Studio Owners
Pavan Thiammaiah is fighting to keep open PMT House of Dance. Photo by Vita Bum Photography, Courtesy PMT

With the pandemic raging on, dance studios have had to get creative to stay open. Some are hosting virtual classes, others are setting up outdoor workshops, many are offering a hybrid of online and in-person classes.

But their efforts to save their businesses hinge on their local dance communities. Without support from their students, many might be forced to close their doors permanently—and several already have. What can dancers do to help their studios?

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Studio Owners
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.

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Studio Owners
Shanna Kirkpatrick. Photo by Meghan McCluskey, courtesy of Chara Christian Dance Academy

For Shanna Kirkpatrick, owner of Chara Christian Dance Academy, the key to retaining 96.5 percent of her 1,000-student enrollment through COVID-19 has been communication: regular e-mail updates, mass studio text messages, personal phone calls and—perhaps most significantly—following up with Zoom no-shows.

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News
University of Houston dance students outdoors in 2019. Photo courtesy of UH

Since March, hundreds of dance majors have been using platforms like Zoom to continue their educations, dancing from the safety of their homes as coronavirus has swept the nation. What many educators initially hoped would be a temporary setback—a few weeks of online learning before a triumphant return to in-person classes—has turned out to be a new way of life, with distance learning essential well into the summer.

As department heads look toward the fall term, the decision of how and when to return to dancing together is at the forefront of their minds. Here, three dance department heads share how they're approaching the decision.

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Teaching Tips
Dana Wilson teaching from her studio. Photo courtesy of Wilson

A lot goes into crafting a successful Zoom class. You can't simply download the app and launch into your usual syllabus. Is your teaching space set up properly? Are you wearing an outfit that will pop on-screen? These and other factors can make or break your students' experience.

Commercial performer, choreographer and master teacher Dana Wilson recently produced a video aimed at helping dance teachers effectively use Zoom. Wilson herself was a Zoom early-adopter, using the app for nondance meetings, and was quick to transition to it as an educator, hosting invite-only classes for studios she'd worked with in the past. (Wilson has also been teaching for New York City Dance Alliance's Virtual Dance Experience during the pandemic.) Within weeks of her first Zoom sessions, she says, "I started getting asks from studio owners to teach their teachers." Wilson's 21-minute video is chock-full of words of wisdom for educators making the jump to online training. Here are a few takeaways.

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Teaching Tips
Mark Yonally at home teaching. Photo courtesy of Yonally

Like most educators, I have been teaching online since early March. My undergraduate Dance and Culture course was relatively easy to deliver remotely (as long as I could pre-record lectures while my son was taking a nap), but my tap classes? Not so much.

This is because tap is a percussive dance form. Sound matters. You can't just mute your students and hope for the best, as you can in many other dance techniques. And so I sat down (virtually, of course) with three seasoned pros to get the lowdown on teaching tap in the age of social distancing.


Anthony Morigerato, Operation Tap

Since co-founding Operation: Tap in 2014, Anthony Morigerato (perhaps best known for his choreography on "SYTYCD") has been teaching tap online to provide supplemental training for students who don't have access to the types of classes offered in New York, Chicago or L.A. He does this primarily through pre-recorded content and has learned how to keep his students on their toes, even when real-time interaction isn't possible. "When I'm recording a video, I'll stop and say, 'I know you're not counting right now.' The students will say to themselves, 'Wait! How did he know that?'"

When teaching in real time, Morigerato prefers Facebook Live because "you're broadcasting out so you don't have the delay on the other side of the camera." Interaction is limited, of course, but dancers can ask questions through the comments field. When giving feedback, Morigerato often relies on his wife Lorri Leonardi, who owns Class Act Dance in Gansevoort, New York. If she's not busy teaching online classes herself, she'll read the questions aloud to Morigerato, so he doesn't have to stop what he's doing.

For pre-recorded videos, Morigerato recommends purchasing a relatively inexpensive microphone kit: one for recording taps and one for vocal instructions. Pre-pandemic, he recorded in a studio using ring lights to enhance visibility, but now he's working in his basement on an O'Mara sprung floor. "People are in their houses right now and don't have the space to move," he says. "Working within these parameters helps me to be sensitive to this fact when I'm livestreaming."

Tamera Dallam, Parkside Academy of Music and Dance

Philadelphia-based Tamera Dallam is a professional tap dancer and instructor at Parkside Academy of Music and Dance. To keep up with her technique, she's been taking virtual classes from two of her favorite master teachers, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Jason Samuels Smith. "I ask questions. I engage in conversation. I advocate for my learning," she says. Unfortunately her students don't always have that same confidence, especially when they're lacking face-to-face interaction.

Dallam was excited that her studio wanted to continue offering classes through Zoom, but her first experience with the videoconferencing platform was difficult. "There was a horrible lag with the music," she says, "and most of the kids were tapping in socks on carpet." Dallam had to continually remind her students to mute themselves and to adjust their camera screens so she could see their feet. "I had to keep telling them, 'I don't need to see your whole body!'"

Now, several weeks in, she's using a Bluetooth speaker to amplify the music for her students and has set up a tap board in a spare bedroom. Dallam uses both a chair and a box to position her camera at different angles (and teaches mainly when her husband isn't home). Because audio delays make it difficult to rehearse recital routines in unison, she spends most of her class time working on technique and teaching new combinations to keep students engaged. "I don't want them to get frustrated or sad that we haven't been able to have their recital yet, so I am trusting them to continue rehearsing on their own, outside of class."

