Mary Helen Bowers developed a ballet fitness program when she retired from the stage.
Musicians can learn music from a score, but dance has always been passed down from person to person. Even as technology transforms the field, with performance clips instantly available and dancers boasting huge social-media followings, the true work of dancers remains solidly rooted in the studio. Given the need for in-person feedback, it would seem that there isn't a place for online training in dance.
And yet, a small group of teachers and dancers have started to explore the possibilities, and what they've found is surprising: There is an audience for online dance training, but it's not the tech-savvy, smartphone-toting teens who frequent dance studios. Instead, this audience is older and generally far less experienced and confident—and fascinated with ballet. For the burgeoning market of adult beginning dance students, online training holds a particular appeal: classes on their timetable, at their level, in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.
Suzanne Vennard started streaming classes via YouTube in 2006.
When Suzanne Vennard launched DanceClass.com, a website that streams online dance classes, she focused on adult beginners. “I realized many adults seemed to want to dance, but few were signing up for classes," she says. “Meanwhile, my dance teacher friends were bemoaning the fact that when they offered adult beginner classes, they were poorly attended." She realized many adults feared they'd make fools of themselves in a dance class, and she decided to record classes for them to try at home, where there was little risk of embarrassment. “Once they'd had that chance to 'attend' a class, it gave them sufficient confidence to sign up to their local classes," she says. “Great for the pupil and for the teacher."
Vennard started streaming her recordings online in 2006 and says the number of YouTube views alone (more than 25 million) demonstrates the market for good online dance teaching. She had anticipated that salsa would be her most popular program. “I was completely wrong," she says. “The ballet class outsells all of my other programs put together."
Finis Jhung streams video compilations on his website.
A Sizable Market
Finis Jhung has been creating instructional videos for decades, but it was the adult beginner classes he started teaching at The Ailey Extension that led him to understand the market for online ballet classes. “My adult students are so passionate about ballet," he says. “And they are becoming the biggest market of consumers. There's a whole new consciousness of exercise, nutrition and fitness, and it has everything to do with aging and the baby boomers."
In addition to selling instructional DVDs, Jhung started streaming on his website and created video compilations specifically for adult beginners. In just two years, streaming has grown to 20 percent of his business, with adult beginner classes the biggest seller.
“For a lot of adults, even the beginning classes are too advanced," he explains. “Because I've been teaching at Ailey, I can develop the classes with an awareness of what I need to give them so they can learn ballet."
And online classes have significantly extended his reach. “I can see from my sales that there are adults who want to learn to dance, but many of them don't have access to a studio," he says. “One customer from Australia lives way out in the countryside—she loves that she can stream."
Kathryn Morgan offers live-streaming classes and records them for later viewing.
Kathryn Morgan also has online students from all over the globe. “It's so funny to be ready for class in New York when students log in and say, 'Greetings from Germany!'" she says. Morgan started teaching ballet online several years ago while dealing with a debilitating illness that had caused her to leave New York City Ballet, where she'd been a soloist. Stuck at home, she watched YouTube videos and was surprised how few ballet dancers had uploaded content. Morgan started posting instructional videos, teaching herself how to film, edit and post material.
When a friend mentioned she could actually be paid for teaching online, Morgan set up online group classes on the website powhow.com, a platform for live webcam classes. She experimented with both an interactive format, where she could see each student, and a live-streaming format, where they could only see her. She settled on the latter for her adult beginner classes (her most well-attended classes). “It's a completely judgment-free zone for them," she says. “I didn't want them to feel self-conscious or like they had to be perfect before even starting."
Morgan both live-streams ballet classes (there's a chat box where students can ask questions, which she answers on screen) and saves classes to the website so that students in different time zones can watch later. Earlier this year, she started offering online interactive private lessons through savvy.com. “It's basically like teaching through Skype, but they handle all the monetary transactions," she says. In addition to private ballet classes, she offers 30-minute private chat sessions (for a fee), during which students can ask her advice.
Online teaching now makes up about half of Morgan's current teaching load, and she welcomes the ability to create her own schedule each week. “It's a nice income," she says frankly. “It's not a full-blown dancer salary, but it's a decent amount of money. When I started, I thought an extra couple of hundred dollars a month would be great, but it's a lot more than that."
Ballet for Fitness
Like Morgan, Mary Helen Bowers started her career with New York City Ballet and has now turned to online teaching. While dancing, Bowers developed a workout program to keep herself at peak fitness, and when she retired from the stage, she realized that her program worked for nondancers, too. Thus was born Ballet Beautiful. One of Bowers' first clients was actor Natalie Portman, whom she trained for the ballet film Black Swan with a combination of ballet technique classes, a customized version of her Ballet Beautiful exercises and lap swimming. Because her work with Portman required a great deal of travel, she used the internet to maintain her then-fledgling business in New York City.
As Ballet Beautiful expanded and Bowers started teaching group classes online, she realized that the software she wanted to use didn't exist. With web developers, she built her own proprietary software that she can use to watch and interact with up to 10 students as she teaches a class. Her clients are typically adults who have taken some ballet as children. “We've been able to encourage a lot of people, especially adults who have returned to ballet, to pick up their ballet slippers again and have the confidence to go back to an introductory class," she says.
Although technology can at times be frustrating, with poor or delayed internet connections affecting classes, these four teachers are convinced that online training is a viable option for adult learning. “When it's working well, it's so exciting because it's connecting you with a global audience," says Bowers. All four are adamant that ambitious young students need to be in the studio with a teacher. But for adults, an online class can be just the impetus they need. “Once they have the ballet bug, they come back," says Jhung with a smile. “Streaming is the wave of the future!" DT
Based in San Francisco, Caitlin Sims is a frequent Dance Teacher contributor.
Photo courtesy of Ballet Beautiful; courtesy of DanceClass.com; Hugh Brownstone, courtesy of Finis Jhung; by Nathan Sayers for Pointe magazine