision for us to make that we eventually had to just cut out the noise. And as small business owners and employers, we are given information by the Public Health Authority that is not freely distributed to other individuals.
In all honesty, we want to do what is best for our students. We want to do what is best for our teachers. And we want to do what is best for our studio. No one out there has as much information about the individual situation of our studio as we do. The difficulty for us is balancing the needs of everyone involved in the studio against each and every decision and finding the best possible solution. In a fluid situation such as this, Simeon and I reevaluate ever decision we make on a day to day basis.
When it came to managing the enforced cancellation of National Championships, the backlash against the organizers and the NDCA (our competitive dancing sanctioning body) was truly astounding and disheartening. For those of us who were there, at the competition and experiencing it in real time, the organizers made the best possible decisions with the knowledge and information they had on hand. Every official, every teacher, and every dancer behaved with a professionalism that displays the classiness and discipline of competitive ballroom dancers at their best.
The barrage of spite and abuse displayed on social media channels by people who were not physically there displayed the very worst of our industry. In reading people’s “outrage” against the organizers and the NDCA, I was truly appalled by the amount of misinformation, abuse, and vitriol.
So what did we learn from this situation? Stop judging people! There are so many layers to so many situations that you do not understand. Indeed, you are not even aware these layers exist. So when you make a judgment against someone with your piddly 10% of knowledge, you’re not helping. You’re just adding to the noise. And when the noise gets too loud, making an informed decision becomes all the more difficult.
How COVID-19 Effects the Dance Industry
I’m going to be frank here. Our business is built on the idea of community, of touch, of feel. Our industry’s entire foundation is based on the physical closeness of people. A viral outbreak that requires quarantining and social distancing is going to hurt. A lot.
We dancers need to stick together more now than ever. We are all going to struggle. Many of us will not survive (business speaking). This is not the time to stick fingers, spit, and abuse. What brought us together to begin with was our passion and love of ballroom dancing. Our passion and love can keep us alive.
Support, support, support!
If you would like more information about how COVID-19 is affecting our studio, please refer to our website or read our blog post, “Safely Returning to Dance in the Midst of a Pandemic“.