Market Your Dance Department to the Community

You probably spend several months preparing your students for a dance concert. Selecting music, choreographing and designing costumes and scenery are just a few of the tasks that go into producing a show, but all your efforts may be in vain, if you miss one crucial step: marketing. If you neglect to promote your concert to campus and area audiences, your dancers will be performing for an empty theater. Read on for advice from veteran dance professors on how to fill seats at your next show.

Before you shrug off or delegate the job of marketing, consider the benefits of great turnout for your performance. Denise Carlson-Gardner, professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, says that a well-attended performance may be a deciding factor next time the university considers funding for your program. For Greg Brown, managing director of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, a good audience is also vital for academic progress. “Performance is an extension of the educational process,” Brown says. “Students take what they have learned in the classroom and studio and put it before an audience. That process of preparation, production and audience feedback is important in training them for professional dance careers. If we don’t have the audience, the learning process is shortchanged.”

Kerianne Tupac, marketing and communications director at University of Michigan adds that “from a marketing standpoint, a well-attended show generates word-of-mouth advertising. Ultimately, however, the best benefit of having a well-attended show is that the audience furthers the education of the students through feedback and appreciation.”

Use Your School’s Resources
Before you start lamenting the high costs of a marketing campaign, consider all the tools that your school or university may provide you at no cost.

- The website: “Every time someone logs onto our college website, there is a featured arts event on the homepage,” says Lynn Brooks, dance professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “You can click on that story to get more information about every arts event on campus. So, in a sense, we’ve made the front page.” To be listed, Brooks simply sends a description of the event, a photo and her contact info to public relations office, which forwards the materials to the calendar webmaster.
- Publications: The college paper, alumni bulletin, department newsletter—these are all places where your dance performance should be promoted.
- Bulletin boards: No college campus is without countless bulletin boards advertising myriad activities. Make sure that enticing, clear and informative flyers for your show are posted anywhere you can stick a thumbtack. Most schools remove all postings once a week, so enlist students’ help to set up an effective posting schedule.
- Dining halls: “At least a week before each event, we place ‘table tents’—three-sided, eye-catching information pieces—on all the tables in the campus dining areas,” says Brooks. “These attract diners and coffee drinkers to learn about upcoming events.”

Partner Up
As you promote your concert, consider how you can get other departments involved. If you’re using Handel’s music, for example, invite the German department or reach out to the studio art department by commissioning a faculty member to create a painted backdrop. When choreographer Deborah Slater was at F & M, Brooks recalls, she set The Sleepwatchers, which focused partially on sleep disorders, on a group of students. The piece attracted attendees from the psychology department.

Whatever the interdepartmental connection, be sure to extend a warm invitation. Brooks knew that her recent work, which was accompanied by recitation of Victorian and modern British poetry, would be interesting to the English department. She took the time to speak about it in a few classes and sent out special invitations to the department faculty and students.

Make Music Work for You
At UM, Tupac says, shows with recognizable music attract the largest crowds. “Since modern dance is an unknown except to a select group of patrons, if the music is familiar there tends to be more inclination to give the unknown a try,” she explains. Familiar pieces such as Carmina Burana, George Gershwin works, jazz compositions and Big Band arrangements are big crowd pleasers.

Another possible partnership is with local musicians. “Not only do these collaborations bring in new audiences who might not have traditionally attended a dance concert, but the inclusion of live music versus recordings is a draw for most patrons,” continues Tupac.

Be a Tease
No matter how detailed you may be in the description of your dance concert, some people may just not get it. Why not show them instead? During the week of your show, set up a few “teasers” in public areas of the school. Have a few dancers perform an excerpt from one of the pieces on the schedule in full costume. After the mini-performance, they can answer questions from the audience and hand out flyers promoting the event. Brown says that student-choreographed “Brown Bag” lunchtime performances given in a public lobby are “a huge draw to the university, as well as to community folks who bring their lunches.”

Reach out Past the University
“There is a difference between marketing to the university community and the local community,” says Ellen Rosewall, assistant professor of arts management at UWGB. You may not be aware that simple logistics may discourage local residents from attending. “Studies have shown that many locals are reluctant to enter college campuses if they don’t know where to park or where to go once they get there,” Rosewall notes. Especially since dance performances may take place in small halls within buildings, “the most important thing you can do is to encourage your school to improve signage or post your own signs on days of performances,” Rosewall says.

The challenge in involving the local community is that your event is competing with other community activities: plays, concerts and sporting events. To win over this potential audience, Rosewall suggests “creating a brand image that gives townies a reason to attend.” Another way is to link up with community organizations who may promote your show to their members. “Work with a community organization like a local YMCA that can be in touch with senior citizens to emphasize a specific theme,” Rosewall proposes.

Finally, before you run yourself ragged trying to get the word out to as many people as possible, consider aiming your advertising to those who may be interested. At your next performance, ask attendees to fill out forms and find out where they heard about the show. This will help you focus your future marketing efforts. Most likely, your dancers will be your most vocal promoters, so make sure that they are fired up about their dancing and they’ll work hard to fill seats. DT

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Studio Owners
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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