Culture Shock Dance Center shutters after 17 years

Culture Shock Dance Studio in San Diego will be closing in December after 17 years of operation
(Mtran photography)

For many, Culture Shock Dance Center is more than a dance studio — it’s a community. But now, after 17 years, that community will need to find a new home.

Like many small businesses in San Diego, the pandemic made 2020 an impossible year for the dance studio in Midtown. Culture Shock Dance Center first shut its doors on March 12, right before the mandated lockdown, and stayed closed for six months.

Culture Shock was hesitant to embrace the virtual classes other studios latched onto during the pandemic. Co-owner Angie Bunch said many of Culture Shock’s teachers were teaching their own remote classes, and she didn’t feel right taking a cut of their earnings.

“But I had no idea that this [pandemic] was going to go on for like a year plus — you think it’s going to end and then we can get back to doing what we do really well, which is in-person classes,” Bunch said.

During its closure, Culture Shock received the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, but those funds had dried up by the end of the summer. Culture Shock eventually tried hosting online classes in July, but Bunch said the market was too saturated by then.

A bit of good news came when San Diego County moved to the red tier on August 31, allowing Culture Shock to reopen for in-person classes in September. Culture Shock also launched a GoFundMe campaign on Sept. 15 with a $150,000 goal and received $64,000 in community donations.

One of the first students back in the studio was Maristela Souza of La Jolla, who attended her first hip-hop class in October. Last year, Souza was on her way to her support group to cope with her husband’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis — but decided to turn around and head to Culture Shock to take a hip-hop class instead.

“When I got there I was so happy ... and then I realized that my support group would be there, taking classes at [Culture Shock],” Souza said, adding that the classes replenished her energy and provided her with physical activity.

“It was my place I could escape — it is heaven for me,” Souza continued.

Unfortunately, Culture Shock could only reopen one out of its six studio spaces, reducing its weekly schedule from 150 classes to a mere 25. Additionally, dancers were placed 8.5 feet apart to meet social distance requirements, shrinking class sizes to 20 people in an 85-person capacity room.

Culture Shock Dance Center placed markers on the studio floors to keep dancers 8.5 feet apart during in-person classes.
To meet social distancing requirements, Culture Shock Dance Center placed markers on the studio floors to keep dancers 8.5 feet apart during in-person classes.
(Courtesy photo)

It soon became clear to Bunch and her business partner Joe Savant that limited in-person classes would not sustain the business. Without decreased restrictions or additional government relief, Culture Shock’s chapter in the Midtown building had to end.

“I knew we could possibly sustain this business with two studios, even at minimum capacity, so getting to orange [tier] was the big goal — but it didn’t happen,” Bunch said.

Since Bunch and Savant knew the business would be closing by the end of the year, they decided to stay open when San Diego County re-entered the purple tier in November.

That decision was met with a cease and desist letter, a call from COVID-19 compliance, and a visit from the San Diego Police Department and a vice detective. However, Culture Shock did receive permission to operate youth-only classes, considered essential in purple tier.

“So now we will be able to pay our desk staff; we will be able to pay teachers. I mean it’s only six days of work ... but at least they get one last paycheck of the year from us,” Bunch said, adding that she is also hiring staff to help Culture Shock move out of the space.

One of Culture Shock’s employees is Verenice Meza, a 27-year-old who started dancing at the studio in 2016 and became part of the desk staff last year.

“This studio isn’t just a building with walls, you gain a whole family,” Meza said, adding that Culture Shock introduced her to some of her best friends, as well as her significant other.

“Culture Shock Dance Center welcomed me into San Diego’s dance community when I knew nothing,” she continued. “They’re a staple that everyone knows and needed at one point in their life. I’m still going through the emotions and haven’t fully accepted that [the studio] is closing its doors.”

Before its official closure, Culture Shock will hold a handful of youth classes the first two weekends of December. One of the young students saying goodbye to the studio in-person is 11-year-old Isabelle (Izzy) Schroeder of Santee.

“To me the studio is my second home,” Schroeder said. “It has gotten me through a lot in these past four years. It has an amazing environment and amazing teachers ... when I heard it was closing, I was devastated. I will highly miss Culture Shock and the amazing people there.”

Schroeder is also part of the Mighty Shock San Diego, one of four dance troupes run by the nonprofit Culture Shock San Diego.

The organization, founded by Bunch, lost its studio space in Liberty Station nearly a decade ago — prompting Bunch to team up with her friend Savant and create a new home for the troupes: Culture Shock Dance Center. Since then, the studio has hosted both community classes as well as the four troupes’ practices, rehearsals and meetings.

“It’s tough — we spend so much time there,” Culture Shock San Diego’s board chair Danielle Prince said. “It’s hard because when [a place] becomes your second home, and then you hear it’s closing, it just hurts your heart.”

While the studio is closing, Prince said Culture Shock San Diego “is still going strong.” Throughout the pandemic, the troupes have been practicing virtually and exploring innovative ways to approach its 2020 season, such as creating video projects.

Bunch is hopeful that the troupes might be able to find a way to continue operations at Culture Shock Dance Center’s old building — just under a new name. Though nothing is confirmed, Bunch said Culture Shock San Diego will step into negotiations with the building owner to possibly start a new studio that will be operated by the nonprofit. The organization is also looking at other spaces, including at Grossmont Center in La Mesa.

No matter what 2021 holds, Bunch is looking forward to finding a new home for both her troupes and the community they’ve grown in San Diego.

“All of this stems from Culture Shock needs a home; this has always been my motive,” Bunch said. “But it’s bigger now — because after operating the studio for so long, there are people who rely on the community. They need to come back and take class … that’s a service a lot of people rely on. Culture Shock is first, but the community is a very close second.”