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Skylar Brandt. Photo by Jayme Thornton

What is the secret sauce to Skylar Brandt's seemingly superhuman technique? (Those balances! Those turns!)

Well, the American Ballet Theatre principal is ready to share some insights. Take a free online class with the cover star of our February issue through Dance Media Live! On Wednesday, March 3, at 4 pm ET, Brandt will teach a 45-minute ballet barre, followed by a short Q&A with participants.

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Teachers Trending
Keerati Jinakunwiphat. Photos by Jayme Thorrnton

Between her distinctive presence as a dancer in Kyle Abraham's A.I.M and her own creative vision as a choreographer, Keerati Jinakunwiphat was a natural fit for Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" list this year.

Now, you can take a free online class with the cover star of Dance Magazine's January issue through Dance Media Live! On February 11, at 12 pm ET, Jinakunwiphat will teach a 45-minute movement class, followed by a short Q&A with participants.

Her class will begin with combinations using the floor to discover a sense of groundedness, tactility and mobility, and to start playing with shifts of weight. As the class continues, movement will grow bigger as you explore different planes. Throughout her teaching, Jinakunwiphat focuses on how dancers can stay present as they take up space.


Click here to register for free, and submit any questions you'd like to ask her.

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.


Kirkpatrick didn't actually need to create any new protocol for this level of communication. She just adapted the process she'd always used to communicate with families when they started with her Friendswood, TX, studio: After divvying up any new families among her staff of 25, each staff member first has a phone call with a new family and then a follow-up e-mail (mostly discussing recital policies). A second follow-up e-mail happens a month later. Throughout this process, one staff member remains that family's primary contact. "When we went to a virtual studio, we basically duplicated that system," says Kirkpatrick. "We reached out via phone call, then e-mail, and then another follow-up e-mail."

It Took a Solid Week

This process did require some tweaking, however. During her first week of virtual classes, Kirkpatrick assigned one staff member the sole task of calling every single family, just to check in. "It took her a solid week to do that," she says. Now, phone call check-ins only happen after two missed Zoom classes. It still "takes a lot of time and a lot of payroll," she says, but it's worth it: "It's more about creating community than content right now."

"What we've found is that about a third of our families who are still paying for what we're doing and love what we're doing, just don't have bandwidth to participate regularly," says Kirkpatrick. But she realized that even though they were paying customers now, there was a greater danger they'd eventually drop out. Follow-up calls help keep the tie to the studio strong. "They're so thankful that we've called—sometimes they've just forgotten," she says. "Even if they're not at every single dance class, they care that we're reaching out." To make taking class even easier on parents, she records and posts all Zoom classes for later access.

A Peek Behind the Curtain

Something else Kirkpatrick has noticed in her communications with parents is that they appreciate transparency and compassion. She has often relied on the phrase "Let me give you a peek behind the curtain during these uncertain times" to allow parents access to her thinking and decision-making (without having to reveal any numbers that she'd rather keep private). She's also made it a point, when discussing COVID-related programming, to include the sentence "We've looked at this through the eyes of a teacher, a student and a parent." It's valuable when her customers understand that she's a three-dimensional business owner, one who cares about her dance community, offering quality content and staying solvent.

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.


Set Up Smart

Position your camera somewhere that allows for a full-body view as you show combinations. Also, make sure the camera is mounted or placed on a stable surface—something that won't jiggle as you jump around. Connect all of your devices to outlets before class to avoid battery snafus. And don't forget to clean up any household clutter that's in the frame.

Dress for Success

In a Zoom class, your body is only as big as your students' screens. Make the most of your limited pixels by wearing formfitting, solid-color clothing that contrasts with your background and your natural skin tone. "Your outline needs to be visible. It will be doing the primary communication," Wilson explains.

Practice Your Angles

Are you lucky enough to have a mirror in your home dance space? You may want to teach facing it, with the camera behind you. Without a physical mirror, you might prefer to face the camera and mirror your pupils. Zoom also offers a setting where you can flip your video. Try each option to see what feels most natural to you and what gets through to your dancers.

Put Students in the Spotlight

Zoom's "spotlight" feature allows hosts to display a participant's video on everyone else's screens. This is useful when you require a demonstrator—or, Wilson says, when you want to keep dancers on their toes. "When I spotlight a student, all they can see is themselves," she says. "This means they can't rely on their neighboring squares for cues. This is a great test and great training for real-world dance."

Nail Your Audio

"Audio is the most challenging Zoom issue for me," Wilson says. "I test audio every time I teach, and I always get feedback that guides me to make tiny changes." While she does offer a list of preferred audio equipment in her video, she also has general advice. For instance, keep your microphone and speaker volume set at 90 percent and use Zoom's "share computer audio" feature rather than playing music through an external device.

Find a New Language

Establish clear gestures so students (whose devices should be on mute) can communicate with you. For example, a thumbs-up to the camera can mean they have the combo, while arms crossed in an X can mean they don't. Specific questions can be typed into Zoom's chat box, or you can have students wave a hand and unmute when called upon. Check in frequently, both out loud and by peeking at the grid to see if anyone is trying to get your attention.

Wilson's video has many more tips, and she's happy to consult with teachers who have follow-up questions. "I love sharing information!" she says. It's not just about getting through the current crisis. "I absolutely see this type of technology sticking around (but not replacing in-person events) post-COVID," Wilson says. "If dance is a universal language, Zoom is a universal ballroom."

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.

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