On any given afternoon, you might find the downstairs studio at Houston’s Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (the J) filled to the brim with tapping adults or tiny tots taking their first dance class.
During the height of Hurricane Harvey, it was filled with toxic water.
When most dance studios are gearing up for a new schedule of classes, performances and competitions, several Houston studios owners find themselves cleaning out rubble instead. For some, it means dealing with their drenched homes, as well. As much of the flooding occurred in the outlying suburban Houston areas, it’s still too soon to know how many neighborhood studios have been affected. And with flooded studios come students who have also lost their homes and possessions. There’s no doubt that in the wake of the most violent storm in U.S. history, this will be a difficult, trying and expensive start to the fall dance studio season in our beloved and now ravaged Bayou City.
A Lost Legacy at the J
“Did you know that I danced in a work by Freddie Franklin?,” boasted the J’s legendary dance director Maxine Silberstein during a quiet lunch two days before Harvey spread its devastation. She went on to tell me that she had also danced in work by another Ballet Russe alum, George Zoritch, during her teen years at the Houston Youth Symphony and Ballet. She and I had planned to get together again soon so I could see the photos.
That is not to be. With the water nearing 10 feet, nothing is salvageable in her office and supply closet, which housed 43 years of Houston’s dance history.
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston
All kinds of activities go on at the popular Meyerland neighborhood center, yet many know the J as a house of dance, with Silberstein at the center of the action. She is the reigning matriarch in these dance parts, known not only for her annual dance extravaganza called Dance Month, but for 43 years of supporting and presenting dance performances, master classes and education in our city.
You would be hard-pressed to find a dancer, teacher, artistic director or choreographer whom Silberstein didn’t impact in some way, from giving them their first teaching gig, to inviting them to perform on Dance Month’s “Choreographers X 6,” to lending rehearsal space when a company needed it.
Silberstein has also been a force for keeping tap alive in this city and has presented greats, such as Dianne Walker, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant, Jason Samuels Smith and Acia Gray. She was instrumental in organizing two historic tap gatherings in the 1990s that included Charles “Honi” Coles, Eddie Brown, Brenda Bufalino and Jimmy Slyde and can regale you with tales of a 14-year-old Savion Glover in the back of her car with his mother.
She and her dance committee invited Ohad Naharin to the center when he was still Ohad Naharin and Dancers, pre-Batsheva, which was just the beginning of a long history of bringing Israeli dance to Houston.
“Some 43 years of history at the J is gone,” Silberstein told me, while she was handing out diapers and other supplies to those in need. Meyerland now resembles a war zone, with streets lined with soggy mattresses, crushed dry wall and moldy carpets.
Now that pile of mess includes all the contents of her office, which housed her precious teaching supplies and materials, a treasured collection of dance books, DVDs and videos, programs and memorabilia from her many accomplishments.
Evidence of a heroic life in Houston dance is now reduced to a pile of poisonous trash.
“I thought I would feel better if I could see what was left, but I don’t,” says Silberstein. She spent her first post-Harvey days volunteering, and now she is teaching children off-site at a camp. Silberstein’s expertise is in early-childhood dance education, and she is diligent about keeping up with the field. Teaching without her favorite materials has been a challenge. “I am winging it,” she says, smiling, trying to stay positive, with an uncertain road ahead.
A Crisis for Teachers
The impact on dance teachers post-Harvey will be huge. From studios not opening on time, to reduced enrollment, to teachers and students suffering the loss of their own homes, the rhythm of daily dance teachers’ lives has been severely disrupted. With many folks still in shelters or staying with friends and relatives, students are now living far from their home studios. Freelance teachers who count on a certain number of classes to piece together a living might very well be scrambling for enough classes to be sustainable.
Anjali Center for the Performing Arts is located in Sugar Land, one of the hardest hit areas and home to much of the East Indian community. Founded in 1975, Anjali is Texas’ first and most prominent Indian dance academy: the go-to place to study bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, odissi and Bollywood dance. Anjali founder and renowned dancer Rathna Kumar is living in the middle of this crisis, unable to offer classes or work to her talented team of teachers. “My studio is badly damaged. It needs the entire roof replaced, ceiling almost gone. All furniture, carpets, many costumes, valuable certificates, artifacts, have been destroyed and seven teachers currently out of work. My only livelihood is temporarily gone,” says Kumar, who is actively looking for other places to hold classes.
The University of Houston’s School of Theatre & Dance community rallied when Teresa Chapman, an associate professor, had waist-high flood waters in her home and another home she owns where her father lives. Karen Stokes, head of dance at UH, led the clean-up effort.
