SCHENECTADY – Since taking over Dance Me on Upper Union Street in the middle of the pandemic, Brianna Ryan focused on just keeping her students dancing.
Along the way, despite COVID-19 concerns and a steep learning curve, she managed to do much more than that.
“In a year when everything else seemed to stand still . . . they didn’t miss a beat,” said Jillian Fountain, whose daughter, Gabby, is a student at the studio. Like many students, the Iroquois Middle Schooler’s life was completely disrupted last year.
“Virtual school seemed acceptable and doable. But a life without dance and interacting with her friends and doing something that she loves . . . it all seemed impossible,” Fountain said. The fact that Dance Me stayed open and offered both virtual and in-person classes, “made a world of difference. It’s what made the year totally seem okay and normal,” Fountain said.
Ryan, a Glenville native, studied dance at Broadway Dance Company and then at Eleanor’s School of Dance. She started teaching at Dance Me after graduating in 2015 from Ithaca College, where she active in the dance community.
The 27-year-old continued to teach at Dance Me while working toward her master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Albany. Even after graduating, she kept teaching.
“I had opportunities once I graduated grad school; I could have left and done something else, but I really love it here. I love the kids and I love teaching and getting to see the kids progress and their personal [growth]. . . It’s very rewarding to see,” Ryan said.
Dance Me was founded by Kathy Holtz, who opened the studio in 2015 with the idea of teaching dance as well as character development. That blend was what attracted Ryan to the studio in the first place, so when Holtz asked her if she’d be interested in taking it over last year, Ryan felt like she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to own my own dance studio. . . I didn’t know if it would ever be attainable but it was always a dream,” Ryan said.
The idea of running the business was intimidating, not to mention the fact that it was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and just as the dance studio was able to hold in-person classes again. However, Ryan saw that her students needed a place to dance during the pandemic.
“I’ve got to keep these kids going. They need this more now than ever, especially because we were in the pandemic,” Ryan said.
She readily admits that there’s been a learning curve, particularly with the changing COVID-19 health protocols.
“My mom is a nurse so I consulted with her a lot regarding COVID protocols,” Ryan said. “I am very thankful we were able to stay open the whole time.”
Even after students could come back in person, not everyone felt comfortable doing so and Ryan continued to offer virtual classes alongside in-person ones.
“It’s very challenging, not just teaching dance moves . . . but just splitting your attention too, making sure that none of the kids feel neglected in their class . . . but a lot of the kids did a great job with it this year. Some of the little ones, you can’t really keep their attention looking at a screen, but some of the older ones, they loved it. They are so thankful that they had that as an option,” Ryan said.
Beyond that, Ryan also rented out the studios to students when they weren’t being occupied by classes so that students could have a space to practice with their friends.
The Fountains rented those out as often as they could during the winter months.
“It was a way to keep them busy and connected,” Fountain said. “In the winter, the kids had nothing to do and you didn’t really want to go to a big crazy gym or you didn’t want to go to the mall. So every Saturday morning, we’d rent the studio for at least an hour. So my daughter and three or four other friends with masks on could dance in a big space that had ventilation . . . We just felt comfortable there.”
ABLE TO COMPETE
Ryan also made sure students had chances to compete.
“The day before what was supposed to be our first competition [in 2020], that’s when the world shut down. So we never got to compete last year,” Ryan said. “We were able to complete five competitions this year and [have a] recital. So I was able to get the kids to all of those things. That was a big accomplishment just because we didn’t get to compete at all last year and it broke their hearts.”
Ryan got together with several local dance studios, including Dance Force in Rotterdam, to organize the first competition in February. Called United We Dance, they had only one school compete at a time to keep capacity low and had dance teachers and studio owners from other schools judge the competition.
“We ordered trophies and medals so that all the dancers got an award of some sort. We tried to make it as much like a real competition as we could,” Ryan said.
“I think we had our most successful competition season this year. . . we were happy just to even go and then they were doing so well and we saw them all grow this year,” Fountain said.
While many dance schools canceled their traditional end-of-the-year recitals, Ryan hosted six different mini-recitals so that the students could bring family members but capacity was still limited.
FIGHTING THROUGH IT
It’s the sort of dedication that she’s shown to the school since well before she owned it. While on vacation two years ago, she had a stroke and even as she was recovering in the hospital, she was thinking about the studio.
“My family came down to be with me and they were like, ‘Why are you worried about that?’ And I was like ‘It’s recital week! I can’t miss work,’ ” Ryan said.
A day or two after she was discharged, she returned to the studio and worked the recital.
“I don’t want the kids to be afraid of what happened to me. I want them to know I’m okay. And want them to see something bad happened to me and I’m okay. . . Just showing them that tough stuff happens and you just fight through,” Ryan said.
Her teaching philosophy is a mix of humor and encouragement.
“I joke with the kids that I am tough on them. I think I am hard on them just because I want them to really learn and do well. But it’s a lot of fun and it’s very laid back,” Ryan said.
Recent Niskayuna High School graduate Brooke Dempsey can certainly attest to that.
“We’re always pushing ourselves really hard but it never feels negative and Brianna’s just the sweetest. She’s so nice and she’s almost like a big sister to all of us. … We can come to her about anything. We get such a great dance education along with such good friendships,” Dempsey said.
She’s been going to Dance Me since the studio first opened, taking everything from lyrical to tap. In the fall, she plans to study education and dance at the University of New Hampshire and credits Ryan for always encouraging her and continuing to challenge her.
“I just want the kids to . . . have a community and have a space where they feel safe and they can come and live their best life and have fun, but also learn [and] make friends,” Ryan said.