Mark Yonally, Chicago Tap Theatre

In addition to generating innovative social-media content (from tap tutorials to weekly Tea on Tap interviews), Chicago Tap Theatre's Mark Yonally now teaches weekly intermediate- and professional-level tap classes through Zoom. I managed to sneak away from my toddler long enough to take one of CTT's professional-level classes during the early weeks of the pandemic, and it's clear that Yonally has been reflecting on and fine-tuning his approach ever since.

"Our setup is intense," he says with a laugh. His living-room recording studio now includes a white maple roll-out floor, two camera lights, a "social-media toolkit" he bought online (which includes an additional ring light and an attachment to hold his phone), and two laptops: one on the floor that gives students a rear view from his hips down, and one on a bench that shows his face. Like Morigerato, he has come to rely heavily on support from his wife, fellow tap dancer and CTT's business manager Jennifer Yonally. Her prep work begins at least 30 minutes before programming goes live.

For his children's classes, Yonally asks his students to download their recital song and take turns "hosting" on Zoom. Running the sound from their personal computer or device eliminates the audio delay for that particular student, allowing Yonally to focus on their timing and musicality. For his adult classes, he keeps everyone on mute, but will occasionally "spotlight" a student (which allows them to be both seen and heard by the entire class) or "pin" them (which highlights the student on the host's screen only), to allow for additional individual listening and feedback.

"You have to give up being able to watch people dance in unison," Yonally explains, "and students have to appreciate the experience whether or not they are dancing together." All the same, Yonally says he has "never felt quite as privileged to be a dance teacher" as he has during these difficult times.

For Parents
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Q: In this period of economic uncertainty, my family is looking at our budget from every angle. Summer enrollment at the dance studio is now—but no one is sure when we'll actually be able to head into the studio. I want to support small businesses like our dance studio, but I also can't help but wonder: Are virtual classes worth it?


A: No doubt about it, virtual dance classes attempted in your living room are not the same as classes in the studio—and We, as parents, along with our dancing kids, need to reset our expectations. For one, says clinical psychologist Christina Donaldson, who specializes in adolescence and serves on the advisory board of Youth Protection Advocates in Dance, dance classes in any form are about more than learning technique—they offer community. "And now, during quarantine, when kids aren't able to see their friends, community becomes paramount," she says. "Kids are actually getting more from these classes on a mental and emotional level."

Of course, if families are under financial stress and the classes don't fit in the budget, you may need to consider stepping back. "That stress will be felt throughout the household—pandemic or not," says Donaldson. "But if you are able to afford keeping kids enrolled, virtual classes can be helpful for everyone involved—even the parents." Here are her top three reasons for continuing.

1. Students benefit emotionally. "The greatest challenge for kids, especially for those on the younger side—ages 7 to 12—is not seeing their friends," Donaldson says. "But even though we must be socially distant, we don't want to be emotionally distant—we need that connectivity. Letting our kids maintain their sense of community is the key to getting through quarantine."

2. Creative thinking is grounding. "The way we can tolerate the unknown—and thus tolerate the pandemic—is to think creatively and outside of the box," she says. Summer offerings at your studio may include improvisation or choreography classes, which Donaldson notes can be quite healing. But she does caution that it depends on your dancer. "If she has a propensity for perfectionism, or if she's feeling far behind, these classes may cause more stress." Instead, those dancers may benefit from more familiar classes. No matter what, says Donaldson, "Movement is good for the mind and it's a healing tool. It's crucial to help our kids access that."

3. Class times can give you, the parents, a much-needed break. "It's challenging for parents who are working full-time," says Donaldson. "You may not be able to leave your 2-year-old alone in the room, but for older kids, you can potentially relax, knowing that when they're busy with a class, you have the next 90 minutes to get what you need done for work or otherwise."

What about the littlest kids? The benefits of enrolling our tiniest tots in virtual dance classes may vary wildly from kid to kid, says Donaldson. "But if your 3-year-old is getting even one thing out of the class even once in a while, it's beneficial." Not every preschooler has the patience for online learning: "If it becomes a fight each time, it may not be worth the power struggle," she says. "But keep in mind that even virtual classes offer good opportunities to be around others and learn. And their brains are so spongy."

Donaldson's bottom line: "Children need some form of community and connectivity. So, if they love dance and have friends in dance, the virtual classes are worth it just for that. But if they're not feeling this from the classes, find something else."

Teaching Tips
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Relocating your work routine from the dance studio to your home can pose some serious challenges (after all, the bedroom isn't exactly the ideal setting for teaching grand allégro). So, if you're struggling to find your groove in the virtual classroom, know that (1) You're not alone, and (2) You're on a steep learning curve right now, so be patient with yourself.

We spoke with three dance educators—Michael Waldrop, the associate artistic director of the jazz & contemporary trainee program at the Joffrey Ballet School; Allegra Romita, a program administrator and adjunct professor in the dance education department at NYU Steinhardt; and Brandon Burnett, a former Dance Theatre of Harlem artist and adjunct dance professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County—who've picked up a few best practices while teaching online classes from home over the past month. Here are their tips.

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