FOUR YEARS AGO, Mandy Verdon was looking for a fun way to exercise that wasn’t a gym. When she passed a nearby dance studio with tap classes, she signed up. She immediately fell in love with tapping, her teachers and — to her surprise — her new “tap sisters.”
As an introvert, Verdon’s goal wasn’t to find a community, but soon enough she was grabbing pizza and beer after class with her friends.
“It has turned out to be a very beautiful part of it for me,” says Verdon, of Issaquah.
When the pandemic hit and the dance studio, The Studio in Issaquah, pivoted to online classes, Verdon tapped on a wood board in her garage. She saw her sisters through online classes, and when the studio reopened with new safety protocols, she was one of the first dancers to go back. She took time off to care for her ailing mother in England, but as soon as she returned home, she was back at the studio to be with her people.
“The studio is kind of an anchor for me,” she says. “It really grounds me.”
Studio owner Steven Oelrich says community members like Verdon helped him stay afloat during a tough couple of years.
To Verdon, it was simple.
“We were all a part of something that mattered to all of us,” she says. “It feels crazy to attribute that to a dance studio, but it has transformed me.”
SINCE GYMS AND STUDIOS reopened their doors, they’ve all been rebuilding and trying to recapture the energy and connection they had with their members pre-pandemic. It hasn’t been simple. People’s habits and priorities have changed, from getting accustomed to working out at home or online — or sometimes not at all — to feeling overwhelmed juggling a full schedule with a commute and driving their kids around.
It’s taken effort to get people to return to in-person classes. Oelrich is still at two-thirds of the members he had pre-pandemic.
But dance isn’t something you can do well at home, he says, and people have realized that.
“Adults love the studio because one or two times a week they get away from the stress of life,” he says. “They’re not around kids or family; it’s time set apart for them.”
If anything, the pandemic and limitations imposed on gyms illuminated the deep — and essential — connection that happens when people got together in the same room to dance, lift weights or ride a stationary bicycle until sweat dripped off their foreheads. Community germinates during class, through empathetic eye contact with a neighbor while breathing heavily during a tough workout. Community is created every time you ask someone for help when you didn’t catch a couple of the counts in a dance sequence. Community expands when you chat with someone about the best equipment for a paddle board, and when you offer to loan a new friend a paddle to try out the next time they race.
The 10 minutes before and after class become a crucial time to connect. Those brief moments are when people talk about parental health issues, hear an update on a cool event they attended or share the challenges of commuting and working in the office again. It’s the time when small talk turns into a quick walk to get coffee, or plans to meet later for a drink.
It’s the small moments in between when connection turns into friendship solely because you like to move the same way.
“I knew the community piece was important to me before,” says Maia Kurnik, about the Capitol Hill gym she joined, Foundation. “I don’t think I realized how important. Without the community piece, the rest doesn’t shine as bright. … it’s not fun without your people there with you.”
KURNIK JOINED FOUNDATION in 2019, and she immediately loved the CrossFit-style workouts, attending them up to six days a week.
At the start of the first lockdown, she joined workouts with one of her coaches, who was teaching classes via an app. Every morning at 6:30, Kurnik, 32, was in the garage at her boyfriend’s apartment, working out.
It was bizarre logging into a tiny screen, she says, but, “There was something magic knowing my friends were there on the other side. The difference between doing workouts in a garage with friends on a tiny screen and by yourself is night and day.”
The tiny bits of conversation combined with the workouts kept her sane during some of the darkest periods of the pandemic.
By the time she finally could go back into the gym for class, in 2021, “I was never so excited to be anywhere at 4:30 in the morning.”
She knows her mental health would have suffered a lot more if she hadn’t had community workouts. She hates working out alone, and struggles to motivate by herself.
The pandemic has drawn her closer to her gym community, seeing their living rooms during online workouts, and staying in touch outside of class.
“I took for granted how much of my social circle is folks from the gym who might have been friends of convenience before the pandemic,” she says. “I miss them when I don’t see them. We all honestly care about each other and are important parts of each other’s lives.”
She also loves greeting the new people joining the gym and welcoming them into the community.
“There’s a very strong core community from before ‘the dark time,’ but there’s also the new influx of new folks and fresh energy, and getting to know those folks has been especially joyful, too,” she says.
KEEPING MOVEMENT COMMUNITIES alive and connected has required constant creativity and an attitude of faith for gym owners. Before March 2020, Foundation was open every day and had about 100 classes a week for its 300 members. These days, they’re open six days a week, with classes four days and personal training sessions the other two days. After dipping to around 100 members at one point, the gym is up to a little more than 200 now.
