Studio Owners

Will COVID-19 Change End-of-Year Recitals for Good?

Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances that made this level of recital creativity necessary, there's a lesson to be learned here, says Rhee Gold, former studio owner and founder of the DanceLife Retreat Center. Just because you've always done your recital one way doesn't mean there's not a better way, and it's possible the pandemic offered you an opportunity to discover that better way. There's no time like the present, Gold says, to implement changes. "These are the times when people aren't going to get angry at us for making changes that we know are going to be better for the future—for our studio and our kids," he says.

So what are studio owners taking away from their 2020 recital experiences and planning to apply to their 2021 plans—and beyond? Here, savvy and creative owners share what worked particularly well and might, with some tweaking, stick around for a while.

Easing Up on Absences

For starters, Gold suspects many studio owners won't have ironclad attendance policies in place this year as a contingent for recital participation, and he approves. "If my policy had been that you can't miss the last six classes before recital, I might just leave that out this time around," he says. "It doesn't mean it's gone forever, but during these times, I should be a different teacher—more understanding."

Joe Naftal, marketing director of Dance Connection, run by Mary Naftal, in Islip, New York, agrees. "With our red-carpet recital in July, there were kids who hadn't attended class consistently since March but who still signed up for the recital," says Naftal. "We had a teacher in front of them, and we told them: 'Kids, you can do whatever—you can improvise, if you want,'" says Naftal.

This fall, the attendance policy has remained similarly flexible. "We're really trying to meet every student where they are," he says. "If you need to start the year Zooming into class, that's OK. You feel comfortable coming in person, starting next week? Awesome! You want to pull back online for the next two weeks because the numbers went up slightly? That's OK, too." Keeping a recital dance tight and clean isn't a top priority for many owners—helping families slowly find a way back to a consistent dance schedule is. "We're happy to work with everyone to make their transition back to 'normal' work for them," says Naftal.

While you may want to get back to more traditional attendance policies in the post-pandemic future, there could be takeaways from this time that make recital participation more doable for more families, like a lower-commitment tier of students who are allowed more absences and participate in your end-of-year recital on a smaller scale.

Virtual Performances

A virtual recital experience doesn't just offer clear health and safety advantages—it also opens up new creative avenues for studio owners and allows them to reach a wider audience. Jessica Zamarripa, artistic director of Laredo School of Contemporary Dance in Texas, worked with a video editor to create a "Brady Brunch"–style short film of each of her recital dances. It was an intensive process that required weeks of filming, but her hard work and creativity paid off: "Students said they loved performing for the camera," says Zamarripa. "They felt like stars—all the attention was on them."

For this year's Nutcracker, Zamarripa is again going digital. She's filming small ensembles of dancers performing their roles—with full scenery and stage lighting—from multiple camera angles, and will digitally release an edited version before Christmas. If the Nutcracker goes well, she'll likely try the same approach for her showcase. "I contacted the local theater to see if they would allow us to rent the stage only," she says. "There wouldn't be an audience, but we would have multiple cameras around the stage, and we'd record one dance at a time." Zamarripa would then edit a digital version and allow parents to purchase a download from Vimeo.

Since offering a highly successful virtual recital on Zoom in May for her Onalaska, Wisconsin-based studio, Misty's Dance Unlimited, Misty Lown has been exploring other virtual options. For her ballet repertoire show in August (originally slated for late spring, as a live production), she hired a videographer to produce a documentary about the making of the ballet, which premiered live on YouTube. "It was a cool way to wrap up the year for the dancers," she says.

Lown plans to use video and virtual elements in all of her studio's performances going forward. "We did a hip-hop intensive showcase by Facebook Live—it's a whole new world!" she says. This month, she's combining her open house with her holiday shows and making it a contest to see which students can gather the farthest-ranging audience. "We're running our regular classes as virtual performances, with the opportunity to come in and see what everybody's doing," says Lown. "We're trying to go as far and wide as possible: Getting Grandma from Florida to dial in, or your overseas uncle. We're really leaning into it."

​Leveling Up Marketing

A virtual recital also lends itself well to digital marketing, as Lown discovered. "Our recitals this year were marketed primarily inside of our private parent community on Facebook," says Lown. "We asked the parents to share pictures of their virtual and red-carpet recitals and to tag us. We had hundreds of shares and thousands of views. We've never had such good PR during our recital as we did during the pandemic."

