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.
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.
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.
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."