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Otis Gillespie, a salsa dance instructor for the MacKinnon Dance Academy in Oxnard, uses a scissor lift to remove the studio’s sign on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, as it prepare to close after more than four decades due to loss of revenue from COVID-19 restrictions. (Photo: ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR)
Joy MacKinnon opened up a post on her Facebook page and started to type.
The words didn’t come easily. She didn’t want the message to be too wordy or a sob story or “woe is me” at all.
Mostly, she just kept thinking: “Oh my gosh, I really have to say this now.”
In March, the coronavirus pandemic hit California and soon public health officials ordered closures and people to stay safe at home. The 45-year-old MacKinnon Dance Academy canceled its classes and had to close its doors, like thousands of other local businesses.
MacKinnon expected to weather the closure, but she also figured it would be a matter of weeks.
After half a year without income, she no longer could keep paying rent. A Go Fund Me set up by former dancers and teachers raised thousands and had helped for a month or so, but she didn’t want to ask people to keep contributing when so many were out of work themselves.
The 85-year-old had taken money from her retirement funds to cover costs for months, but that wasn’t sustainable.
By September, she knew it was time to make the hard decision to close for good. She just had to find a way to tell everyone else.
She tried phone calls first, but after about the 10th call and the 10th time of breaking down in tears, she gave up. So on Sept. 19, she sat down in her too quiet studio and started to type.
“MacKinnon Dance Academy is closing due to the Pandemic. You will all be missed beyond words. My deepest and most sincere Thank You for your many years of loyalty, love, family, and memories. I hope you always dance.”
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Worst ‘still ahead of us’
MacKinnon knows she is not the only one to lose a business to the pandemic or a job. She’s quick to say she feels grateful that she owns a home, knowing others might face losing one.
But she wants people to know that this isn’t a retirement. It was forced.
Anyone else in her 80s might face a pandemic like this one, shut down and not look back, said Anna Reed Sanchez, a former student and teacher. But not the Miss Joy she says helped her, a shy kid, become a performer and teacher.
She fought for months, she said.
“It is incredibly difficult still to get a real idea about the scale and the number of businesses that are closing or have closed,” said Bruce Stenslie, president of the Economic Development Collaborative.
“We know that there are a lot closing,” he said. “But we don’t know the real scale.”
Joy MacKinnon, owner of the MacKinnon Dance Academy in Oxnard, stretches on a bar in her studio on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, as she works to clear out the facility. The academy officially closed after more than four decades due to loss of revenue from COVID-19 restrictions. The energetic 85-year-old insists she’s not retiring, though says she doesn’t know what will come next. (Photo: ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR)
Through June, money was coming into the community via federal payroll protection loans, unemployment and other funds. But now, that cash has been spent both on the consumer side and by business owners.
“We’ve had this artificial propping up of the economy, with all those billions of dollars, and now it’s over,” Stenslie said. “We are extremely anxious that the worst of it in terms of business closures is still ahead of us.”
A drop in coronavirus cases recently moved Ventura County into a less restrictive tier, allowing some businesses to reopen indoors at a limited capacity. But it’s still unclear, Stenslie said, whether people will have money to spend and whether businesses will survive while only partially reopening.
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The disco craze
MacKinnon credits her staff for making the academy succeed over 40 years. She credits the disco craze with its inception.
She had no plans to open a dance academy when she first moved to Oxnard in the early 1970s. She had a job on the Navy base when her brother asked her to teach her niece and nephew.
MacKinnon, who said she grew up in a dancing family, started teaching them and some of their friends on the patio of her Nectarine Street home. When it rained, they moved into the kitchen. When the kitchen got too small, they turned the garage into a dance studio.
Then, disco came to Oxnard.
Joy MacKinnon, owner of the MacKinnon Dance Academy in Oxnard, leads her instructors and students in an impromptu farewell dance on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020 with music playing from a portable music player as they prepare to close after more than four decades due to loss of revenue from COVID-19 restrictions. (Photo: ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR)
People of all ages crowded into her garage where it wasn’t uncommon to take a swat to the head from a wayward arm. She also performed disco around town and eventually had enough money saved up to lease space at Oxnard Shores.
“That’s how it all happened,” MacKinnon said about the academy’s start.
“How it all ended is because of the pandemic and the enormous rates for rent that you can’t pay when you don’t have any students and don’t have any income.”
When she closed the doors in March, MacKinnon guessed about 40% of those students from her garage years ago were still coming into the academy. They had grown and many had their own children or even grandchildren in some of the classes.
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‘I never left’
Vanessa Gonzales saw the Facebook post about the academy closing and felt a loss. She had known it was coming, but those words made it real, she said.
“It’s more about family than it is about business,” said the Oxnard mom, who started taking classes at 2 and then just stayed.
“I never left,” she said.
Now in her early 40s, she has daughters who danced there, too, and was teaching a couple classes a week at the academy up until March.
“The studio was the place for the MacKinnon family to meet,” said LeAna Crowley, who grew up in Oxnard and Ventura started at MacKinnon’s at 5.
She moved away from Southern California in her 20s, but each time she came home to visit family, she also stopped at the academy.
A car parade, calendar of good-byes
On the last day of September, her studio already had been cleared out. MacKinnon stood in the parking lot and watched as one of her teachers took down her sign letter by letter.
Other teachers had shown up, too.
“It was kind of surreal,” said MacKinnon, who started teaching dance at 15. She felt sad but also grateful “that I was a person that was able to do the job that I loved.”
Weeks earlier, she had stood in the parking lot on her 85th birthday as a long line of cars slowly drove past as people dropped off gifts and lots of I love you’s.
“They just went on forever,” she said. “Yeah, I lost it then.”
While the business is gone, MacKinnon said she has no intention of losing the people she met there over the years.
On Sunday, the Facebook page for MacKinnon Dance Academy changed its name to MacKinnon Dance Family.
Cheri Carlson covers the environment for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at [email protected] or 805-437-0260.
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