The Covid Chronicles: Reopening the Circus, Part Two

LOCAL BUSINESSES RETURN TO THE RING IN THE COVID ERA

Note: This is part two of a four-part series highlighting the gradual reopening of DMV businesses. For part one’s portrait of Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics, click here.

From the collective shutdown to the current state of affairs, representatives of four companies specializing in recreational, artistic and competitive circus skills talked to The District Ringer about how the global pandemic has reframed their industry. 

Today, our series profiles pole fitness studio Pole Pressure DC in Logan Circle.

“It was like I was on the freeway, and I didn’t have an off ramp.

Devon Williams, CEO of Pole Pressure DC, was at Target in late February when she sensed that something was up.

Shelves normally stocked with alcohol and other cleaning supplies, which she purchased regularly to disinfect shared equipment in her studio, were suddenly empty. As the threat of the virus mounted, so did the impetus to close her business. On March 15th, she did exactly that.

“We were doing really well,” she said of the pole fitness space, which opened in 2009 and was offering 35 classes per week prior to the shutdown. “It was like I was on the freeway, and I didn’t have an off ramp.”

Some of her classes were booked seven months in advance. “How do I just cancel everything and start over?” she remembered thinking. “I would upset so many people.”

But like many resilient entrepreneurs in the District, Williams wasted no time going virtual. 

Less than a week after the studio’s closing, a number of her clients were able to resume their lessons online, from equipment-free flexibility and conditioning classes to pole classes for instructors and students who had an apparatus at home.

“They thought that I had a special line into the mayor. I was like, I find out exactly when it gets posted on the news.”

When Virginia started to reopen in May, Williams said she started getting daily phone calls from the commonwealth about when they could expect her D.C. business to reopen.

“They thought that I had a special line into the mayor,” Williams said, laughing. “I was like, I find out exactly when it gets posted on the news. There’s nothing special happening here. A lot of people were just ready and waiting.”

As the closure wore on, she applied for benefits from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, as well as a small business loan from D.C., both of which she eventually received in June.

After being shuttered for 110 days, Williams finally reopened the studio for in-person classes on July 6th.

With a slimmed-down selection of classes taught by five instructors (including Williams), the studio is only allowing students to take one in-person class per week to reduce the risk of transmission and to give all students a fair opportunity to enroll.

In the next few months, Williams is hoping to double her roster of instructors.

“I want everybody to understand what they need to do before they come in and what I’m doing to protect them, so that they can say, ‘Okay I feel comfortable teaching,’” she said.

Despite taking a substantial financial hit as a result of the pandemic, Williams said that stepping back from her usual business routine has allowed her to re-prioritize the strengths of her company.

“It’s given me an opportunity to really refocus on our core mission. Our main focus is pole, then aerial,” Williams said. “These complementary classes — like our flexibility and our handstand classes — those are great, but they are not our core.”

Narrowing her focus has had a lot to do with her studio’s spatial limitations. During its current state of Phase 2 reopening, the D.C. government recommends a limit of five people per 1,000 square feet of indoor space in gyms and workout studios.

With 1,500 square feet divided between the two rooms of her studio, Williams is hosting six students and one instructor per class at the moment. To make sure students can see their instructor throughout the lesson, she installed television monitors in each room.

“I think people are starting to realize that if they want to have these experiences, they’re willing to pay a little bit of a premium for it.”

One positive outcome for her business has been an uptick in students booking private lessons. “I think people are starting to realize that if they want to have these experiences, they’re willing to pay a little bit of a premium for it,” Williams said.

She also advised any small business owners offering in-person classes to heavily support their instructors in order to best serve their clients.

“The most important people are your instructors,” she said. “Unless you’re superhuman, you’re not going to teach 20 classes a week. You’re just going to be burned out.”

Even as she dealt with a lengthy closure that threatened her business’s stability, Williams still found time to curate two virtual showcases to replace the performances she used to host in the studio.

The shows featured performances by students and teachers, raising money for Mary’s Center — a nonprofit providing healthcare, education and social services to families in D.C. and Maryland — and Black Lives Matter DC.

Because online ticketing was too much of a headache, Williams also encouraged viewers to tip the performers. She said the generosity she felt from the community was heartening.

“It was really encouraging,” she said. “Like, there’s all these other people, you know, and we’re in this together and we’re supporting each other.”

To see Pole Pressure DC’s upcoming class schedule and sign up for a virtual or in-person class, visit their website.

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“We’re fortunate in that our clientele are people who like taking care of themselves, so they want to do the thing that is the healthiest for them.”

In part three of The Covid Chronicles, we’ll hear from Acoatzin Torres and Keith Ryder, owners/operators of Falls Church, Va., aerial studio Monarca in Flight. Stay tuned!