Dancing in the Face of COVID-19 — Help Keep the Dance Factory in Montgomery
By Abby Meola
The Dance Factory has been a fundamental part of the Montgomery community since it first opened its doors 19 years ago. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dance Factory is facing their toughest year yet.
"Did you know it costs about $30,000 month to operate the Dance Factory? That includes the cost of rental space, utilities, and the instructor salaries," according to a GoFundPage set up to support the studio. "Add to that the $5,000 in COVID-19 upgrades, and $22,000 in unpaid accounts from last year due to hardships, and it is easy to see how this is a predicament for the Dance Factory. Help keep these dancers dancing. Donate a little or a lot. Every donation helps us keep dancing another month."
Kelly Stretch, the artistic director, has always been a creative mastermind. Each year she puts together elaborate recitals at the Patriots Theatre in Trenton. She introduced the Dance Factory Tour Team, a group of dancers that visits local nursing homes to spread joy. She has supported organizations like Fal-Rooney, Montgomery Dance Team, Montgomery Food Pantry, and Montgomery Rotary. Now, she is channeling her creativity to tackle the greatest challenge — how to continue supporting her dancers while running a successful business during an international health emergency. It is not a small task.
In March, when schools and businesses started closing their doors, "Ms. Kelly" (as she is affectionally known by her students) immediately adapted her teaching to fit an online world.
She and her team had an emergency meeting and within a day had set up 75 Google classrooms for each section. The students did not miss a single day of class.
“My main thought was, how can I make them happy?" Stretch asked. "I felt responsible for creating the community of dance virtually. I knew it was my time to step up.”
Stretch brought in outside teachers for virtual masterclasses, held mindfulness workshops, made music videos featuring the students, and even organized for her graduating seniors to visit the War Memorial to take a ceremonial “final bow.” Despite her best efforts, her business is struggling.
During her years in town, she has served 1,500 dancers, and about 350 families each year, with a range of dance classes. Currently, with no rent relief offered for her studios, she has only half the students registered this fall.
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“We aren’t failing, but normally at this time of year, we would have 740 slots filled, and now we have 470." Stretch says. "That is scary as a businesswoman. But the biggest heartstring is the students that I have connections with who I don’t get to see anymore.”
Stretch has many plans for engaging her students, despite COVID-19. She is offering two methods for class online, or in person at limited capacity. She published an in-depth safety protocol video for the in-person classes, set up 14 hand sanitation centers in the studio, and installed new filters to the HVAC system. In addition, she is holding periodic free outdoor classes on the front lawn next to Route 518.
Students who dance at home are projected onto a new TV screen in the studio. “The dancers come and wear their masks and a lot of things have changed, but I still want them to have an outlet for normalcy. They can feel safe, both at home or in the studio, and have a chance to move their bodies and express themselves.”
She found her students were yearning for a performance venue, so Stretch set to work on another project. She rented out the Somerset Patriots Theater for an evening. The performances were taped to share later with local nursing homes.
The Dance Factory has given so much to the town of Montgomery, and now they need help to provide growth opportunities and arts education for young people. As Ms. Kelly says, “This place is more than a dance studio for some of my students. This is their home. So I am working tirelessly to not let them down.” ■
■ The Dance Factory provides dance classes for all ages. 10 Vreeland Drive, Skillman
Help the Dance Factory stay in Montgomery ... help support the staff and pay the bills. Visit: The Dance Factory, Skillman on GoFundMe.