Reporting, writing and photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
When Sheena Mason was a toddler, she was diagnosed with asthma. A doctor suggested that Sheena’s mom get her involved in physical activities. Sheena gravitated toward dance. With a studio just a few blocks down from her childhood home, Sheena kept adding different kinds of classes to her foot studies. “I haven’t stopped since,” she says.
For the last seven years, Sheena has been the owner and instructor of Sheena’s Platinum Movements, a low-cost dance studio in West Akron that offers ballet, tap, jazz, modern, and musical theatre for ages 2 1/2 to adult.
It was never Sheena’s dream to open her own studio, though she would end up finding her calling at the suggestion of a beloved family member.
“My grandmother was taking tap from the city of Akron. And the place she was taking dance at needed a teacher. And she was like, ‘you should go and apply.’”
Sheena ended up teaching at the recreation center for 10 years.
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Sheena knew she didn’t want to teach for anybody else, so she did her research and opened up her own place. Her business model, which is noncompetitive, is based on three pillars: Nurture. Empower. Provide.
“I think dance has changed a lot. The focus is no longer on the technique or the style. It has a lot to do with sexualization and the costume and the bullying, the disorders that can come out of dance. I want this to be an environment that’s safe, an environment that’s back to the basics, and also a place where kids can be open and free,” she says. Sheena focuses on creating an inclusive environment, one where the focus is on dance and just being a kid.
As a lifetime dancer, Sheena knows how much dance, at the root, can do for the soul. “It’s so freeing! And I think because I got it, like it was just something that I just loved early on,” she says. “It was never the costumes or any of that stuff. I never liked being on stage. I just liked being in the classroom,” she adds.
Sheena’s high school dance instructor put a lot of emphasis on injury prevention and inclusivity, which inspired Sheena’s values.
After Sheena opened her studio in 2013, she became certified in YPAD, or Youth Protection Advocates In Dance, which focuses on self-esteem, wellness in dance, social media, and how to prevent injuries, eating disorders, and sex trafficking. Her certification in YPAD has helped her navigate and diffuse situations that might otherwise go unnoticed or ignored.
“Kids will come in and you’ll hear them say something about what happened in school, and how I can address that right away because it will get bigger,” she says. “It’s a way to protect my kids.”
Along with a safe environment, Sheena’s space also provides students with mentorship. “I’m very nosy with my kids. So I always have an ear open for what they’re saying. That’s the kind of stuff I enjoy,” she says. Sheena loves hearing her students compliment and empower one another, and she looks out for those who are struggling. “We have these time-out girl chats. They sit, we all sit. They talk about stuff and I tell them how it was when I was their age or what happened with me. So, they have that openness where they can talk to me about anything,” she says.
“I want to be more than a dance studio. I wanted it to be a comfortable place to do what you love. This is our thing, this is who we are,” she adds.
Sheena’s physical presence also provides grounding in her student’s lives. Parents recognize that Sheena is a role model, especially as a Black woman in the dance community. “A lot of parents have said it’s rare to find a Black owner or dance teacher doing ballet and tap and jazz and modern. So, that’s another thing. I look different, I look like them. I’m open for any conversations that they have. I’ve been there. It’s open-forum,” she says.
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On March 13 Sheena had to close due to COVID. For a month she and her student’s did Zoom classes, but those proved difficult for the kids to maintain focus. “It’s ‘Ms. Sheena, look at my cat. Look at what I can do!’ Or looking somewhere else when they should be looking into the camera,” she laughs.
Instead of continuing with internet classes, Sheena decided her studio would take a break. She was able to reopen in early September with COVID precautions in place and class sizes cut in half.
“Right now, we’re about 65% where we were last year, which is better than I thought we were going to be,” she says.
Though Sheena is nervous about the endurance of her business during this pandemic, and has a failure plan, she finds relief in the relationships she has developed with her customers. “I have great dance families. I mean, they’re really, really supportive. I do not think I could have done this without them,” she says.
At the beginning of the summer, Sheena visited every single student’s home, leaving a piece of candy and a note at everyone’s door that said “We’ll dance together soon!” The process helped her understand the devotion her families had to her studio, given some families were living up to 30 minutes away. “We care about each other. It’s a little family.”
Sheena always knew dance was expensive. Her mom, who was a single parent, made it work. “She never cut my classes. She always added to it. I don’t know how it happened,” Sheena says. Now, she does a yearly fundraiser to keep costs low for struggling students and parents. “I want them to be able to dance and not have to worry about the cost of it. I give out a few scholarships a year. I just don’t want the parents to have to juggle, like paying for ‘this’ or going to dance,” she says.
Platinum Movements is much of Sheena’s life. “I’m everything: the janitor, the manager, the teacher, the choreographer,” she says. “I have to say, I really don’t feel like this is a job. It’s not work. So I’m OK with it.”
That’s not to say it’s easy wearing all the hats. As an entrepreneur, Sheena has found it can be difficult to distinguish the line where business ends and life begins. “I am the reason. Instead of going on that date, or calling the person, or whatever, I’d rather just come here and be here at 8 o’clock at night on a Thursday or Friday. I put that stuff in front of [my personal life] and I need to stop doing that,” she reflects.
Outside of studio life, Sheena likes to relax and shop, spend time with family and friends, and travel, though now these pleasures have been greatly reduced due to COVID and her responsibility as a business owner and to her students.
Though Sheena receives most of her joy from her role and her “babies,” as she affectionately calls her students, she is looking forward to giving her personal life more space in 2021. Instead of taking an early morning phone call or immediately responding to an email, Sheena plans on honoring new boundaries.
“I told myself this next year I was gonna let things wait, because they can,” she says.
Ilenia Pezzaniti is a multimedia storyteller and artist living in Highland Square.