Studio Owners

Training Staff to Teach Online Dance Classes Well Keeps Studio Enrollment Steady

Pam Simpson of Forte Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Forte Arts Center

As COVID-19 forced state after state into some form of lockdown this spring, most studio owners realized right away that they needed to evolve quickly—or else watch their enrollment plummet. Online classes became the key to business continuity, but with so little time to adapt material to remote learning and train faculty members on new technology, there was little room for finesse. But that's what Pam Simpson focused on first with her 600-student studio, Forte Arts Center, in Morris and Channahon, IL. She knew she needed to predict pedagogical issues that might crop up with Zoom dance education before they happened and offer solutions to keep students happy—and enrolled. And she knew the key to that was to invest in training her staff.

What Are the Sticking Points?

Simpson taught her first Zoom class—a free one for students—only 24 hours after making the decision to take classes online and just before her studio's spring break. "I wanted to see what the platform would be like," she says. "What would the sticking points be for teachers? Then I could make sure we trained them on that." What she quickly realized was that she'd need to implement some basic sign language—hands on your head if you can't hear the teacher, for example, or putting your arms in an X position to signal a request that the teacher stop and offer help—if she wanted her teachers to be able to teach effectively on Zoom.

Simpson also knew she'd need dedicated time with her staff before rolling out online classes to make sure they were at ease with and confident about teaching online. She met with her faculty over spring break for an hour and a half each day, offering technology, planning and communication tips. "We went through an outline of what a class should look like," says Simpson. "Normally, you're the only one talking. But we talked about the teacher spending five minutes welcoming students and then asking students to unmute their microphones and talk. Then the teacher could warm up the dancers and focus on that day's big skill—but there would also be community time afterward."

How Training Built Competence and Confidence

Simpson and her faculty discussed incorporating weekly themes, scavenger hunts, Jeopardy!-style dance games and online tools (a skill wheel that students could virtually spin, for example, and then demonstrate whichever skill they landed on) into classes. She offered fun ideas for each age group and created a spreadsheet of skills and class elements to avoid (no running or big leaps, for example). "We did some role-play, too," she says. "We wanted to keep as many students engaged as we could—we wanted to stay in business."

She sent the sign language guide to families just before the studio started Zoom classes. "We explained that this was how we were going to communicate with the kids," says Simpson. "We asked parents to print it out and have it next to their devices for classes, for the next week or so. And we explained why we needed to do it, so that we could communicate effectively."

In the end, Simpson's foresight and finesse paid off. "We've only had four students withdraw," she says. "The critical point for us was being prepared."

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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Higher Ed
Courtesy Benny Simon

It's safe to say that the 2020 fall semester was a learning experience for college dance departments and students alike.

While Zoom and socially distanced dancing had their obvious frustrations, professors met many of them with creative solutions that not only served as satisfactory replacements for "normal" learning, but also gave students valuable new perspectives that will last beyond the pandemic.

Dance Teacher rounded up four of our favorite examples:

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