Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, tales of economic woe plague the everyday lives of business owners and their patrons, with small businesses experiencing the brunt of this hardship.
As the second part of a series on Black-owned businesses in Washtenaw County, The Daily interviewed three Ann Arbor business owners: dance instructor Dorian Deaver; musician and vocal looping artist Ki5; and Jan Johnson, owner of clothing resale store Clothes Mentor. These business owners and artists discussed how they are maintaining a sense of community during one of the most turbulent times in recent history.
Read part one of the series here.
Deaver emphasized the multifaceted nature of dance instruction. He has taught dance classes since 1974 and holds a degree from London’s Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing, as well as a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Education. Deaver is also an accomplished DJ, trained martial artist and former U-M gymnast.
In addition to judging competitive dance, Deaver operates a studio in Ann Arbor where he teaches 12 types of ballroom dance, specializing in a bridal dance program. Deaver said dance is important to him because it creates connections through feeling and movement.
“Dance, as you know, is all about connection,” Deaver said. “It’s as if I have two people driving the same car. So when I’m speaking to them or sharing with them, it’s very kinesthetic … They (the dancing lead) may know how they want to drive home, but their partner or whoever is in the passenger seat might not know which way they want to go and what they have to do. They have to translate to a feeling, a feeling that their partner can respond to.”
Given the tactile nature of dancing, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to create these physical connections. Nevertheless, Deaver said this connection is not lost completely, and he has adapted his teaching style to conduct private lessons with couples virtually.
Deaver explained he is still able to do classes virtually, because he can often tell what mistakes people will make and can address them, even if not in person.
“Many people make similar types of mistakes, so I don’t need a ton of information to tell (what they need help with, even when teaching virtually),” Deaver said.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Deaver has continued to find new ways to maintain the connection he has with his students and colleagues. Deaver said his goal is to ensure that his clients, regardless of their level of experience, are successful and enjoy dance.
“I find great joy in being able to share what I love with everyday people, and in helping them discover skills they might not know … I just feel very blessed to share what I do with our community,” Deaver said.
Deaver also emphasized the importance of small businesses in the Ann Arbor community and the need to help them whenever possible.
“If people want to do something really special, just keep small businesses in mind,” Deaver said.
In December 2019, Clothes Mentor opened their doors on North Maple Road in Ann Arbor. The resale clothing store provides affordable, personalized clothing options for occasions ranging from University of Michigan game days to job interviews. Everything from athletic wear to designer handbags is available for purchase, with personal shoppers who are available to help customers find specific items, incorporated into the consumer experience.
Clothes Mentor is driven by an overall mission of sustainability. Reselling and repurposing clothing decreases the store’s carbon footprint and allows for items in good condition to be passed on rather than thrown out. Clothes Mentor’s placement in Ann Arbor is no coincidence, as owner Jan Johnson said the city is conducive to a sustainable, community-driven business.
“One reason we chose Ann Arbor (is) because we thought they would appreciate the recyclability of the clothing, and the going green and just being a benefit to the overall environment,” Johnson said. “The thing a lot of people come in to appreciate is the recyclability of it, so I think that’s just important to the community. We still use bags now, but just going to eventually figure out a way to even not use plastic bags.”
In addition to their dedication to going green, Johnson said Clothes Mentor’s clothes are affordable, making them a good option for people struggling economically during the pandemic.
“Everybody’s in the pandemic right now and as the pandemic opens up and people go back to work, they don’t have the same economics that they had pre-pandemic,” Johnson said. “I know some people have been impacted by jobs, and I think we are a great place to get started, because our clothes are more affordable for the economically challenged. I just think it’s a great way to save money and look great.”
Kyler Wilkins (who uses the stage name Ki5) is an emerging Ann Arbor based vocal artist. Wilkins specializes in a new medium of music production called looping, where the artist layers live recordings of themselves in real time to create a unique performance.
While Wilkins would normally be looping his vocals in real-time at Ann Arbor clubs and performance venues, the shutdown of nightlife has limited the possibilities for live shows. Instead, Wilkins is focusing on getting his music in TV ads and working on a variety of live-streamed loops on his Youtube channel.
Wilkins said he sees this shift away from live performances not as an inconvenience, but rather an opportunity to explore new avenues for creativity.
“I’ve learned quite a bit about what it means to be a better producer of my own music and other people’s music, as it is now more often spread on these digital platforms as opposed to out at the Grotto, and then it’s live in the airwaves, and then it’s gone,” Wilkins said. “So now my focus is ‘how do I capture this as best I can?’”
Raised in Ann Arbor, where he said he was “deeply ingrained with the Ann Arbor community,” Wilkins said he recognizes the value of creating and collaborating with a close-knit group of artists. Especially during a time of increased isolation, he said the friendships he’s formed in the music scene are invaluable.
“Being able to talk to people who I know, who’ve been around here, who are going through the same thing, it definitely makes the whole experience feel less lonely,” Wilkins said. “There’s a little bit less uncertainty just knowing that there are other folks out there and we all have each other’s backs.”
In the midst of this uncertainty, Wilkins has thrown himself into his work. In addition to live-streaming a variety of improvisation sessions, he has released three singles in the past few months, including one that dropped Friday called “Made of Stars.”
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