To protect his staff and members, Foundation co-owner Andrew Bueno has rented out equipment, taught online classes, invested in creating training videos for his members and built up a personal training business.
Some members have stayed on throughout the pandemic, Bueno says, helping keep the gym afloat. When the gym reached out to everyone who was a member when it closed, it found some people had moved, or changed how they were working out.
“We are still nowhere what we used to do,” Bueno says. Growth will require training new coaches, which stalled during the pandemic, and expanding the schedule.
For some members, even small connections with the gym made a difference during the pandemic.
Michi Shinohara, 49, went to the gym when she was pregnant, so she struggled when the gym was closed; exercise helps her with her stress as a physician. As soon as Foundation offered personal training, she opted for that.
“It was a huge relief to be able to go in and move and have somebody tell me what to do,” she says.
And exercise and community helped her at the end of 2020, when her mother was dying from COVID. Shinohara went in for training even if she couldn’t do a lot. Bueno also had a sick family member at the same time, she recalls.
“It was just nice to have someone to talk to about stuff that wasn’t work,” she says.
She continued to exercise at home, but working out alone wasn’t nearly as challenging or rewarding as it was at the gym with her community.
“It’s not the same as going in and being with other people, and commiserating a little bit and having a little bit of connection,” she says.
SOME MOVEMENT COMMUNITIES flourished during the pandemic. After a brief pause to the start of the spring 2020 racing season, the Ballard Elks Paddling Club was able to return to weekly paddle races in June, launching paddlers in staggered heats. It was the one place they could feel free, and also move their bodies without wearing a mask (a safety risk if you fall in the water).
By that time, people were itching to see each other, says Harry Oesterreicher, then the board treasurer. They weren’t doing normal things, like going to bars, a coffee shop, a museum.
“Doing things outside became really important for people,” he says.
The club grew that summer, as interest in outdoor sports soared. By summer 2021, they were seeing record numbers of people at the weekly race, with more than 50 people showing up to race, plus an additional 10 to 15 for the social race, a casual way to get on the water and hang out with other paddlers.
It also was a place where people connected to each other about a sport they love.
Paddlers love to talk about paddling, says club secretary Jessi Wasson. They love to teach each other how to paddle, create conditioning plans, talk about tides and share paddle boards with each other. They cheer everyone on during a race.
And that camaraderie was essential during a time when members were losing loved ones, and people were losing jobs or otherwise going through big life transitions, Wasson says.
“The magic of paddling, especially on Shilshole, is you’re in wide open space on the water in nature,” says Wasson. “So many of us had been locked up in tiny apartments for months and months. The joy of being on the open water with the sun on your face, 10 feet or so from someone while paddling, it felt like normal back on the water. COVID changed a lot of things, but it never changed paddling.”
NOT ALL MOVEMENT communities survived the last couple of years. Drive through South Lake Union and other busy neighborhoods, and you’ll see storefronts on multiple corners that once housed indoor cycling classes, barre studios, yoga. But the ones still in business are determined, albeit tired. Some are sticking around because it is their livelihood and it pays the bills. Some know their business will return with time and attention. Some are relying on people coming back to their old habits. Others are opening new studios, filling gaps left behind by so many closures.
Kyra Gaines was about to open her Renton training facility, Wellness Gaines, when COVID hit. She tabled her plans, and just opened her business this year.
Some people said she was crazy for opening a gym.
But Gaines says, “People are screen-fatigued and superexcited to get into the facility, decompress, move their bodies and build community.”
New or not, studios are working to make sure their communities feel connected. They know there is value in what they do, and they see it in the relationships that form around their classes.
A year and a half into the pandemic, Aina Oyewole-Williams still had no plans to reopen her Eastlake indoor cycling studio, The Ride. She had moments when she wondered whether she ever would reopen her doors.
“It was so hard,” she says. “It got to a point I was questioning the future. Did I want to come back?”
The Ride opened at the end of 2018, and by March 2020, the community felt cohesive, and classes were consistently full.
Three days after the first pandemic lockdown, she rented out bikes. She launched online classes, and continued to have small in-person classes for a few clients.
Financially, it was tough. Other indoor cycling chains closed studios or shut down completely.
“It’s hard to keep going,” Oyewole-Williams says. “We all have hard decisions to make all the time as business owners. You have to figure out if this works for you or not.”
But this year, she committed to opening again. She missed the magic of a group class, and the exchanges she has when leading others.
She knows it’s a daunting task. People have moved away. Schedules have changed. People are out of the habit of running around constantly. She compared developing a new community and connecting with new people to dating after divorce.
Starting over again is hard, but Oyewole-Williams also knows she isn’t done.
“I’m here for a reason,” she says. “Let’s do it until the wheels fall off.”