Studio Owners

Here Are Steps—and Phases From Dance/USA—to Guide You in Safely Reopening Your Dance Studio

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Small businesses across the U.S. are keeping careful tabs on their states' reopening schedules and making changes to their business models accordingly. As pandemic-related guidelines and timelines evolve, it's important that you have a multilayered plan for the gradual reopening of your studio—one that prioritizes your dancers' and staff's health, reassures families that it's safe to return and allows you to operate your business to the fullest extent. Keep in mind that flexibility will be key: It's possible your state may experience a spike in new cases of COVID-19, requiring your studio's plan to take a step or two backward before it moves forward again.

Here are four crucial steps to preparing your studio for a flexible, responsive and well-considered reopening.

1. Redefine your studio space and approach

Address your physical space first: Consider marking six-foot distances on your barre and floor with tape for social distancing, and keep windows and doors open whenever possible to improve air circulation.

Focus on having the smallest number of people in your studio and lobby that still allows your business to run and to retain your team members. "The amount of foot traffic studios get—in the building, inside the lobby, in and out of the classroom with different students—makes them high risk," says Clint Salter, founder and CEO of the Dance Studio Owners Association. Add in the unpredictability of your youngest dancers ("It's hard to keep a 4-year-old in a square you've mapped out on the floor," says Salter), and you've got a recipe for potential disaster.

Start by eliminating the need for a lobby. Implement a drop-off-only system, with a masked staff member at your studio's entrance who can facilitate temperature checks ("If that's in line with your state and county laws," says Salter) and admit entry. Offer a live-chat option on your website or increase your designated customer-service hours to answer parents' questions without requiring them to stop at your front desk.

Install hand-sanitizer stations in every studio, and make sure your faculty encourages students to visit them frequently—before, during and after class. Stagger your classes' start and end times by 5 to 10 minutes to reduce crossover. If your studio space allows for it, designate certain studios for certain age groups, so kids aren't going between studios, says Salter. Encourage your dancers to enter and leave the studio with their dancing attire underneath their street clothes, to minimize the number of people in dressing rooms and bathrooms.

And, of course, have a plan for cleaning high-touch surfaces—barres, doorknobs, bathrooms, etc.—thoroughly and frequently.

2. Use a hybrid class model

"Continuing online classes as well as an in-person experience is going to be critical for studios to be able to survive—and also make money," says Salter. He suggests offering what he calls "virtual live" classes—"You're running your in-person schedule," he says, "but the classes are done virtually, through Zoom,"—with an accompanying, rotating live component. "Split your month up into weeks A, B, C and D," he says. "If you have a class with 20 kids total, you might be able to have 10 kids physically in the room at one time. In week A, 10 kids come in. The next week, 10 different kids come in." This way, some students will always experience an in-studio class, even as everyone is able to virtually take class at the same time.

Salter also thinks there will be an uptick in private lessons, because owners will have studio space to fill and teachers who are hungry for the extra income—not to mention parents to whom the safety factor will appeal. Small-group intensives are another option to consider: "You might have five to eight people in a group for an eight-week leaps-and-turns intensive," he says. "You can charge a premium for that." (Plus, in some states, like North Carolina, "camps" are included in an earlier reopening phase than dance studios, so holding them will allow studio owners to begin operating in-person even sooner.)

Salter warns against offering on-demand virtual classes that families can access on their own time, after the livestream version has ended. "There are going to be issues around music licensing with that," he says. "Music-licensing bodies have been very generous to us as we've had to stream class, but it's going to get tricky if people are only using an on-demand experience where you're utilizing mainstream music, because music licenses don't cover that."

3. Poll your parents—and your peers

Surveying your parents can be an effective way to gauge their COVID-related wants and needs for dance instruction—if it's communicated in the right way, says Salter. "I wouldn't say, 'Hi, parents. I'm thinking about these five class options—what's going to work best for you?'" That might convey to parents that they hold the ultimate power in making your studio decisions. "Make it a little more broad: 'In what ways are you most willing to engage with local businesses?'" If you choose to ask specific questions ("How comfortable will you be dropping your child off and not being able to come into the lobby?") Salter suggests asking only a few, so you don't overwhelm parents.

Salter's biggest recommendation? Consult with other studio owners as you plan your studio's gradual return to in-person classes. "Reach out to your community to find out what they're doing," he says. "The best feedback you can get is from other people in the industry."

4. Communicate carefully

Before releasing information to your studio families about how classes will function going forward, make sure you have "absolute clarity on your vision and the path you want to take," says Salter. "Talk to your team members, get their buy-in and create a communication schedule."

Successful communication with your studio families requires excitement, engagement and transparency. Try holding a Facebook Live to announce your plans, talking about both the safety protocols you've implemented and any exciting news you can offer. "Things to look forward to, new teachers joining us, virtual camps you'll offer," says Salter. "It has to be centered around what's in it for your customers."

He also recommends being honest and open with parents. "Don't be transparent to the point of, 'I had a fight with my husband, and we have no money in the bank,'" he says. "Say: 'Our business has been hurting, but we've been doing as much as we can. We've turned in-person classes into online ones in four days, and we're still paying our rent and our teachers, because I'm fighting to make sure there's a dance studio for you to come back to.'"

Which Phase Are You In?

Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health identified the following five phases to help professional dance companies create their own protocol for returning to the studio. (You should decide which phase to consider your studio within based on what is advised in each phase and not solely on your state's mandated phase.) Think of the Task Force's findings as a helpful tool for determining how classes will operate at your studio—especially since the phases may retrograde.

  • Phase 1
    • Gathering: Mandated shelter-in-place
    • Training: Virtual classes only
  • Phase 2
    • Gathering: Shelter-in-place recommended but not required; group gatherings prohibited
    • Training: Virtual classes only
  • Phase 3
    • Gathering: Group activities of less than 10 people allowed
    • Training: Small groups with required social distancing—at least six feet apart, masks required. No partnering, floor work or across-the-floor. Avoid large movements, because they will create air turbulence.
    • Health check: Show no signs of COVID-19 for 14 days; dancers who have traveled to another city must quarantine for 14 days; temperature and symptom check outside of studio.
  • Phase 4
    • Gathering: Group activities of up to 50 people allowed
    • Training: Same as phase 3, except that across-the-floor may occur, letting one group finish entirely before the next group. Masks no longer required, but dancers should maintain distance at least 6 and preferably 10 feet apart.
    • Health check: Same as phase 3.
  • Phase 5
    • Gathering: No limitations on group size; ideally, a vaccine exists.
    • Training: same as Phase 4, but no more social distancing required in the studio, and partnering and floor work are permitted.
    • Health check: Temperature checks and travel quarantine no longer required.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

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.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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