Even once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror, offering digital content as a part of the recital experience can provide owners with ready-made, easy-to-share promotional materials for social media.

Keeping It Personal

Another plus of pandemic recital adaptations? Giving families more intimate recital experiences. Dance Connection went the red-carpet-recital route in July, holding 500 individual shows over a nine-day period. Though Naftal admits that's not a sustainable practice in its current form, there were important takeaways. "It was a really good way to connect with the parents one-on-one at the end of the year," he says. "You don't get that at the regular recital."

The current plan for Dance Connection's June 2021 recital is to hold more shows than normal (eight instead of four), with smaller casts and shorter run times (which will hopefully align with whatever social-distancing measures are in place by then). "The hope is that this gets back the 'full show, full audience' feel," says Naftal, "but makes it a more personal experience, where the teachers and management team have more time to connect with each family as they drop off and pick up for the recital."

This summer, in the midst of recording individual students performing their showcase dances, Zamarripa wanted to offer her dancers a tangible end to the year. "We did a showcase parade—they each wore their favorite costume, and I gave them roses as they passed by the school," she says. "They got to share the celebration with friends and family—parents decorated their car floats, dads were working on glitter posters the night before. I think it's going to become a yearly thing for us."

​Location, Location, Location

Gold thinks outdoor recitals will become staples for the foreseeable future, citing a studio owner who's already planning to have an outdoor show—her second—at the end of this studio year. "She wants to be ready for whatever circumstances lie ahead, and an outdoor show offers surety," he says.

When he had to scrap original plans to have an outdoor company showcase in July due to New York health protocol, Naftal had the showcase filmed instead and then premiered it in the studio's parking lot as a drive-in movie with a rented screen. "The kids were actually more excited to see it at a drive-in theater, because it was something different," says Naftal. "They said, 'Oh, we get to see ourselves?'" Though Dance Connection's focus is currently on keeping 2021 performance experiences as close to "normal" as possible, Naftal is keeping the drive-in premiere option in the back of his mind. "We have a full slate of contingency plans—reduced capacity, hybrid, virtual," he says.

Lown says she's open to alternative locations, too—like performing for nursing home residents in a courtyard as they watch from inside, which her studio did in October—as a way to safely reach different audiences during the pandemic. She's already booked her 2021 recital venue (an outdoor covered stage with plenty of seating room) and is fashioning the event as the Misty's Dance Unlimited Fest, with music, food trucks, cotton candy and photo opportunities. "The parents went nuts over the idea," she says.

The Revenue Question

Though recitals have historically been moneymakers for owners—bringing in anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of a studio's annual revenue—the 2019–20 studio year was a major exception. "It's a huge loss for almost any studio," says Naftal. "We lost ticket revenue, the merchandise we would've sold, concession sales." For the Naftals, it's a loss they're willing to take if it means families might be more inclined to return this studio year. "We needed them back in the fall, when they might be out of work and deciding between cutting dance or other expenses," he says.

That's not to say that a virtual or otherwise reimagined recital can't be a revenue opportunity. Zamarripa, for example, is already thinking of selling digital downloads of her studio's showcase. "At some point, I want to make the Vimeo video available to the public for purchase," she says. "And in the future, I would maybe charge a small fee if we have a livestream recital option—maybe $5 a ticket, as opposed to $12 tickets for our typical recital. But it's not going to become a main source of revenue."

13 images, Brandy Bunch-style, of young students against a pink background striking the same pose\u2014lying on their stomachs with their chins in the hands

From Zamarripa's virtual recital earlier this year. Photo courtesy Zamarripa

Gold agrees with Naftal that the primary driving force behind recitals needn't be to rake in revenue, at least for the immediate future. "I don't know that it's about revenue," says Gold. "It's more about keeping students, and giving them this thing to look forward to." He suggests that owners instead find other ways to balance expenses, such as creating six- to eight-week programs, if they need to make up recital revenue losses.

Most importantly, a reimagined recital should be about making memories that students won't forget, says Gold—not about elaborate sets and expensive costumes and major production numbers. "It shouldn't be about 'Here's my best stuff,'" he says. "It should be: 'We love dance, we're getting families together, and we're going to share dance with each other."

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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