Studio Owners

What If Your Studio Families Aren't Ready to Come Back?

A Boca Dance Studio student takes virtual class. Photo courtesy of Gibbs

As August swiftly approaches, you're likely fine-tuning the details of what your fall schedule will look like. More than ever, much of your decision-making will have to be tailored to studio parents—some of whom may be eager to return to in-person instruction, and some of whom may be understandably scared.

"Having three studios across two counties in the midst of this crisis, we're really seeing the full spectrum," says Melanie Gibbs, owner of Boca Dance Studio, ProAm Dance Studio and Weston Dance Academy, all in Florida. "We have people who are firmly in the camp of, 'Get these kids out of my house—they're climbing the walls, and they want to get back into the studio with their friends.' We have other clients already telling us they won't be back to in-person classes this season—even if the school districts reopen—though they're happy to continue virtual training."

So how do you keep both groups—and everyone in between—happy, without losing any families in the process? For Gibbs, who is happy to report that her fall 2020 enrollment numbers are currently higher than they were on the same date in 2019, it's a matter of evaluating her business from a studio parent's perspective and then acting accordingly.

"We have a tendency to come at every decision with what we think will best serve our creative vision," she says. "We forget to look through the client's eyes. Just like when you have a toddler and they tell you to crawl around on your hands and knees to experience what a toddler sees when baby-proofing your house, we could stand to experience this from the client's perspective." What's she gleaned from her parents? Convincing them to return requires giving them choices.

1. Highlight safety and wellness

Though the health of your students has likely always been a studio concern, now is the time to put that sentiment forward. "What we're selling as studio owners had to flip. Safety and hygiene were never something we mentioned on our fancy print brochure, because it was sort of assumed," says Gibbs. "Now we're leading the conversation with safety and wellness." She created a "Safer Studio" plan, with instructions regarding mask-wearing, increased sanitization and social distancing, and posted it on her website and on signs around the studio. She's also included safety measures as part of videos she's posted to her Facebook page and her website, and that play in her lobby. She's also made sure her cleaning supplies—and between-class cleaning protocol—are visible to parents at all times.

By implementing and communicating hygienic necessities, like constant studio sanitization, taped-out six-foot grids and staggered class start times, you'll reassure parents that their children's health is an utmost priority not only for you but also for your entire staff. "Teachers are now part of the janitorial staff," says Gibbs.

2. Offer multiple modes of instruction

"Every family is not experiencing the pandemic in the same way," says Gibbs. "And we want to be able to say yes to every family, in every way we can." She's offering five different ways for students to take class, come fall: in-facility private lessons; semiprivate lessons ("a customized class for a family or friend group," she says); standard in-studio classes, with a strictly limited capacity; livestreamed classes, created specifically for students taking class at home ("We want to make sure it's a separate class—that they're not just getting the scraps of in-person instruction," says Gibbs); and prerecorded, on-demand classes that families can take on their own time. By letting the decision of how to take class fall to her parents—with the option to mix and match instruction methods, depending on how the pandemic evolves over the fall—Gibbs guarantees her studio families' comfort.

She's also guaranteeing an increased workload—and bigger payroll—for her and her staff. To accommodate such a time-, work- and cost-intensive plan, she's sacrificed nonessentials, like repainting her studio, to prioritize payroll. Gibbs has also done some "shopping in our own closet," she says. "For example, we wanted to polish our weekly e-mail newsletter," says Gibbs. "Typically, I'd have everyone learn new software, like Mailchimp or Constant Contact. Instead, we found templates inside Studio Director, the software we already pay for, and got a new look with no new expense."

Melanie Boniszewski, who runs Tonawanda Dance Arts in Tonawanda, New York, is offering similar options to her families, with one tweak to the livestreamed class option: Those students will meet synchronously online, and a rotating selection of students will have the option to meet in-person each week. That way, every student gets the chance to have an in-person instruction experience.

Five students sit on the floor of a dance studio in a straight line, wearing leotards and tights.

A pre-COVID class at ProAm Dance Studio

Photo courtesy of Gibbs

3. Invest in technology

Upgrading the virtual components of your studio's instruction demonstrates to parents that you're committed to giving every student—even those learning from home—a top-notch experience. "In our new normal, even once we have a vaccine, every physical group class that meets in the studio will have a Google Classroom assigned to it, whether those students are interested in a virtual component or not," says Gibbs. "It'll become a homeroom of sorts—we can post announcements, students can communicate, and I can train my people so they're comfortable with the technology before another crisis."

Boniszewski is investing in efforts that will make students who are taking class virtually feel as if they're in the studio. "We have four classrooms, and each will have a smart TV," she says, which will allow the teacher to interact with online students. "We'll also have a 180-degree camera on the ceiling near the back wall. When a student logs into Zoom, she'll feel like she's in the back row of the class. She'll be able to see the teacher, see into the mirror and see the full classroom." Boniszewski's teachers will also wear headsets that are integrated with the studio's monitors, so students taking class virtually will only hear the teacher's voice and the music. "They won't hear background noise, and they'll feel like they're hearing the music at home," she says.

Though this technology was a considerable financial investment for Boniszewski—$15,000—its payoff will be bigger, she feels. "We surveyed our families and realized that 30 percent of them are still uncomfortable with in-person classes," she says. "That's a big enough percentage that I felt we needed to be able to offer them something more than just a computer set up in a classroom." It also offers a built-in backup plan, she says, in case New York mandates that in-person instruction is off the table at any point, or if a family decides to travel for any length of time.

Two teachers and seven students in their Zoom windows.

A Tonawanda Dance Arts Zoom class

Photo courtesy of Boniszewski

4. Reconsider your payment structure

Most studios, pre-COVID, used a monthly tuition-payment structure, paired with incremental payments—costume fees, recital fees—all going toward a spring end-of-year performance. "Under our old model, people were paying us in September for something we were promising was going to happen in May," says Gibbs. "At the time, that was perfectly normal, but now we're realizing how insane that it is. No one's buying a promise right now."

Gibbs has created monthly tuition rates for the fall but also per-class rates and per-session (a block of private or semiprivate lessons, say) rates. "That way, if a parent says, 'I'm not comfortable committing,' we can say, 'Let's shift to a weekly or drop-in rate,'" she says. Right now, during her summer session, she reports that families are choosing to pay the more expensive drop-in rate for classes, as opposed to paying for the summer session in bulk at a cheaper overall price. "People want to pay you and then get what they paid for—and they'll wait, and then pay you again," says Gibbs.

Though Gibbs is adjusting her summer tuition rates according to whether a class is in-person or virtual—in-studio group classes, for example, are $89/month for one class per week, and livestreamed are $69/month—Boniszewski is holding firm to one monthly tuition rate, no matter the class format a family chooses. "Our reasoning is: Our service hasn't changed, so none of our fees have changed," she says. "You're being taught in a different place, but it's still the same quality of teaching." She plans to deal with any client pushback on a case-by-case basis.

She is willing to reconsider her recital-related fees, however. "I know there probably will be people who opt for distance learning and don't want to do a recital," she says. "Obviously those students wouldn't need to pay costume or performance fees."

The Bottom Line

In the long run, it is your studio's commitment to uninterrupted service that your parents will remember. "Our slogan through all of this has been: 'Stick with us—we'll be there for you,'" says Boniszewski. "We are committed to being here for the community. Parents are going to need an activity for their kids to do, and we want to make sure we're available."

Studio Owners
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.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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