Studio Owners

How to Engage Students *Without* A Screen—Because Zoom Fatigue is Real

Melanie Gibbs mailed her students "love packages" with items like bean bags. Photo courtesy Gibbs

There's no question that dance studios have adapted their in-person classes to online in creative and business-savvy ways. In the past months, we've learned that online classes are a necessary and valuable way to keep students dancing and studios running. Many studios may choose to continue online learning even as they are allowed to reopen in-person, either as a supplement or a plan B.

But Zoom fatigue is real. If your area is highly impacted by the virus and you are unable to reopen anytime soon, you'll need to find other ways to engage your students that don't involve staring at a screen. Offering offscreen activities can demonstrate to your studio families that the value you provide can't be contained by an electronic device—and ensure that your students are having a dynamic and meaningful dance experience.


Mail a care package of home props and activities.

For younger students especially, mailing home props and activities isn't just a strategy for keeping them engaged at home and offscreen, but a way to bring some joy and excitement to their stay-at-home life. (Who doesn't love receiving packages?!) Melanie Gibbs, owner of Signature Studios Florida, which has three locations in South Florida, mailed what she calls "love packages" to each of her students, segmented by age. Preschoolers received items like bean bags and scarves, and advanced students got TheraBands and information on how to use them. All students received a paper heart, which they personalized and mailed back to be displayed on the window of their studio.

Gibbs' staff is utilizing many of these items as props during online classes, but she says that the students are also engaging with them after class—little ones play music and dance around the house with their scarves; older students practice their TheraBand exercises. "Now instead of them just coming to the studio on their dance day, they are dancing with us all week long," says Gibbs.

Though significant labor went into these mailings, Gibbs saw it as a way to refocus her staff's efforts, since there were no longer any in-person classes to manage. Where studio staff once spent time greeting students entering the lobby and helping them get settled and ready for their classes, they now channeled that time—and sense of human connection—into the love packages.

Creative movement prompts can be used to keep students of all ages dancing offscreen.

Katrena Cohea, owner of Different Drummer Dance in upstate New York, has been giving students what she calls "mantras," that she instructs them to explore through movement; whether an improvisation, an established warm-up sequence, a sun salutation, or an across-the-floor combination. These have the power to give dancers a new perspective they wouldn't get in the studio, she says. Crafting prompts with care and intention will ensure that this exercise stays connected to your teaching and your expertise—an important distinction as you assert the value of this kind of work to parents.

Another option: Create audio-guided classes or prompts that older students can listen to in their headphones on their own time. (They might even choose to go outside!) To keep them connected to their teacher and each other, ask them to share written reflections on this experience, or create short videos.

Getting fresh air might be the most powerful antidote to the too-much-screen-time blues.

While some studios may find ways to hold classes outdoors, pending reopening guidelines, weather and finding a safe space to dance, Alana Tillim, owner and director of Santa Barbara Dance Arts, has been exploring another creative outdoor option.

Tillim has made site-specific dance videos for the past several years—but sees it as an even more relevant option now, as dancers can more easily and safely social-distance in an outdoor environment. Tillim partners with a local venue—like a community garden—and creates a piece around a theme. She typically shows these at recitals (though not this year). The last video they made before the pandemic now feels especially prescient—it explored the idea of seeing a loved one for the last time, and included text lines like "I really value my health." In past years themes have included body image and #MeToo.

Tillim says that this messaging has helped establish and communicate her studio's culture and values, and has positioned her older students as inspirational for her younger ones. These videos have also become powerful and lasting advertisements for her studio. And, students have a professional film of their dancing for their college and summer intensive applications.

A word of caution: As you give students non-screen options, be careful not to demonize screen time.

Virtual classes will likely be a part of our lives—and your business plan—far into the future. And, as Tillum points out, students—teenagers especially—are likely to be on their screens whether they're dancing or not. Better they be taking a virtual dance class than scrolling through Instagram or Snapchat, she says.

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