How College-Hosted Summer Intensives Can Bolster the College-Bound

Cornish College in Seattle is one of many colleges that offer summer intensives. (Photo by Mike Urban, courtesy of Cornish College of the Arts)

High school students looking to dance in college often can't turn to the usual sources for savvy college admissions advice. Their guidance counselor is unlikely to have specialized exposure to dance programs, and things have changed since the college days of their studio instructors. That's what makes college-hosted summer intensives such a great resource when you want to set your graduating dancers on the proper path.

Summer intensives hosted by colleges offer dancers a chance to taste the college experience by studying and living on campus for two to three weeks. They get a feel for day-to-day life by taking daily technique classes in ballet, pointe, modern, jazz, composition and other styles, dining on campus, meeting regular summer students and living in residence halls. And for many, these programs may introduce them to certain creative disciplines for the first time. Take the experience of Alicia Cross, who attended the 2013 New England Dance Intensive at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts, and is now a freshman there. “It was a pretty different learning experience," she says. “In one class, the teacher started us on choreographing—I'd never done that before—and we also had a resumé workshop." Cross had never really been away from her family for that long, she says, “but by the middle of the first week, I was thinking, 'Alright. I'm comfortable here. I'm excited.'"

College-hosted summer intensives can benefit a student in many more ways than honing their technique. Students can:

Get a leg up in researching and preparing for college admissions. Sessions might include essay writing and the different types of college dance programs. “Many students don't know how to begin thinking about college," says Kitty Daniels, chair of the dance department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. “They may not even know they could dance in college. We try not to talk about specific programs; instead we take the approach: 'If you want to keep dancing in college, here are some different ways this could play out for you.'" Cornish's summer intensive offers a career and college counseling session that walks students through questions like, “OK, what is a dance career path that does not take you directly to college? What are the dance career paths that may move through college?" In the class, Daniels explains how college programs break out into BA, BFA, BS, double or single major and minors, and she shows students how to research programs based on their interests.

Discover new interests. Some intensives are designed specifically to expand a student's interests. At UCLA, the nine-day Dance Theater Intensive “mixes the disciplines of dance, theater, music, identity exploration, human relations activities and social activism," according to the program website. In addition to technique classes in diverse genres, Angelia Leung, chair of the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, says, “We also have class meetings that talk about art as an activist kind of engagement. So, we have the art as social action, art as moral action." Programs may introduce students to new disciplines they are unlikely to have encountered in high school, such as postmodern dance, composition and improvisation.

Prepare for an audition. Beyond making students more savvy about their choices, summer intensives can have very concrete takeaways for college admissions. A polished resumé is one. Daniels notes that Cornish includes a daily choreography class that helps students create their audition solo.

Get to know the faculty. UCLA's intensive is taught mainly by adjunct faculty who are nonetheless knowledgeable about the university program. But many intensives include classes taught by the college faculty, which gives students an even deeper insight into a college's curriculum and philosophy and whether it's a fit for them. Alicia Cross says she enjoyed getting to know professors at Dean College during her summer intensive there. “It definitely helped me adjust to how various instructors teach," she says.

Get a chance to show their stuff—outside the application process. Summer intensives effectively let a student audition a college, but the college is also getting a closer look—outside of the official application and audition. Daniels confirms that those who have attended Cornish's intensive can benefit in its admissions process. “I think it's probably most important for the more marginal students who are able to show to us, 'Look, I may have a little less training, but look what happens to me over time when I work,'" she says.

Get over pre-college jitters. Cross attended the intensive at Dean College after she'd been accepted to the BA program, giving herself a head start on college. Heading off to the two-week intensive, she had the jitters. But by the end, she says, “I didn't even want to come home; I just wanted to leave all my stuff here and stay until school started. I was prepared, I was comfortable with the campus and I knew it so well. I was really ready for school."

Lea Marshall is a writer and interim chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Dance & Choreography.

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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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