For Parents

For Parents: The Ultimate Guide to the Virtual Summer-Intensive Audition Process

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.

Pre-audition planning

In normal seasons, dancers are often limited to auditioning for programs that are nearby or those that tour to nearby cities. With virtual auditions, however, your dancer may be faced with an abundance of options, which could prove overwhelming.

To help ground your teen, set some boundaries. For instance, if it's an in-person faraway summer intensive, will you be comfortable with your dancer traveling that distance? When deciding how many programs to allow your dancer to audition for, remember that even virtual and video auditions usually charge fees, ranging from around $25 to $55.

To create the list of programs for which to audition, "dancers should think about what they want to get out of the program, just like in years past," says School of Nashville Ballet's Linsley. Do research about the program's mission and faculty—don't only look at the biggest-name intensives or those that friends are interested in. Instead, consider your teen's career aspirations and make sure the intensives she's choosing to audition for align. Linsley also advises parents to look at a program's faculty and the exposure to company directors or artistic staff it may offer.

If your dancer is at home this summer, it could be tempting to overload a daily or weekly schedule. But summer intensives are, well, intense. Long hours during the day should be paired with constructive rest in the evening, not more training. "At Jacob's Pillow, in addition to the studio classes, rehearsals and discussion sessions, we expect dancers at home to put in an additional two hours of their own time," says Glover. "That's at least six hours a day. How much more can a dancer feasibly do, especially if she's taking up the living room?" Augmenting a virtual intensive with a completely different style or focus can be beneficial—but make sure to strategize with your dancer and home studio teachers to create a schedule that is age and level appropriate.

Similarly, Linsley recommends students (who have this option) attend one program for more weeks instead of signing up for two-week sessions here and there. "The goal is to develop relationships with the teachers, so they know you and know how you move," she says. "It takes time to get the nuances of what the teachers are saying, and even six weeks is a short time. The longer you're able to spend at a program, the more you'll get out of it."

Michelle Dorrance, wearing silver tap shoes, black leggings and shirt and large hoop earrings, teaches a tap class of dozens of teenagers in a light-filled barn studio

Michelle Dorrance teaching at a past Jacob's Pillow intensive. Photo Grace Kathryn Landefeld, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

Auditions gone digital

While School of Nashville Ballet is currently planning for an in-person summer intensive—but may include an option for admitted dancers to participate remotely, depending on the circumstances—the program's auditions will be held virtually, via Zoom. If it's safe and feasible, some dancers may consider asking to rent dance studio space where they can take their live auditions or create a video application. But that could be cost-prohibitive, and, as Linsley says, not necessary, as teachers will modify audition classes to fit dancers' surroundings.

If your dancer is taking a live audition from home, "dedicate an hour and a half to it, and allow your dancer to have a quiet space," Linsley advises. "Our teachers are accustomed to seeing a cat wandering through the video on a daily basis. But for an audition, it helps the dancer feel really good and focused if she knows she's the sole sibling who gets to use the internet or the good computer or iPad."

It's also a good idea to do a run-through beforehand to make sure your dancer's full body is in view of the camera, the volume works, and your dancer doesn't have to worry about any tech logistics in the moment. Pro tip: Ask a dance teacher to join a Zoom tech-rehearsal of sorts to double-check the set-up if you're not sure.

Your room's interior design isn't going to make or break an audition, says Glover, but it's still a smart idea to remove knickknacks and move furniture to create a clear space. She also stresses that fancy video equipment isn't necessary: A smartphone will suffice to film a video audition, and a computer will work for a live Zoom audition. What is necessary is enough lighting. "You might need to grab some lights from other parts of the house and set them up in front of your dancer to make sure they're really illuminated," says Glover.

Bracing for change

Summer intensives are big investments of time and money. And while your dancer may have her sights set on a summer program away from home, there is a reality in which plans will change, perhaps due to a surge in COVID-19 cases or a positive test result. It's also important to realize that in-person class sizes will be limited, and some dancers who audition for an in-person intensive may end up being accepted to the school's virtual program if there's a hybrid model. Make sure your dancer is on board for any scenario.

If they're not posted on the website, ask a school about its protocols—and what happens if in-person classes need to pivot online. At Nashville Ballet, for instance, students who are required to quarantine or who miss classes due to illness will be given access to virtual content but will not be given a refund. For classes that move online due to government closure (like a stay-at-home order), the school will offer prorated refunds of classes. Money aside, it's smart to ask about COVID protocols to be sure the school is keeping dancers safe and has organized plans for any possible situation.

"As a parent myself, I know the commitment it takes to support our students, whether academically or for extracurricular activities," says Linsley. "This may not be the summer to try dance camp and soccer camp and cheer camp if you're just trying everything on for size. But at Nashville Ballet, we'll move mountains to help dancers find a space to train and grow and be part of this community."

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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