My name is Pavan Thimmaiah. I am the son of two Indian immigrants who taught me that with hard work, anything is possible in America. In my efforts to escape everything from racism to the harsh reality of being a teenager in Staten Island, I fell in love with dance. When I danced, it did not matter how I looked – we all shared in the same moment, judged equally for how we contributed to that moment. Dance was the ultimate equalizer. It taught me to embrace my uniqueness as a strength. It gave people the permission to look past their preconceived notions. As I began my foray into the dance world, I wanted to create a space where I could give back to the industry that had, in many ways, saved my life. Hence, PMT House of Dance was born.
Fast forward 19 years to 2020. We cannot even say 2020 without a slight visceral reaction. COVID-19 quickly shut us down, but we never lost sight of the day we would reopen. We did not sit around waiting for things to fall on our lap. We planned our re-opening from almost the moment we closed – researching ways to reinvent ourselves, procuring supplies, coming up with protocols to implement, vetting them in the effort to reopen. We invested everything we had (not an exaggeration) into upgrading our space to create a safer, a more spacious studio with a fully capable live streaming platform. We wanted to be there for our community. We knew this haymaker was a financial risk but we felt an obligation to open for dancers, artists and those who needed to fully experience the joy of dance again.
After weeks of testing our safety protocols, we were able to open on July 20th under the Fine Arts provision in Phase 4 of the NY Forward reopening plan. We offered limited in-person spots to benefit our Live Streaming classes along with limited space rentals. We danced with masks. Spots for distancing were marked throughout our space. Strict procedures ranging from pre-screening to staggered entry to contact tracing were in place. Our procedures were so well regarded that several dance centers contacted us for advice on how to reopen.
Despite all of this, on August 3rd, two inspectors came into our space based on a false report. According to the report, it was written by another dance studio. The report sounded like opposition research with no actual example of any violation. It stated a series of falsehoods and half-truths. This was verified by the inspectors who agreed that nothing in the report was reflected in their observations. In the inspectors’ visit, they did not look at our certifications. The inspectors simply demanded we shut down even though our 5000-square-foot space hosted only my wife and a colleague taking a Zoom class. The inspectors asked questions to verify that my wife was my wife but asked nothing about our safety protocols. They attempted to stop the Zoom class, stating “if they (my wife and her colleague) were teaching the Zoom class, it would be ok, but they cannot take the class.” Apparently, the inspectors were unaware that COVID-19 does not care whether someone is teaching or taking a class. Furthermore, the inspectors noted that, if my wife and her friend were massaging each other, it would have been okay. In fact, upon me questioning them, the inspectors acknowledged that ice skating, public pools, tattoo parlors, salons, and many businesses where comparable or higher risk activities exist can operate. However, in their minds, dance could not.
They waited for us to close that day. We left, disappointing our teachers and customers who made the trip on a Monday night. We closed down most of our operation for 6 days, costing us thousands. No violation was cited or even investigated.
After consulting attorneys and Dance NYC, and through our own research, we learned that were in fact lawfully operating. After listening to the horrible side effects closing had created for our community, we decided to take the risk and fully resume our normal operations.
Then, once again, on August 25th, two more inspectors came. In this recorded encounter, the inspectors again found only two people dancing. Both were wearing masks, and one was on the way out. The inspectors attempted to barge in without announcing themselves. They refused to show proof of the complaint. They claimed that we should not be allowed to dance but again offered no reason. The inspectors disregarded the regulations, certification and updated affirmation that was clearly posted on site. After finding no violation, they asked for proof of who I was and proof of my ownership. After I was able to reach legal consultation, they backed off these requests. They did stay to watch one girl, with a mask on, in a closed room dancing alone. They deemed this activity illegal. They left after I would not comply with the request to make her stop dancing.
These two instances were consistent with several other accounts we have since learned about. In all cases, the only violation was dancing. One studio, Ballroom Hub, shut down permanently while inspectors forced them to cancel all their appointments and lock up. Compared to them, we were lucky. The NYC Inspectors who came in did not care to search for actual violations related to COVID-19. They showed no regard for the fact that these were small businesses simply trying to pick up the pieces and restart their life’s dream. They, like myself, were treated like criminals before there was even a trial. They did not offer any guidance on how to make the place safer. The inspectors were only interested in exercising their perceived authority to stop us from dancing.
In actuality, the actions of these inspectors were unlawful. Dance studios in NYC are eligible to open under phase 4, according to NAICS Code 611610 (Fine Arts), which includes: dance instruction, dance studios and performing arts schools. Under this code, these businesses are permitted to operate with restrictions.
Despite this, dance studios are continually mischaracterized as gyms. Inspectors have called us gyms across all inspections and have used this to shut studios down. This mischaracterization is due, at least in part, to a similar Sport and Recreation Guidance on gyms and fitness centers. While this guidance does not include or explicitly mention dance studios, the activity of dance is listed as a higher risk activity under this part of the guidance.
Higher risk activities will be restricted even when gyms are allowed to open. That means that even then, dance studios may not be able to open if we allow ourselves to be categorized as gyms. Furthermore, clumping us with gyms resigns us to share their fate, subjecting us to inspection procedures and standards that are not applicable to dance studios.
We are not a gym. We are artists. We are teachers. We are mentors. We are dancers. We are the engine of one of the largest economies in New York City. Our needs are unique and the failure to recognize this has left our dance industry facing an existential crisis. The few studios that are operating are doing so without proper guidance or by using legal loopholes (found within these flawed regulations) that force them to hide the fact that they dance, leaving their customers less safe. We should never have to hide what we do. Dance and safety are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as is happening at PMT, we can create a culture of safety. We have converted non-maskers – people who deny the viability of masks as a preventative measure - believe in wearing masks after seeing our safety measures. We have had those who were experiencing psychological trauma due to COVID-19 use our space to heal and return to work. After we were shut down temporarily following the first inspection, a parent called to tell me “you were keeping my kids off the streets.” What we provided is the realization that life does not have to stop with COVID-19. If I were searching for myself like the young teenager I was so many years ago, I would not survive--not because of COVID-19, but because of rules that are enforced unequally and unjustly. This needs to stop. Allow us to make New York feel like New York again.
Thus, we have teamed up with Ballroom Hub and various dance communities. We have also acquired an attorney from a global firm and made inroads with elected officials to further our goal. However, there is power in numbers. We need the entire dance community to stand up, speak out and work together in demanding equal treatment. We should be able to dance without NYC law enforcement harassing compliant businesses and individuals. To this achieve this goal, we have created a petition that demands the dance industry be included in decisions regarding safely reopening since we are uniquely qualified to speak to our needs and challenges. This is in line with what has been done with ice skating and other low-risk, indoor activities. Only then can studios be provided with a road map on how to reopen safely without the fear of being targeted by law enforcement.