Teachers Trending

Meet the Teacher/Entrepreneur Whose Virtual Program Has Reached Thousands of Students During the Pandemic

Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

In April 2019, McCabe and her husband, Ricky, rented space to open a small brick-and-mortar operation in San Marcos, California, for Mommy (and Daddy) and Me weekend classes, though Lovely Leaps remained primarily focused on the in-school model. "The studio started as a labor of love, really," says Lisa. "It was a way for me to connect with other moms, and a way for my daughter to take part too. There weren't other classes in the area for 12-month-olds, so I just created it."

That can-do-will-do, enterprising spirit is a cornerstone of McCabe's business success, along with her knack for identifying and filling holes in the market. Because when COVID-19 hit and the pandemic forced studios—and preschools—nationwide to shutter, McCabe not only figured out a way to keep her small venture going virtually, she transformed it into a brand with national appeal and reach. Lovely Leaps' database now has 400 active students, and 3,500 additional students ages 0 to 10 have participated in the brand's virtual classes by signing up through third-party platforms like KidPass and Outschool. In the month of August 2020 alone, Lovely Leaps' revenue from virtual classes was $32,000—10 times the income from the previous August.

When preschools and their studio closed in March, Lisa and Ricky—a CRM systems specialist by day who manages the tech side of Lovely Leaps—followed the virtual trend, completing all of their students' remaining sessions (for preschool and studio kids alike) over Zoom. "In that process, I started learning what communicates well through screens," says Lisa, who notes that keeping little ones' attention was the biggest challenge. She also rethought performances: Instead of a showcase for parents, Lisa invited a "princess" to watch students dance and chat with them afterwards. "The kids loved it," she recalls. "After that first session ended, I realized we had something. And since everyone was stuck at home, I said, 'Let's continue this.'"

As contracts with area schools had been her primary model and the schools were not operating, McCabe looked for other partnerships in her area to gain exposure. She knew about fitness-focused and mom-centered meetup groups, like Fit4Mom and Pop-Up Playdate, and decided to offer free virtual classes to those groups several times a week in addition to Lovely Leaps' ongoing Zoom classes. "I really just wanted to keep my name out there, so that Lovely Leaps didn't disappear in the pandemic," she says. But free classes also proved to be a workaround in marketing across Facebook mom groups that prohibited advertising. "When moms would sign up for a free virtual class, we'd get their names and contact info so that when my studio could reopen, I could talk to them again," she says.

Of course, in-person classes didn't start back up, and there was no end in sight to virtual learning and staying at home. The McCabes added Lovely Leaps to two third-party platforms: Outschool and KidPass—through which teachers advertise small-group virtual workshops for kids in topics that range from math and science to songwriting and animation. That's also when Lisa took a leap: She hired a PR professional. "I'm a female African-American business owner, who went from engineering to dance," she says. "It was the perfect storm for media coverage." Popular mom-blogs like Motherly and Red Tricycle included Lovely Leaps on their lists of Black-owned businesses, and Good Morning America even picked up her story in late June (in a roundup of businesses that had pivoted in the pandemic). Business boomed: Lovely Leaps' initial virtual student base of roughly 65 expanded to more than 3,500.

To accommodate the growing clientele, the McCabes hired three additional teachers (for a total of six plus Lisa) and added classes to their formerly once- or twice-a-day schedule. They now offer 10 virtual classes daily, Monday through Friday, and each class has an average of seven to 14 students (the maximum they allow so they can see all students on one screen). For students who sign up directly on the Lovely Leaps website(as opposed to booking a class through Outschool, say), there are four payment options: per class, which is suggested for students under 5, or set membership fees to access one class, two classes or five classes each week. They continue to offer two free classes each Thursday (ages 10 months to 3 years and ages 3 to 6).

While operating costs remain low for virtual classes (teachers' fees, uniforms, and the cost of website hosting and maintenance), third-party platforms take a sizeable cut of sales to advertise the classes on their sites. Outschool, for instance, takes a 30 percent service fee from the bookings made through its site. Still, it's a valuable partnership, says Lisa, as the platform markets the classes and brings in customers, so she and her husband are okay with students repeatedly booking through Outschool instead of on Lovely Leaps' website.

Whether a student books through Outschool or directly through Lovely Leaps, repeat business is key. Enter Ricky's expertise in customer-relations management. All new participants are encouraged to take a survey after class (sent via Zoom chat or email), with questions including preferred times for classes as well as what kinds of classes they are most interested in. (Many classes have themes—i.e., Trolls, superheroes, or Disney princesses—and while technique does factor into each session, Lovely Leaps' classes aim to instill a general love of movement in a fun and age-appropriate environment.) "I put all answers into a dashboard to generate leads, and I can look at what classes we should create," he continues. Once a participant completes the survey (which asks for contact info at the end), they receive an email with current classes that fit their profile and a discount code to sign up.

Lisa knows that about 70 percent of Lovely Leaps' student database is made up of San Diego locals, but the third-party platforms cast a much wider net, with 70 percent of those consumers tuning in from outside the area—including about 30 percent from the Northeast and another 10 percent overseas. To track their own students, the McCabes have relied on Jackrabbit, but they are transitioning to WellnessLiving, a cloud-based management software like Mindbody, but one that also allows constituents to be lumped into households—perfect for dance siblings. (The McCabes also use inbound marketing software HubSpot for their contracts with preschools, Mailchimp for all mass email marketing, and Typeform to link the surveys and the emails.)

Lisa McCabe, who is masked, demonstrates a tendu as six young students dance behind her

Courtesy Lovely Leaps

Lovely Leaps reopened its real-life studio on October 12 with three in-person classes (and has since added one more). Twenty students attended the first week—including two students from Lisa's early partnership with Pop-Up Playdate. And while they're not back in schools yet, 14 preschools have expressed interest in welcoming Lovely Leaps into physical classrooms in 2021. Still, the McCabes aren't shutting down virtual operations—at all. "I look at brands like Beachbody, or Peloton," says Ricky, citing their existence pre-pandemic, ability to scale during it, and plan to thrive going forward. "There were all these membership-based, virtual physical-activity programs for adults, but not so much for children. We've looked to those brands to help us scale." Adds Lisa: "There will always be a reason kids can't go outside—maybe the weather is bad, or their parents have to take a work meeting. I want to be the premier online studio that parents can utilize in those times, too, pandemic or not."

Higher Ed
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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.

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.

Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

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