In late February, Valley Stream dance studio Danse Xpressions celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding at a Lutheran Church in Queens, and shortly afterward, staff members and the parents of students met to discuss plans for a gala to celebrate the center, which has been located in Valley Stream for a decade and a half.
By the next day, however, word had begun to spread about the coronavirus pandemic, the studio’s co-owner and founder Jessica St. Vil-Ulysse recalled, and “life changed.”
Danse Xpressions has been closed since, and in late July, St. Vil-Ulysse, along with her two sisters and studio co-founders launched a GoFundMe campaign to help keep the business afloat.
“It’s a blow to us in a lot of ways,” she said. “We haven’t been able to serve the community, our students can’t get the exercise they need or want, and it’s difficult because we haven’t been able to pay our bills and provide what we want to provide.”
The campaign is so far $5,000 short of its $15,000 goal.
Danse Xpressions started as a Saturday youth program at the Epiphany Lutheran Church in Laurelton. At the time, the church, St. Vil-Ulysse said, was looking to provide an activity for children and teenagers in the neighborhood.
Over the years, the program increased in popularity and outgrew its church space, and as more and more children from outside the church community and nearby neighborhoods, including Elmont and Valley Stream, started joining, founders St. Vil-Ulysse, her sisters Patricia Neal and Florence Cruz and cousin Pascale Jerome sought their own space.
The family opened a dedicated studio on South Central Avenue 15 years ago, and it has since become a major part of the community, its students having staged a number of performances at Valley Stream’s Community Fest, the village courthouse on Rockaway Avenue for Black History Month and elsewhere in nearby neighborhoods.
When operating normally, Danse Xpressions offers lessons in ballet, tap, Afro-Caribbean dance, jazz, West African drum, hip hop, Zumba, gymnastics and pointe for students ranging in age from 3 years old to adults.
St.Vil-Ulysse is a classically trained professional dancer, having received her bachelor’s in dance and mass communications from Lehman College and completed an independent study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance School. In addition to her work at the studio, she is a professor of dance at the Ailey School and a certified teaching artist with the New York City Department of Education.
“Dance has been such a benefit in my life,” she said. “It’s done so much for me, and I wanted to give back. For me, dance is how I’m able to do it.”
Studying dance can teach discipline and self-esteem, she said, which can benefit students outside the studio. Additionally, Danse Xpressions offers a student-teacher program so high school students can try instruction themselves, as well as earn community service credits.
“I’ve been able to touch so many lives through dance, and I wanted to share that with the kids in the community,” St. Vil-Ulysse said.
Some students have even gone on to teach professionally themselves, such as Kayla Gill, of Valley Stream. Gill, now 23, started attending the studio when she was 5 and said its family-like environment struck her and her parents.
“The teachers pushed you to be your best, but they never made you feel bad if you were struggling,” she said. “They were just very supportive.”
Upon entering high school, Gill was offered the chance to become a student-teacher at the studio, where she worked alongside instructors and helped them during classes. When helping a struggling student one day, she said, she discovered how much she loved teaching.
Now she teaches math at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, and before the pandemic taught gymnastics at Danse Xpressions for students ages 7 to 12.
Inspiring and touching the lives of others such as Gill through dance has been a proud highlight for St.Vil-Ulysse. That was, until now. “It’s been awesome,” she said. “It was an awesome experience until Covid.”
“It’s been really hard to see such an important place to a lot of us struggling at a time like this,” Gill said. “A lot of us didn’t know that the last time we were at the studio might be the last time we would ever be there.”
With the studio closed, Danse Xpressions switched to online classes. But with students and instructors alike yearning for tactile feedback from in-person instruction and coronavirus restrictions loosening in New York in June, St. Vil-Ulysse tried to reopen the studio to classes. A survey sent out to parents, however, came back with only 30 percent of respondents feeling comfortable having their children return in person.
“As a parent as well, I understand,” she said of the anxiety. “But it makes it difficult on our end to keep our doors open, because we can’t pay our staff and bills on 30 percent of revenue.”
In the meantime, St.Vil-Ulysse plans to restart online classes in November, and she hopes, to hang on.
“We’re grateful to have been able to touch so many children’s lives the last 25 years,” she said. “And we’d like to continue for another 25 years if we can.”