Studio Owners

How Three Studios Have Taken Their Classes to the Great Outdoors

Outdoor class at Lake Tahoe Dance Collective. Photo by Scott Rokis, courtesy of LTDC

With restrictions on large gatherings still in place in many parts of the country, finding a way to keep classes running is very much at the top of studio owners' minds. While hundreds have taken to online platforms like Zoom to stay in business during the pandemic, some are finding that as social distancing guidelines gradually lift, there's another way to keep dancers engaged: outdoor dance classes.

Gathering outside in a small group to dance can be tricky, but these studio owners are finding that the boost in morale at their schools is well worth the effort. Here, they share how they set up their COVID-compliant outdoor dance classes this summer.


Finding a Space, Setting the Stage

For Tara-Caprice Broadwater, director of Love2Dance in Novato, California, the parking lot behind her studio was the perfect location for outdoor youth classes. "We've had to limit our dance styles to mostly urban jazz and hip hop—things you can do in tennis shoes on the asphalt," she says. Though she doesn't have to pay extra to use the lot, a fair amount went into preparing it for the first day of classes. Broadwater and her husband spent three days zip-tying privacy screening to the chain-link fence, clearing out debris and posting signage around the area with social distancing reminders. Her husband even created an outdoor hand-washing station.

At Lake Tahoe Dance Collective, a portable stage purchased five years ago is now being put to use in a vacant lot across from a family's house. The landowners were kind enough to let them use the land free of charge. "We gave the landowner proof of liability and added them to our insurance the same way we'd do if we performed at a theater," says artistic director Christin Hanna. Hanna brought portable barres from the studio and divided the stage into quarters so that each of the six dancers allowed in class can have their own taped off section of the stage. She also taped off diagonal lines for across-the-floor.

When Lisa Collins Vidnovic decided to have Metropolitan Ballet Academy's 2020 summer intensive outside, she found the solution at a nearby Ukrainian church in Jenkintown, PA. "They have an outdoor stage that is really lovely," she says. "It's spacious, completely shaded and right up the street from us." She does worry about the sustainability of paying double rent (for the outdoor stage and her home space) but is excited to have found a way to bring dancers together.

A teacher, wearing a mask, and two young students pose in a parking lot. There's a "Love2Dance" sign in the background, and students are spaced out with hula hoops.

Photo courtesy Love2Dance

Considering the Costs

With current class sizes limited to ten at most in most places, the profitability of outdoor classes is not guaranteed. "It's a fraction of the students we usually have," says Collins Vidnovic. "It's not going to be a revenue positive situation." Collins Vidnovic finds the classes worth the cost because they allow her to continue serving her student body.

Broadwater had to raise her prices slightly to accommodate for both the loss of income and the increased staffing needed to run outdoor classes. "We are definitely in a break even situation, especially since we are playing catch up on the lost income from the complete shut-down," she says.

Because classes are smaller, both Broadwater and Hanna have to offer more of them spaced throughout the day. "There's only so many hours in the day and with only 6 students in each class, it's hard," says Hanna. She has been able to make a profit though through a pay-what-you-can sliding scale of $0-$20. "We have families that have been paying $20, which is more than our regular per-class tuition, but they want to support us and make sure we're still around," she says. "It has enabled us to have an income and still pay our rent at our regular studio that sits empty."

Keeping registration fair has been a challenge as well. For MBA's summer intensive, Collins Vidnovic gave families a heads up that it would be first-come first-served. Within four minutes of opening registration, classes were completely full. Hanna requires that everybody register for every class ahead of time, and takes a credit card number so that she can charge $10 for no-shows. At Love2Dance, where outdoor classes are capped at nine students, Broadwater gave priority registration to students who had the studio's new Zoom class membership, but may explore other registration models if outdoor classes continue through the fall.

Four teen students\u2013two boys and two girls\u2014take barre on an outdoor stage.

Photo by Tracey Scott-Hall, courtesy of Metropolitan Ballet

Keeping Classes COVID-Compliant

Despite being outside, it's still necessary to take precautions to quash the spread of COVID-19. All three organizations implemented rigorous cleaning procedures and safety checks to keep their outdoor classes as safe as possible.

Broadwater requires teachers and dancers to do a temperature check and wash their hands upon arrival. She's made signs and videos detailing cleaning procedures, so families are apprised of the protocols. Teen students volunteer to help with cleaning the dance space after each class. For summer camps, she ordered individual bags of props for each kid so that they will not have to share.

At MBA, Collins Vidnovic has a parent volunteer for every class session. "I wanted an extra set of eyes on the class to make sure we're doing what we need to at all times," she says. Each student has a number and a designated spot at the barre. She leaves half an hour between each class to sanitize the space.

A young woman in a mask washes her hands at an outdoor hand washing station

Photo courtesy Love2Dance

​Best Practices for Dancing Outside

With changes in the weather to consider, having a back-up plan is a must. "If it rains, we have to show up on Zoom. If there's extreme heat, we'll Zoom," says Collins Vidnovic. Likewise, Hanna says she's never looked at the weather app on her phone so much. "I basically have to understand where the sun is at every time of the day," she says. "Cloudy in 63 degrees is very different from sunny in 63 degrees. I have had classes where we had to do jumping jacks at the beginning before we could start barre."

Teaching under these circumstances is drastically different as well. Without a mirror, students have to rely more on auditory feedback and less on the visual. To address this, Hanna has taken to mirroring her students more. Because students learn so much from facial expressions, Collins Vidnovic ordered see-through masks for all her teachers. She is also considering using an advanced student demonstrator for beginning classes.

In addition to the "how," the "what" may need to change too. "You have to be aware of what you can do safely," says Broadwater, "Since we're on asphalt, we can't do the groundwork. All students stay in tennis shoes. Because of COVID, you can't do partner-work or lifts."

Photo by Scott Rokis, courtesy LTDC

Keeping Up with Community

After months of social isolation, the response to outdoor classes has been extremely positive for these teachers. Though not the most profitable, they all consider the classes well worth the time, energy and money spent to operate, as they have helped to maintain a connection to their community during an especially difficult time. "I'd like to continue working outdoors as long as possible," says Collins Vidnovic, who says the fresh air and ability to be together has done wonders for her teen dancers. Broadwater agrees: "I definitely think it's worth doing to maintain a sense of connection to your students and families. The students really appreciate it."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.


Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

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.

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