“Several faculty colleagues showed up the next morning, helping to drag the unsalvageable outside, while packing bins with things that could be saved,” says Stokes. “Our dance colleague Toni Valle brought over a small refrigerator, and another dance colleague offered Teresa’s family a small cottage to stay in for a couple of months.” Stokes offered to cover Chapman’s classes the first week of school, but Chapman would have none of it. She wanted to get back to teaching. “We dance folks are tough,” adds Stokes.
Resilience seems to be a theme. Houston’s most accomplished lindy hop and social-dance teacher Andrea Cody survived a harrowing escape in deep rushing water with her 1-year-old and 4-year-old sons in tow. “We woke up to rising water in our home,” says Cody, who is also the founding director of Dance Houston, an organization that produces festivals, dance camps and classes. “It was terrifying,” she says. “Those in our neighborhood who stayed longer were rescued by boats and helicopters.”
Cody lost most of what she owned. Her home office, period costumes—everything is beyond repair. She carried a hard drive out, which she hopes will work when she gets a new laptop. Cody, a popular teacher at Texas Southern University, Avenida Houston, the J and Queensbury Theater, was in the midst of producing a new swing-dance project when the storm hit. After relocating to a nearby Sheraton hotel, she didn’t miss a beat and set up free classes and a dance party. The hotel provided a free banquet room, and others donated refreshments. “Teaching dance has been especially joyous these past two weeks,” says Cody. “The classes gave the children something positive to do together, while their parents took time to work on whatever they needed to do to move on with their lives. It was great to have this little temporary community.”
Neighborhood Studios Rely on Neighbors
For competition studios, time is of the essence; they want to hit the competition scene with their choreography done, their team in tip-top shape and their spirits in full-steam-ahead mode. Things turned out differently for Lanette Cook at Elite Dance Academy when a foot of water entered all three studios of her League City, Texas–based studio. She estimates that the rebuild will cost approximately $60,000. Her studio, like many flooded homes and businesses, was not in a flood plain, so she did not have the mandatory insurance. She is hoping that she will not need a FEMA loan. “We are a small business and do not want to take on more debt,” she says.
Elite Dance Academy. Photo by Lanette Cook
Once she was able to the see the studio, the reality of post-Harvey life settled in quickly. Then came the brigade. Students, parents, friends, neighbors and other studio owners showed up to do the work. “We even had parents from other students helping out,” says Cook. “It was amazing.”
The tear-down of the studio was accomplished entirely by an army of volunteers. “Martial-arts-studio friends helped us get the mirrors out without breaking any of them,” Cook says, “which wasn’t easy because they were glued to the drywall.” Thanks to Studio Fairy Godmothers, set up by resourceful Chicago teacher J. Lindsay Brown, word got out across the country that they needed help. Brown has been encouraging studios to adopt a studio via social media.
Photo by Lanette Cook
“We have been hearing from people as far away as Mississippi who want to help, thanks to Lindsay and other efforts,” says Cook. Some are helping to raise money by selling T-Shirts. Others are collecting gift cards. “I am overwhelmed,” she adds.
Photo by Lanette Cook
Cook’s students spend about 10 weekends a year at conventions and competitions, with their first date being NYCDA in November. Her positive thinking and drive makes me hopeful that her students will be ready. Studios all over the area have offered space so her competition team can get its choreography done by the time the studio opens again on October 1. Some are driving an hour to get to the studios that are donating rehearsal space. They are also taking classes at other studios to keep up their training. “We want things to be as normal as possible for our students, to get their training in and work on choreography. We want our kids to go into competition season with confidence,” Cook says. Much about finding your studio flooded is difficult on every level, yet she is finding strength in people power. “A hurricane is a horrible thing to witness, yet I am humbled by the outpouring of support,” she says.
What’s Next and How Can You Help?
The city’s dance-service organization Dance Source Houston is tracking damage on a handy Google doc and has worked tirelessly with fellow arts service organizations to set up the Harvey Arts Recovery Fund. The studio community has stepped up in a big way. METdance is donating studio space to those in need and 10 percent from the sale of every adult and teen dance card in September to Justin J. Watt Houston Flood Relief Fund. Other studios have chipped in by gathering supplies, helping in tear-down efforts, volunteering at shelters and raising money.
If you know a Texas studio owner, touch base. Even a friendly e-mail or call offers comfort. Just about everyone is dealing with the stress, granted in different degrees. Don’t wait for a disaster to build relationships in your field. As Cook says, “Thankfully, we are a tight community here in Houston.”
For other studios affected by the devastation and in need of relief, click here.